Choppy seas – a Panamá Pelagic trip
10 July 2014
By late spring wayward seabirds were showing up far north of their typical distributions, presumably due to el Niño like conditions further south. With reports of Waved Albatross and Inca Tern already in from Costa Rican waters, with the results of the last pelagic from Pedasí in mind (http://janbirdingblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/pelagic-off-punta-mala.html), and with the continental shelf only a few miles off shore, the only thing to do was to head out to sea and see what could turn up. The list of possible seabirds in this underexplored area is extremely inviting. Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrel, Galapagos Shearwater, Brown Noddy, Brown Booby, Sooty, Bridled, and Black Tern are probably the most common species. However, many more species are possible and more pelagic exploration will probably prove that species such as Nazca Booby and Wedge-tailed Shearwater maybe more common than realized. The real draw, for us, though, was certainly the possibility of a southern vagrant such as an Inca Tern, Waved Albatross, Galapagos or Juan Fernandez Petrel, or a Peruvian Booby, or perhaps one of the other more interesting tropical seabirds such as a Tahiti Petrel or Christmas Shearwater. With so many seabirds possible and with the cost of a boat charter a bit high, we needed help spotting seabirds, so we put out the call to the Panamá birding community and were fortunate to find George Angher and Bill Adsett eager to join. Josh made arrangements with Jeff Hopkins to charter a 30 ft sport fishing boat for 8 hours. Nice! Now we were all set to go minus one key ingredient – CHUM! Oh lovely chum, the best way to attract seabirds but also the best way to test the strength of your stomach. Josh wanted to be certain that there would be plenty of stinky chum to attract seabirds from Colombia and further south so he went around to all the fishermen and grocery stores in town. Imagine the response from a grocery store owner when some gringo waltzes into the store and asks for fish guts and meat trimmings… um what?! After several minutes of explaining why we needed fish guts and meat trimmings the clerk amusingly agreed to save some scraps for the crazy gringos over the next couple of days. Josh also rounded up enormous quantities of delightfully stinky fish guts and chopped up anchovies from the local fishermen.
Now that we had all the chum lined up, we need to find a place to put the chum until the morning of the pelagic. We hunted around town for decent buckets with lids but none were to be found. What the heck were we going to do with loads of chum? Put it in the truck? NO WAY! The only thing we could find were plastic garbage bags so loaded up bags, poured in a couple gallons of corn oil, and had a smelly leaky mess on our hands. Eventually we triple bagged the chum, and set two 50+ lb bags of the foulest concoction on earth atop the truck. It truly smelled, well, god-awful. Even tripled bagged, the chum still reeked and we were parked behind a small hotel with the chum stinking up most of the block! I spent the entire night worried about what we would see in the morning. I imagined that every stray cat and dog as well as a few hundred black vultures would be on top of the truck ripping the bags to shreds and we would have one nasty mess to clean up! Fingers crossed we went to bed.
In the morning I rushed around getting ready for the pelagic and sent Josh outside to check on the chum. Thankfully both bags were untouched despite the smell that permeated the entire area, we felt quite guilty with regards to the poor hotel we were staying at. With the chum safe it was time to head to the beach, but there was no way we were going to put the bags of chum in the truck where we sleep, so we drove very slowly down to the beach with bags of guts on the roof of the truck.
We arrived at the beach just in time for a beautiful sunrise over what looked like very choppy seas.
Uh oh! We were not at all expecting choppy seas in the middle of summer in the Pacific. The pelagic forecast was for calm seas but these were not calm seas! Gulp! Apparently a strong north wind had come up overnight blowing up some miserable short-period wind chop. In Pedasí, a north wind is an offshore wind, which is never good for pelagic birding as it blows birds further out to sea instead of in towards land. Phooey. The captain of the boat had spent the night anchored off shore because tidal conditions prevented a morning departure from the little harbor, so we needed to take another small boat (panga) from shore in order to jump on the fishing boat. The waves tossed the panga violently, such that even getting into the panga in knee deep water, and then out through the surf, was a good bit of fun. Somehow we all managed to get into the panga and we made our way to the fishing boat. Getting into the panga had been challenging enough, but now we needed to go from one moving object to another moving object and the seas were not cooperating. Jeff, the captain, was holding onto the panga and yelling “one, two, three, jump on the boat now.” The jerking motion of both boats made for some very interesting landings. Let’s just say that nobody arrived on the boat gracefully. Thankfully no one was hurt and we made it onto the boat and headed on our way.
We headed straight out for deep water and the continental shelf edge, hoping to find some life and seabirds. The seas continued to toss the boat from side to side. It was nearly impossible to hold your binoculars with both hands as one hand was needed to hold onto the boat throughout the day. The boat rocked and rocked and with it so did I. I immediately started regretting my decision to not put my motion sickness patch on the night before. Two hours into the trip I lost my battle with my churning stomach and did my own chumming. “Oh No!” I thought, this was going to be a very long and very unenjoyable day. But thankfully I recovered quickly and was able to enjoy the choppy seas for the rest of the day.
We stopped at a few spots that looked promising, chasing depth breaks and seamounts as well as chasing down flocks of terns that were feeding. At each promising location the mate started opening the bags of chum. Talk about a stench! Every time a bag was opened nearly everyone had to fight to keep breakfast down. The stench was unimaginable and was impressively persistent given the strong wind that should have kept it out of our faces! But the chum and it’s impressive stench worked like a charm and birds caught the scent and came in to check out the source. A good number of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels came in along with one or two Black Storm Petrels. Unfortunately the conditions made it nearly impossible to identify the majority of individuals, there were possibly some more interesting Storm-Petrels in there but it was impossible to say for certain. We managed positive IDs on many of the larger birds, thankfully, which included Brown Noddies, Sooty Terns, Bridled Terns, a couple Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, and one Galapagos Shearwater. The best bird of the trip was one Nazca Booby. Distribution of Nazca Booby is not well understood, they are theoretically a southern species but they can be hard to separate from Masked Booby unless seen well. There are not very many Panamanian records but we saw two in two boat trips in Panamá. They have also been recorded from Costa Rican waters this year and have shown up as far north as Southern California where one was photographed off of Los Angeles. So Nazca Boobies may well be more regular off Central America and Southern Mexico but there is so little coverage of those waters so it is hard to say. On the whole, across the day, we actually saw quite a number of birds, but conditions unfortunately meant that we could not identify the majority nor could we get any photographs. But we also had an amazing dolphin show during the trip.
Pelagic birding is never easy and this pelagic trip was no exception, but Pedasí and easy access to deep water makes it a very appealing location for further pelagics and there are undoubtedly many rarities and probably many first Panamanian records lurking out there for intrepid pelagic birders. Those interested in giving it a try should get ahold of Captain Jeff Hopkins via email at email@example.com, as he has the only sport fishing boat in the area, which charters for $800 for a full day. Alternatively, he can arrange a panga for something like $70 + the cost of fuel for the day. We have successfully birded from pangas several times, including photographing a Townsend’s Shearwater off Puerto Angel (https://birdsofpassage.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/pelagic-birding-off-southern-oaxaca-and-the-townsends-shearwater/). However, it is much harder to bird from a panga than from a sport fishing boat as it’s a smaller, less stable boat and you are much lower to the water making spotting birds much harder. As well, there is no shade, no bathroom and the seats are a lot harder, which adds up when you start thinking about spending 8-10 hours on the water vs 3-4.
amazing that the chum didn’t eat thru the bags and truck top -leaving you with (you know what in the truck). Well at least you can laugh at it now. great dolphin show