29 June – 2 July 2014
Coiba Island lies in the Gulf of Chiriquí several miles off of the Pacific coast of Panamá. The island’s land bridge with mainland Panamá was broken 12,000 – 18,000 years ago, creating an isolated island chain where several species diverged from the mainland populations. Coiba now supports a handful of endemic species and many endemic sub-species of mammals, birds, and more. Although technically all of the endemic birds are only sub-species per current taxonomy, two species in particular (Rusty-backed Spinetail and Gray-headed Dove) are candidates for splits in the future. The Rusty-backed Spinetail (Coiba Spinetail) that occurs on Coiba is separated from mainland populations by hundreds of miles and sounds and looks different from the populations in Columbia, Venezuela, and Brazil. The other species that is due for a split is the Gray-headed Dove (Brown-backed Dove). This dove definitely looks and sounds different from the mainland Gray-headed Dove. The back color is really obvious and quite a bit browner than Gray-headed Doves and the call is different as well, with a higher pitched and sweeter song. Unique subspecies of White-throated Thrush, Rufous-capped Warbler and many other birds also occur on Coiba Island. Upon first impression both the White-throated Thrush and the Rufous-capped Warbler also look and sound a bit different than their mainland counterparts and await further study.
Getting to Coiba Island requires a bit of leg work in terms of arranging a boat, the logistics of staying overnight on the island, and arranging someone to take you to Los Pozos trail where you can find Coiba Spinetail and Brown-backed Dove. We thought momentarily about trying to arrange all of the logistics ourselves but when we heard about the folks at Heliconia B&B, we decided that it would be much easier to go on their packaged trip as they already had one lined up we could hop in on. This turned out to be a very good choice. Loes and Kess at Heliconia B&B put together awesome overnight and two night packages to take you out to the island, taking care of the logistics and feeding you very well, all you have to do is enjoy! We arrived at the Heliconia B&B in the afternoon and were treated to an amazing homemade meal and great conversation. The next morning we woke to another yummy homemade meal and off we went to the boat with two other quests and our excellent hosts. One of the best things about going to Coiba with Kees and Loes is that you get a bonus pelagic trip on the crossing. The boat trip takes 3-4 hours depending on sea conditions. Though not venturing out off the continental shelf, the crossing does get into fairly open water and pelagic birds are certainly out there and, as opposed to going on one of the snorkeling trips from Santa Catalina, you can spend some time stopping to observe or even chasing after anything interesting you see. On the way out to Coiba we had pretty rough conditions (the water should be pretty flat throughout the northern summer), but we did see Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, Common Tern, and a few more regular species. After a bit of a rough and choppy crossing, we finally neared Coiba Island and got into calmer waters.… ahhhh, clear blue water, white sand beaches, now we are talking! So breathtaking and beautiful! We arrived on the island and quickly dropped our gear, registered, and headed out for some snorkeling and birding.
We went straight for a small perfectly magical islet of white sand and coral reefs and jumped in the water. As soon as my head went under I was amazed! The number of super cool looking fish was amazing! I only wish I knew more about fish. The good news is that Kees and Loes know all of the fish and are great at helping you ID all of the cool critters. We saw Moorish Idol, King and Cortez Angelfish, Giant Hawkfish, some Parrot Fish, various Butterfly Fish, Hawksbill Sea Turtle, Moray Eel, and so many more. The snorkeling there was amazing!
After we were thoroughly water logged we jumped back in the boat and headed to the Los Pozos trail to look for Coiba Spinetail and Brown-backed Dove. Getting to the trails requires a bit of coordination with the tides as the trail can only be accessed when the tide is high. While we were waiting for the tide to come up so we watched a feeding aggregation of hundreds of Black Terns with a few Common Terns, Brown Pelicans, and other birds mixed in. We were also treated to a sighting of a perhaps 8’ long Bull Shark in all of about 18” of water! It was cool to see but I was glad that I was in the boat as Bull Sharks are apparently pretty aggressive. They normally hang out in murky waters near mangroves so coming into contact with one is not that common, since most of us prefer swimming on nice sandy beaches with clear water, but it was a good reminder not to swim or wade in murky estuaries.
The Los Pozos trail is quite short but long enough to find both the spinetail and the dove fairly readily. Despite the late afternoon heat we had great looks and managed to get good recordings of the Coiba Spinetail and the Brown-backed Dove.
Two of the easiest new birds we’ve seen in a while (although not technically separate species, at least yet). We also came across the subspecies of White-throated Thrush and Rufous-capped Warbler, as well as a good handful of other species and were treated to some flyover Scarlet Macaws as well. It was getting late and the tide limits time on the trail, so we headed back to the boat and to headquarters. While we all showered, Kees and Loes prepared a nice meal for us complete with wine. We spent the night laughing and sharing stories with the other guests and had a great time. The next morning we headed back on the boat for a little tour of the island in search of more seabirds. Earlier in the week Kees had spotted a Wandering Tattler (just a bit out of season; this guy should be breeding in Alaska not hanging out in tropical Panamanian waters), so we went to see if it was still around. Lo-and-behold we found not one but two Wandering Tattlers in July in Panamá! We also spotted a Surfbird on the rocks as well as Blue-footed and Brown Boobies. We had another excellent snorkeling session with numerous sea turtles, a White-tipped Reef Shark, a huge swirling mass of Big-eyed Jacks and all sorts of other cool stuff. Before we left the mainland, Kees had collected some fish guts and other savory treats, hoping to do a mini-pelagic on the way to the island. Conditions had prevented us from chumming on the way to the island, so we did a little chumming on the way back to the mainland after the pile of fish guts had plenty of time to bake in the hot sun and develop some really special odors J Our mini-pelagic was pretty successful, we had 10 Galapagos Shearwaters, 3 Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, several Blue-footed and Brown Boobies, loads of Magnificent Frigatebirds, 2 Laughing Gulls, 100s of Black Terns, 1 Bridled Tern, 1 Brown Noody, and best of all 1 Nazca Booby!
Nazca Boobies breed in the Galapagos and apparently are somewhat regular on the Pacific coast of Central America but just how common they are is not well understood. There are not many sightings in Panamá though there are generally not many pelagic trips and not much seabird observation going on. Perhaps this Nazca Booby in shallow water in Panamá would have been there anyways or perhaps it was an El Niño displaced bird, who knows? El Niño generally results in warmer water temperatures that are not as rich in marine life and hence many seabirds start moving north in search of food (for more on El Niño and its impacts click here).
Staying at Heliconia B&B is just delightful and if you are looking to go to Coiba and explore the Azuero Peninsula there certainly isn’t an easier way, and there isn’t really any other birder-friendly option that we know of beyond trying to private-charter a snorkeling boat from elsewhere. We were very happy with our trip and would recommend this trip to anyone looking to get to Coiba for the endemic birds or just for an enjoyable trip! While you are there be sure to check out Loes’s artwork. We left with a stunning painting of an Azuero Parakeet!
The Azuero Peninsula, although mostly deforested, contains one of the most inaccessible parks in Panamá, Cerro Hoya National Park. Cerro Hoya National Park is the only place in Panamá to see the Azuero Parakeet, and access to Parakeet habitat used to be very difficult. Previously, in order to see the Parakeet, you had to come in from the east side and endure a pretty rough drive followed by a full day’s hike (or longer) in order to have a chance to see the Parakeet. Now, you can easily see the Parakeet at a small finca along the western border of the park, at least during the months of June and July when they come down to feed on nance fruits, almost like clockwork. The Azuero Parakeet is technically treated as a subspecies the Painted Parakeet and the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) just voted to split the South American occurring Painted Parakeet four ways, but oddly left the Panamanian taxa lumped with the nominate Painted Parakeet. However, everyone in the region still calls it the Azuero Parakeet and claims it as a Panamá endemic.
Thanks to Benny (Venicio) Wilson, Loes, and Kees, we got great directions to the farm and away we went. We arrived at the farm around 8:30 and talked to Juan Velazquez, the owner of the farm, for a few minutes. We asked about putting on gum boots and how much water to bring for the hike and he told us that we needn’t worry, the parakeets would come to us, just wait a few minutes. A bit incredulous but happy not to be putting on the rubber boots in the already scorching morning heat, we followed him to the shade of a nance tree and waited. Within just a few minutes we heard the parakeets coming waited still and silently.
Within seconds the tree was full of at least a dozen Azuero Parakeets squawking and eating fruit. Amazing! This bird was supposed to take work to see and here it is teed up perfectly, steps from the truck! We watched the Azuero Parakeets for over an hour, making videos, recordings, and taking loads of photos. After about an hour the Parakeets grew restless and moved further off. We continued to scope them for a bit, it is hard to get tired of a bird that beautiful! Eventually they moved further off again, so we went back and chatted with Juan for a few minutes about the importance of preserving forest for birds and educating the people not to trap parrots or parakeets for the pet trade. Juan knows how important it is to protect the forest and is making a small income by preserving the forest around his farm. He charges $20 per person to access his finca and see the parakeets but this is a small price to pay to preserve the parakeet.
To get to Finca Juan Velaquez you should make prior arrangements with Juan by calling the public phone in the nearby town (Flores) and asking whoever answers to notify Juan that you will be coming to visit his farm, and when you will be coming. The phone number is 333-0956. If you don’t speak Spanish or need help getting down there and finding the farm, Loes and Kees can also help make arrangements and take you down there, or Benny Wilson could as well. If going on your own, take the only road south along the peninsula from the town of Atalaya basically to the end of the road. (Be careful in Atalaya to be on the main road though, not a smaller road that heads inland. Follow the signs, essentially, to keep heading to the towns along the road heading south). The road ends in a small town called Flores. In Flores you come to a crossroads where left, straight and right all turn to dirt roads within a few dozen meters or perhaps a hundred meters. From this crossroads in Flores, turn around and head back the way you came a short distance, watching for the first metal gate on the left side of the road (7.36787 -80.80389). Go through this gate into the cattle field. (Be sure to close all gates after you pass through them unless they were already open, generally good advice anywhere in the world!) Follow the dirt track through at least 6 fences. At one point you will pass very close to someone’s house, seemingly in their front yard, but keep going. After this and another gate or so, the track is a bit less clear, but stay to the right through this large grassy area. Finally you will come to what looks like a gate but the road actually goes around the gate. Go around the gate staying to the right and head towards the trees and the river. The first house (more of a shack, really) you come to is actually Juan’s brother’s house, but he can help direct you the rest of the way. Juan’s house is located at 7.34932,-80.78603. It’s actually not too hard to find your way, just keep going through the cattle pastures to the very end of the road, and if it’s not clear, ask at one of the houses you pass! The Parakeets are apparently most reliable in June and July, and tend to show up around 8-8:30 in the morning from what we have been told.