Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pelagic off Punta Mala

I had the opportunity to join a fine group of birdwatchers last saturday, september 11th, in a pelagic birding trip off Punta Mala, at the tip of the Azuero Peninsula in central Panama. Worldbirder Björn Anderson kindly organized the trip and invited me (I'm so grateful by the way) and other four birders: Kenneth Allaire, Gonzalo Horna, Darién Montañéz and Rafael Luck. My journey started friday, when Rafael picked me up after work around 3:00 PM. We were loaded with fish leftovers, tuna cans and popcorn (the ingredients of the chum) and with all the excitement of being part of that trip. We all met at the charming town of Pedasí, where we stayed for the night to meet very early in the morning our captain Jeff and his seaworthy assistant, Armando. We followed them to a private dock at Punta Mala and were ready to go aboard the 30-feet-long fishing boat "Flora Cristina". You can see in the map the route that we did, reaching 10,000-feet depth waters just outside the continental platform. No more than 20 minutes after we left the dock, we began to prepare the chum when I noticed that the first bird of the trip was following us. I limited myself to say "the chum is working already", but then it was evident the dark plumage of the bird with a conspicuous white trailing edge to the wing, a pattern that I had already seen in Perú: an Inca Tern!!! The beautiful bird followed us for a while and then landed on the boat... amazing!!! Of course everyone was delighted with the bird and almost everyone got excellent photos of it. The bird sailed with us for more or less 20 minutes and then, it followed its own path for never be seen again. What a great way to start a trip... with a bird not reported for Panama in the last 27 years! After the tern, much commoner species started to appear... most of them surely coming from the Frailes Islands to the west: Brown Noddies, Bridled and Sooty Terns. We got distant views first, but at the end of the trip (when we got close to the islands) we got better views, allowing photos (I have to say that trying to photograph pelagic birds aboard a constantly-moving boat is really hard task!). The juvenile Sooty Tern that I'm presenting here was the first one I ever saw of that species. The next photo shows some adults Sooty Terns with two Brown Noodies (one is floating, you can enlarge the photo). After a while, we left the terns and began to find shearwaters and petrels! The first shearwater to appear was the expected Galapagos Shearwater, which offered some close views and photographic opportunities.
We saw four Oceanites storm-petrels that we are calling Wilsons' (thank you Björn for noticing it). The commonest storm-petrel was the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, with one to four birds after our chum in several sites. But more important, a bigger storm-petrel with pointed wings and a definitive narrower rump band turned out to be a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, id by the experts, the first register for Panama, and a personal lifer! At 8:30 AM, Björn found the main target of the trip: a Tahiti Petrel (N 07º 20.002' W 079º 36.910). I hurried enough to see the clear dark-and-white pattern of the underparts and to appreciate its agile and swift flight above the sea with its long and narrow wings. It was a first for Panama too, and my second lifer for the trip! After the petrel, the things became calmer, with only common species, including Blue-footed and Brown Boobies, a lonely Neotropic Cormorant out there, more Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels and Galapagos Shearwaters. In one of those calm periods of time, the captain found a little bird in front of the boat that flew away revealing its shorebird shape and lined back: a Red-necked Phalarope (year-bird, like many others).
In our way back, Björn found some Wedge-tailed Shearwaters along with a flock of Brown Boobies. After some maneuvering by the captain, we got close to the shearwaters, allowing great views and photos (compare with that of the Galapagos Shearwater). We were at N 07º 15.883' W 080º 00.146'.
Two years ago, Darien and I reported the first Wedge-taileds' in more than 30 years around the Frailes Islands. Now we have photos!
Well, after all it turned out to be one of those memorable trips that you'll never forget... including new species for Panama (and for me)!The self-denominated T.P. (Tahiti Petrel) Gang; from left to right: GH, BA, KA, JA, DM and RL.
More about this trip here, more photos and a complete bird list at Xenornis.


  1. What a trip! Great report, Jan.

  2. @ Mike: thanks, it was the first real pelagic birding trip for Panama in maaany years, surely is not going to be the last one!

  3. Excellent pelagic trip Jan! I can imagine how excited you were to start out with an Inca Tern that actually hitched a ride for awhile!

    Congrats on the lifers and you did a great job documenting the species you saw. A Tahiti Petrel, cool!

  4. that sound fantastic - and that Inca Tern is a beauty!