Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Whale watching trip to the Pearl Islands

Last weekend, I went with my family on a private tour to the Pearl Islands, the heavenly archipelago within an hour and a half from busy Panama City.  My friend Mario Ocaña organized the trip and was a terrific host, and my whole family is impressed by his professionalism and camaraderie.  Our objective was to watch whales... but it was an open itinerary, and we included some time to enjoy the beaches (as in plural!), to have lunch in Contadora island and to visit some seabirds colonies.
Ready for adventure!
In fact, the first attraction was close to the dock.  Few minutes after leaving the marina, we were admiring hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies and other seabirds resting at the Peñón de San José, a rocky islet to the south of Flamenco Island.  However, the main attraction there were the three Peruvian Boobies resting on the rocks among the Blue-footed Boobies.  They are irregular visitors to Panama (only under abnormal conditions, like El Niño).
Peruvian and Blue-footed Boobies
Blue-footed Boobies
Brown Booby
As you can see, I'm including also a photo of a Brown Booby seen later and another pic of the Blue-footed Booby, both from Pachequilla island, the first of the Pearl Islands that we visited that day.  The sight of several hundreds of seabirds on the rocks made us feel like in a Nat Geo documentary!  A little bit after leaving Pachequilla, we encountered our first pair of whales: mother and calf Humpback Whales!
Mother and calf Humpback Whales
These warm and shallow waters are perfect for the whales to raise their young.  Soon these beasts will engage on an epic transequatorial journey to their feeding grounds around Antarctica.  The second whale appeared shortly after the above pair close to Contadora island... as Mario says, the harder whale to find is the first one!
Humpback Whale (Contadora island in the background)
With the whales in the bag, we decided to enjoy the white-sanded beaches of both Mogo Mogo and Chapera islands... the Survivor: Pearl Islands sets.  We had the whole beaches for us, and the little ones enjoyed it most (specially Gabrielle, after her slight disappointment after realizing that whales were not purple, as her toy whale).
In our way to Contadora island, we saw some Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels.  For most of the participants, they were little dark bat-like birds flying swiftly and in zig-zag among the waves... this photo shows that they are delicately patterned in brown and buffy, with contrasting white uppertail coverts.
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
And of course we saw more Humpback Whales!  Several more, including pairs of mother and calf, solitary adults and even a distant group of adults flapping their flippers and jumping out the water!  The show was amazing and soon we were joined by several other boats admiring the whales as well.
Noisy blow
The ride back to Panama City was a bumpy one, but we were more than happy after enjoying these nature marvels so close to the big, busy city.  While we were having a sunny day at the islands, a huge storm system was whipping Panama City... but we made it without experiencing any rainstorm at all!  I want to thanks Mario for the excellent trip, and hope to repeat it soon my friend!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Pelagic off Western Azuero

The pelagic avifauna of Panama is essentially unknown.  Very few, if any, pelagic birding trips are done off Panamanian coasts, specially off the Azuero Peninsula (central Panama) where the Continental Shelf break is close to shore.  Several new species for Panama have been recorded in those trips in the last five years, including Tahiti Petrel, Pink-footed Shearwater and Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, while many others have been confirmed and documented adequately.  That's why a pelagic trip in Panama is always exciting.  So, more or less one month ago, we took the opportunity to make a pelagic trip off the Azuero Peninsula again... but this time from its western side... departing from Reina beach close to the town of Mariato.  Our friend Kees Groenendijk (who runs the charming Heliconia B&B in the town of Malena with his wife Loes) organized everything: lodging, boat, captain (Tim), chum and snacks... so it was not difficult to convince George Angehr, Howard Laidlaw, Rafael Luck and Euclides -Kilo- Campos to join us in the adventure!
Rafael, Euclides, Howard, George, Jan and Kees
The Continental Shelf break was still one and a half our away to the south from the departing point, but the inshore waters were full of life, with American Oystercatchers and Collared Plovers at the sand of Reina beach, with over-summering Willets, Whimbrels and a lonely Spotted Sandpiper.  Soon, we started to see the first Brown and Blue-footed Boobies for the day, plus many Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans and even a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins close to Cebaco island.  Kees showed us some rocky islets close to Punta Naranjo (Azuero's southwestern corner) that were covered in Brown Noddies.  This tern is seldom seen so close to shore in Panama.
Rocky islets close to Punta Naranjo (and a Brown Pelican)
Brown Noddies 
The omnipresent Magnificent Frigatebird dwarfed the Brown Noddies, although they are quite large for a tern.
Magnificent Frigatebird and Brown Noddy
At this point we started to see real pelagic birds. The Continental Shelf break drops steeply VERY close to shore in this part of the Azuero Peninsula... in fact, most of the pelagic birding was done having the southern Azuero coast within sight.  Kees started to chum at several spots along the break... soon, we were surrounded by several Black and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels attending the slick. I have to admit that this was the first time I saw those species so close and in detail!
Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrels
Black Storm-Petrels
Black Storm-Petrel
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
These small tubenoses are well adapted for the rough seas, in spite of their size.  Most (if not all) of the Black Storm-Petrels seen were in wing molt, probably indicating non-breeding birds on its second cycle (year) at this date.  About the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels... I don't know if they can be ID to subspecies in the field.  Both the nominate tethys and kelsalli forms have been recorded in Panamanian waters.  These birds were evidently larger than the Least Storm-Petrels seen nearby and the wings looked narrow and long, with a shallow tail fork (they looked square-tailed in the field and in the photos), all consistent with nominate tethys.  As I mentioned earlier, we also saw some Least Storm-Petrels.  They showed little interest in the chum and only visited the slick for few seconds; however, I managed a diagnostic photo showing the graduated tail and the dark plumage resembling Black Storm-Petrel.
Least Storm-Petrel
The storm-petrels were the highlights of this trip due to the prolonged and detailed views of the birds, but we also recorded several Galapagos Shearwaters (all of them of the "light-winged" variation), a definitive Pink-footed Shearwater (fifth report for Panama, second one documented with photos) and a Nazca Booby flying to the west above the Continental Shelf break.
Galapagos Shearwater
Pink-footed Shearwater
Nazca Booby
The pelagic birds were not the only highlights of this trip.  At some point, we saw no less than four Humpback Whales, with one young animal leaping off the surface almost completely!  This, plus the dozens Pantropical Spotted Dolphins off shore in a feeding frenzy, the Bottlenose Dolphins inshore and the Spinner Dolphins spotted by some of the group (not by me), made it a four-species-day of cetaceans!
Humpback Whale
Pantropical Spotted Dolphin
I wish to thank Kees and Loes for receiving us and for organizing this amazing trip.  I know I'll be back to western Azuero soon... and not only for the pelagic birding because the area is home to many endemic taxa and other nature marvels.  See you soon!