Wednesday, December 14, 2016

2016's Last Pelagic Trip Off Western Azuero Peninsula

Pelagic trips are always exciting off Panama coasts.  The pelagic avifauna is so poorly known that effectively no one knows what to expect.  That's why I try to attend every pelagic trip I can... and this trip was not the exception!  My friend Kees Groenendijk, of Heliconia Inn B&B, organized everything, as he has did in the last trips.  He and his wife, Loes Roos, have become real experts in the logistics of these special trips, and I highly recommend them if you plan a visit to that area.
Alfred, Howard, Rolando, Kees, Mikko and Jan Axel
This time, the companions willing to brave the waves, endure the weather conditions, withstand the odor of fish viscera that we use as bait and to ignore the seasickness were Alfred Raab, Howard Laidlaw, Rolando Jordan and Mikko Oivukka.  Kees, as usual, was our guide and in charge of the chumming process (thanks God).  We left Reina beach, close to the town of Mariato, just before dawn.  Watching the sunrise from the deck of the boat was magical.
We did the same route we followed in previous pelagic trips (you can read about them here and here) and the sea was relatively calm in spite of the dark clouds in the horizon.  After reaching Punta Naranjo (Azuero's southwestern corner), we headed directly to the south, to the Continental Shelf break and into deep waters.  At this point, we had only seen common inshore species, except for a jaeger that passed swiftly that we were unable to ID to species.  At the Continental Shelf break, we started to use the chum to attract our first tubenose... a Galapagos Shearwater.
Galapagos Shearwater
This species is regular in Panamanian offshore waters, although the numbers seem to fluctuate each season, we only saw a few of them this time.  The only other tubenose seen in this trip was a Wedge-tailed Shearwater that we were unable to photograph, but was easily ID'd since we had some experience with that species in Panama from the pelagic trips from eastern Azuero.  More interesting was the completely lack of storm-petrels in these waters... they certainly were not there!  We also saw another pelagic species... not a tubenose, but a pair of elegant Sabine's Gulls.
Sabine's Gulls
What a good sight!  The bird with the black terminal band in the tail and brown upperparts is a juvenile; while the other bird is an adult in basic plumage. The conspicuous wing pattern was unmistakable even at long distances.  We recorded at least five individuals of these graceful gulls.  After several hours, we started to head towards mainland.  In the way, we crossed some non-avian highlights.  First, a pod of 20 or may be 30 Short-finned Pilot Whales that stayed with us for more than 30 minutes.
Short-tailed Pilot Whales
spyhopping Short-finned Pilot Whale
Then, an Indo-Pacific Sailfish decided to feed at the surface very close to our boat... it was a lifer for me!  In fact, my first billfish ever!  Amazing!  Curiously, No one on board showed even the slightest interest in catching the fish... such a magnificent beast is better enjoyed free at the sea.
Indo-Pacific Sailfish
In the way to port, we decided to check a seamount known by local fishermen as a good spot for fishing.  As soon as we got there, a flock of Common and Black Terns welcomed us feeding over a school of Bonitos... it was a feeding frenzy.
Black and Common Terns
However, we noticed a different bird with them... in fact, someone mentioned that a "black" bird was feeding close to the surface.  We immediately identified it as a  noddy... certainly a Brown Noddy, the expected and common species in the area... it was a little bit dark to feel comfortable, but what else could it be?  I took several photos, most of them blurry shots...
Black Noddy
Black Noddy
The photos show a dark bird with uniform upper and under wing patterns, a contrasting white crown and forehead and slightly grayer tail; but most important, it has a thin, long bill... a Black Noddy!!!  We saw this bird several time feeding with the terns... you can compare it relative size in the next photo.
Black Noddy with Common and Black Terns
Then, we found a Brown Noddy in a different flock... the bird was evidently "brown" in the field, not black, and the photos show the shorter and stouter bill, the pale bar in the upper wing with contrasting dark flight feathers and the paler underwing.
Brown Noddy
Brown Noddy
The Black Noddy was considered hypothetical for Panama due to a sight record from Islas Frailes many years ago.  These photos confirm the species for Panamanian waters.  The species is not totally unexpected since it is regularly found in waters around Cocos and Malpelo Islands off the coasts of Costa Rica and Colombia respectively.  It was a life bird for me of course, and a great way to end a nice pelagic trip off western Azuero Peninsula!

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