Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pelagic off Pedasi

Pelagic birding is always fascinating... the idea of chasing birds that only land to nest in remote islands, with some of them crossing the world to visit our seas, is just overwhelming!  Our knowledge in Panama about our pelagic birds is limited, so there is plenty of room for new discoveries.  That's why I did not think twice when I was offered the opportunity to participate on a pelagic trip off the Azuero Peninsula in central Panama from the charming town of Pedasi, last weekend.
Sunrise at El Arenal
So I joined George Angehr, Rafael Luck and Euclides "Kilo" Campos aboard a 30 ft sport fishing boat anchored at El Arenal beach, just few minutes from town.  Our captain Jeff and his crew member "Lito" were willing to make our trip enjoyable as possible, so they received us with a cup of hot coffee and explained some safety issues before departing.  Jeff is experienced in this kind of trips, since he was the captain of our last pelagic (back in 2010) and, of course, of the most recent trip earlier this year (report here).
Euclides "Kilo" Campos, George Angehr, Jan Axel Cubilla and Rafael Luck
Good fortune smiled on us from the beginning... the sea was calm as a mirror in El Arenal, and remained so throughout the trip... no seasickness at all (except when Lito mixed up the chum... more on that later).  Also, our captain managed to keep us in schedule and to avoid the thunderstorms that approached from several directions!  We planned a 8-hours trip out at the sea with the intention to visit two seamounts to the south and south-east of Punta Mala, one of these surrounded by 1000-meters depth where we saw a Tahiti Petrel (the first for Panama) in 2010.  We got some common in-shore species the first hour of the trip, like Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebird and Brown Boobies.
A shy Brown Booby
Soon, we started to see more pelagic species.  Not exactly tubenoses, but some interesting species like Sooty, Black and Common Terns.  The later prove quite difficult to ID at sea wearing its winter plumage.  Of course, we were on the search for some rarer terns (like Artic or Roseate Terns for example)... but the photos were pretty useful for ID purposes.
Common Tern
We reached the first seamount by 8:00 am (N 7º 14' 52.0'', W -80º 1' 0.2'').  The idea was to spent at least one hour at each seamount chumming.  Our chum consisted in a mixture of fish oil, some cans of tuna, sardines and popcorn.  We only had two gallons of fish oil, which is hard to find in Panama.  However, I want to thank Fulo Motta and Lily Vallarino who kindly donated the oil and who seemed really interested when Rafael explained them what we would do with it!  Instead of throwing bait overboard constantly to create a wake behind the boat, we decided to throw some to create a "stain" to then navigate around it by making wide circles, waiting for the tubenoses!
Bucket of chum... stinky!
We were surprised by the strong smell of this modest mixture... as soon as Lito started to mix it up, the stench penetrated directly to our medulla oblongata!  Kilo and I struggled to avoid throwing up at the time (we were really close to the chum).  Thank God we got used quickly... and the chum started to work... and boy, it did it!  A medium-sized bird approached swiftly gliding low over the waves, arcing and banking with its long wings.  Dark brown overall with contrasting, well demarcated white lower breast and ventral parts... Kilo and I shouted at the same time TAHITI PETREL!!!
Tahiti Petrel
Tahiti Petrel

The moment was so sublime that even George  thought we were joking... a Tahiti Petrel was inspecting  the stain of chum, allowing great views and photos as well (all the bird photos in this post are mine... If you want to see some really great photos of this trip, check Rafael's at the report in Xenornis).  Size, all-dark throat, lack of white leading edge to the wings and pale rump separates this species from other very similar (although unexpected) tubenoses, including Phoenix Petrel.  In fact, these photos confirm its presence in Panama waters, because it was considered hypothetical for Panama.
Tahiti Petrel with southern Azuero in the background

Eventually, we saw two birds at the same time!  I really like the above photo because you can see how close to mainland we were... that is the charm of this region ... the continental shelf ends abruptly near the coast here, allowing us to have these experiences.  The Tahiti Petrel was not the only species attracted to by the chum... three species of Storm-Petrels decided to show up as well.  I had seen both Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrels before in Peru and Panama... but the Least Storm-Petrel was a life bird for me... the first for the day!
The Black Storm-Petrels are not really "black"

After this success at the first seamount, we decided to go to the next one, which seemed even more promising given the proximity to really deep waters.  On route we started to see our first shearwaters, plus another species already recorded, like Brown Boobies and Sooty Terns.  The first shearwaters to appear were the Galapagos Shearwaters.  This species is regular and common (at least in september and october) and so far all seem to be of the "pale underwing form" (there is some variation in the underwing pattern of this taxa).
Galapagos Shearwaters (pale underwing form)
Then came the second most common shearwater for this time of the year, the Wedge-tailed Shearwater.  My photos shows an individual in pale-phase, by far the most common out there; however, we also saw a dark-phase individual (photo in Xenornis).  Notice the slender profile accentuated by the long tail and long, dark bill.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater (pale phase)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater (pale phase)
After two hours, we finally reached the second seamount (N 7º 18' 31.7'', W -79º 39' 43.1'') and started to chum again, this time with no adverse effects at all.  This time, the birds were slow to appear; however, the first one to show up was... you guessed it, a Tahiti Petrel again!!!
Our third Tahiti Petrel for the day!
Tahiti Petrel over the waves
The photos showed a different bird to the two others we encountered before in the first seamount (notice the molt in the flight feathers)... simply amazing!  But soon things got better... our captain warned us that a white bird was flying in front of the boat heading to port... so I hurried in that direction in order to catch a distant Nazca Booby that seemed to be just passing (completely ignoring us).
Nazca Booby
It was a lifer for me as well!  And a long expected one.  I managed to get the distant photo above showing the diagnostic orange bill.  The bird disappeared in the waves soon after that.  And we started to see Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels.  At one point, we saw three of them at the same time... a low number considering previous experiences with this species in these waters.
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
We were running out of time, so we started the way back.  By 12:30 pm, we saw a huge flock of shearwaters and terns close to the surface.  According to Lito, this was a feeding frenzy over a school of tuna, so we headed there.  The activity was fast... and furious.  Soon, a Pomarine Jaeger (the second for the day) inspected our wake, followed closely by our second Nazca Booby!  This time, the bird circled us once (allowing great photos) and lost interest.
Nazca Booby 
We finally managed to spot a definitive Sooty Shearwater (after several false alarms, including the dark-phase Wedge-tailed Shearwater of which I spoke earlier), the silvery wing linings literally shone.  We are pretty sure that it was not alone, but we were not able to inspect all the flock due to lack of time.  The big surprise came shortly after this.  Three shearwaters were approaching the boat from the bow to port flying just a few feet above the waves... I called them first Wedge-taileds due to their size and general pattern and started to shoot them; however, I realized that they looked stockier and not as long-tailed, so I yelled to Rafael to shoot them with his full-frame camera, which he did when the birds made ​​an U-turn and began to approach from astern.
By that time, I just thought it was a good opportunity to photograph the birds, as they were passing close... I shoot them again, but this time managing only to capture the back of one of them.
It was not until I reviewed my first photo that I realized that these birds were in fact PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATERS... a species that I had seen twice in Peru in large numbers, but ever recorded for Panama... I grabbed Rafael's camera and started to see his photos as well... simply WOW!!!  He managed excellent shots of these birds!  The stocky shape, lack of white in the rump and the heavy looking, pale bill with black tip are good field marks.
Pink-footed Shearwater
In the cropped photo above is evident the underwing pattern... even the pale legs are visible (almost reaching the tip of the tail)!  If accepted, this would be a new addition to Panama's bird list.  Certainly, a successful trip... two life birds, another two Panama life birds, one confirmed species and another new to the country!  This only proves that we need to venture more often to these depths in order to better understand the occurrence and distribution of these pelagic species in our country.

Monday, October 27, 2014

At a corner of my Panama: San Francisco de la Montaña

Some weeks ago, I went with my family to the province of Veraguas, in central Panama.  After attending some social events, we decided to spent some spare time knowing a new town for us... we headed to San Francisco de la Montaña.  This town is just 17 kilometers to the north of Santiago, the province's capital, on route to the foothills and highlands.  This is a tiny town, home of my beloved grandpa, and famous by its church.
San Francisco de la Montaña church
Yes, the famous San Francisco de la Montaña church is a modest building.  The exact date of construction is not known... several references indicates dates from 1621 to 1727... more probably in 1630.  Some wonder if it was a private chapel for a rich landowner due to its small size and the remote location; however, historical records show that the Spaniard conquerors built this church in this place because of the growing importance of this population, which eventually became the capital of the province in the 1800s.
San Francisco de la Montaña church
By the time we got there, the church was closed due to some restauration works.  It was a shame because the uniqueness of this church are the baroque groups of altars with hundreds of hand-carved pieces in precious woods.  The motives of these altars show a curious mixture of religious and indigenous motives.  I managed a distant photo with my cel from the front entrance showing these exquisite work.
Baroque altars inside the church
For some reason, the new and modern church is being built just behind this national trust... which in my opinion not fit the site.  Every panoramic photo of the old church will have the huge, new church in the background as you can see in my first photo (and that is not a panoramic photo).  Well, after visiting the church, we headed to another local attraction, El Salto balneary.
El Salto balneary
This beautiful natural pool with two waterfalls is less than a 10 minutes walk from the church!  The water is crystal clear and quite cold... an irresistible way to cool off during the heat of midday.  So, I went directly to the pool with Gabrielle and her cousin Kevin.  It was so nice, and we enjoyed it all.  What a great way to end our visit to San Francisco de la Montaña!
Kevin, Gabrielle and Jan

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Last week, I checked my e-mail and noticed immediately an e-Bird alert message including an unusual report of Bobolinks from near the Caribbean coast in the Canal Area of Panama, specifically at the Gatún Dam.  With that in mind, I convinced my family and my mother-in-law to wake up early today in order to visit the dam and other interesting sites in the surroundings.  A visit to the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center is a most, as we did later in the day (and where I took these photos of the works with my phone).
We took the "Don Alberto Motta" highway to Colon City (just a 40 minutes drive coast to coast!) and turned left at the "4 Altos", heading to the impressive Gatún locks.  Once we crossed the one-lane bridge across the locks, we drove along the grassy slopes of the Gatún dam, watching hundreds of resident and migratory swallows.  After crossing the bridge over the spillway, I parked along the road and started to spot some interesting suspects; however, the first birds I saw were Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters feeding close to the car.
Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, male
It was raining a little bit, and the tall grass was quite wet... wet enough to soak my shoes; however, Gabrielle was well prepared (I have to say that my wife is almost clairvoyant anticipating and preparing for any situation that might find our daughter).
Rubber boots and umbrella... someone was prepared!
Eventually, I saw a flock of little brown birds flying low over the grass.  They perched low, but some were barely visible at first... listed crowns and backs, pale conical bills... pointed tail feathers... Bobolinks!
There were also Red-breasted Blackbirds in the vicinity... the females can be quite similar to this species; however, note the unstreaked nape and the uniformly yellowish breasts (with no rosy wash).  Also, these birds were slimmer and smaller than the blackbirds.
Both Gloriela and me had excellent views... the photos are just record shots.  Bobolinks are uncommon transients in Panama... and this was the first time I see them in this country!  Yeah, a Panama lifer (and only the second time ever I see this bird).  We left the dam just after spying this immature Savanna Hawk (also uncommon in this part of Panama).
Savanna Hawk, immature
We visited the Castillo de San Lorenzo (at the mouth of the mighty Chagres river) where Gabrielle was amazed with the history of pirates and cannons defending the site.  We ended at the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center as mentioned earlier... the views of the Gatún lake and the works are unmatched.  After all, we really enjoyed our day at the Caribbean coast... amazing views and national lifers for all!
At the Castillo de San Lorenzo

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bird of the Month: Peruvian Booby

The Peruvian Booby (Sula variegata) is endemic of the cold current along the west coast of South America, from Ecuador to Chile.  However, under abnormal conditions, they wander north, up to Panama.  In fact, we are experiencing an "invasion" of this species at our country.
Peruvian Boobies in Peñón de San José, august 9th
Everything started last june 22nd, when one individual was found weakened in Panama City's Amador causeway.  This bird was taken to the Summit Gardens where a veterinarian examined it; however, the bird died the next day.  This report passed unnoticed until it was published in this article.  More than one month later, Panama Audubon's Society (PAS) Executive Director, Rosabel Miró, received an intriguing email from a 13 years-old girl with photos attached showing a Peruvian Booby.  The girl took the photos from the balcony of her apartment in an exclusive development in Panama City.  The next day, august 2nd, Rosabel and other PAS members visited the site, finding the Peruvian Booby (photo in this Xenornis report).  Another PAS member, Rafael Lau, managed to visit the actual balcony where the booby was found.  This individual appeared in june 22nd (thus matching the date of the first record) and was sleeping in the site each night since then.  The owner of the balcony refers that she fed the bird the first weeks because it looked "sick", accepting water and bred until it got better (report with photos here).
Peruvian Booby over Peñón de San José, august 9th
Rosabel insistence paid off when, while scoping the rocky islet Peñón de San José, 1600 meters away of Flamenco island (linked to the city by the Amador's causeway) on august 3rd, she spotted a Peruvian Booby among dozens Blue-footed Boobies.  It was late in the afternoon and the next day a group of birders scoped no less than five Peruvian Boobies in the islet.  Since then, many observers have reported the Peruvian Boobies from the islet.  The highest count was made on august 9th, with no less than 38 adults counted from a boat circumnavigating the islet.  The last time I personally check this group of birds was on august 31st, when I spotted 4 of them from the ferry to the Pearl Islands.
Peruvian Booby in Pachequilla Island, august 31st
So far, the Peruvian Boobies were reported only from or near Panama City (Amador's causeway, Punta Pacífica in Panama City, Peñón de San José and unpublished sightings of birds feeding at sea in front of Costa del Este, in Panama City).  However, during my last trip to the Pearl Islands, we found 7 Peruvian Boobies resting in Pachequilla Island close to Contadora Island.  This is an important record since other observers found none in previous visits.  Also, we should remember that, during "El Niño" of 1983-84, the Peruvian Boobies were reported from the Pearl Islands as well in impressive numbers (3490 birds were counted in Pacheca Island on june 17th, 1983).
Peruvian Booby over Pachequilla Island, august 31st
There is only one report of a Peruvian Booby in Panamanian waters apart from these invasions, an individual resting at sea in front of Juan Hombrón beach, Coclé province by Carlos Bethancourth (report in Xenornis).  These invasions are quite rare, and we must make every effort to document them in detail.  There are few published papers about the 1983-84 invasion, and only one report in eBird of a Peruvian Booby in Bona Island (Upper Bay of Panama) by Chuck Aid on april 3rd, 1983.  For these, and many other reasons is why we chose the Peruvian Booby as our Bird of the Month!
Blue-footed and Peruvian Boobies in Peñón de San José, august 9th.  Can you tell them apart?
Literature consulted:
1.  Ridgely R, Gwynne J. A Guide to the Birds of Panama. Princeton University Press 1989.