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!


  1. Thanks for sharing your report. Exciting stuff! With El Nino effect going on, who knows what's out there now.