A bird-watching day: target Red-billed Tropicbird

Birding Panama

Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus) floating in the waters near Bird Island.

Early this year, we made a bird-watching trip to the mainland, to see some species of birds that we do not have on Bastimentos Island, but the main target of this trip was the elegant Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus).

We all had a blast, with big groups of herons, ducks, pelicans and terns, in addition to some local and migratory beauties along the Snyder Canal.
Birding Panama
After a gorgeous day and several new species for our guests, we headed to Bird Island. Unfortunately the sea was a little rough and the conditions where not ideal, but that didn´t stop the guests in their desire to see, what is for me, one of the most elegant birds I have ever seen.  We made it there, and enjoyed some Red-billed Tropicbirds flying near the island, then on our way back, we had several floating birds in the water.

Seabirds Panama

Fishermen in the mouth of the Changuinola river mouth surrounded by birds (Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla), Sandwich Terns (Thalasseus sandvicensis) and a Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)).

With these links you can see the species we saw that day:

Snyder Canal: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26655839
Changuinola river mouth: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26656713
Bird Island: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26653094


Bird Island – an all-time top ten

Something that it repeats in time, through the years and with an established pattern that joins us around an idea, can be called a tradition. On every VENT (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours) tour group that comes to visit us at Tranquilo Bay, the participants are asked by Tour Leader (and dear friend) Jeri Langham, to make a TOP TEN list of their experiences during the week-long tour.  Anything goes on the top ten list: a person, situation, color, smell or anything that calls our attention.

Panama Bird WatchingThrough the years I have seen and heard many top ten experiences. We have had many good moments to choose from, but there is one experience that is always highlighted is the visit to Bird Island (Swan´s Cay or Isla Pájaro).

This magical place is one of the few “all-time top ten” experiences such that is a traditional top ten experience. It is not hard to understand why it is so special, but it is really hard to explain the experience with words.

Birding by Boat

When you are traveling in the boat in front of the north point of Isla Colón you begin to recognize the massive “Swan with a submerged head” shape rock in the middle of the ocean. It is hard to believe that it could survive the exposure to the open ocean’s strength when other rocks around, like the “Sail Rock” are loosing their fight against time and elements.

Birdwatching Panama As you get closer, you see some white dots start circling around the jungle rock. Then as you are approaching closer still, the white specs become a white bird with an extraordinary long tail, the Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus). This rock has the only-known nesting colony in Panama.

Magnificent Frigatebird But that is not the only neighbor on the rock. Tropicbirds share the island with Brown boobies ( Sula leucogaster), Magnificent Frigatbirds ( Fregata magnificens), Pale-vented Pigeons (Patagioenas cayennensis ), and many other visitors like Kingfishers, Common Black Hawk (Beteogallus anthracinus), Green Heron (Butorides virescens).

Panama Birding

Mentioning their names cannot bring to your mind the spectacular display of sounds, jiggling feathers, interactions or just, the breeze of the ocean cooling you down while witnessing the natural piece of art that Bird Island is.

And that is why, we all share our Bird Island memories as some of the most precious souvenirs from Bocas del Toro.

Symbols of Bocas del Toro

Wildlife PanamaProbably the species most representative of Bocas del Toro are the Poison-dart Frogs (Oophaga pumilio), with all the different colorations found around the archipelago, but another very representative specie is the Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus), a graceful specie found in the some areas of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Birdwatching PanamaThese birds are found in tropical and subtropical seas, they feed mostly on fish, caught plunge diving. They lived almost their entire life in the Sea. During breeding season they used rocky crevices on remote islands, cliffs are prefer, because it makes easier take of, this birds can not walk much. Both parents share the parental care of their descendants, which is usually one single egg.

Birding Bocas del Toro

Adult and chick of Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus), in their nest

In Bocas there is a small Island, known as Bird Island (Isla pajaro) or Swans’ Cay, which is known for its elegant white birds with long tails.  Everyone who sees them stare with an open mouth at their beauty. Bird Island is a limestone island. Next to it are two smaller islands that offer Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) palm trees to rest and nesting grounds to Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster).

Birdwatching Panama

Juvenile Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster) begging to one of its parents for food

Magnificent Frigate Bocas del Toro

Males of Magnificent Frigategird ( Fregata magnificent) in their resting spot.

Worldwide the population is declining, mostly for the introduction of invasive species, as rats and cats, which predated the nests. Let hope this Caribbean treasure stays safe of predators and human pressure for the join of all of us and the future generations.

Like an Image in a Mirror

Bird Watching Panama

Life sometimes gives us the opportunity to keep a great moment for ever.  These gorgeous birds, the Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus), are difficult to photograph sometimes, but with time and patience…

Bocas del Toro has the only nesting colony of this bird in Panama.   To breed the use rocky islands as their nesting grounds. In flight they are one of the most majestic birds on earth, but on land, is hard for them to move.  Their legs are very short, and because of that, they normally do not move much on the ground.

If you want to learn more about those amazing birds, you can check:



Volume, Variety and Vagrants

While bird watching in Panama, just a few weeks ago, we took a group to the mouth of the Chanquinola River, where we often go birding for shorebirds.  What happened was one of those days I could never forget, my best day ever for this particular location.  Our good friend Jeri M. Langham leads “Bocas del Toro Archipelago” in the spring and fall for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours or VENT, and his fall 2013 participants were treated to many incredible sights in many different habitats.  I am sure their experience on this particular day was a highlight for many.

As we left the Soropta Canal and entered the river, it was clear that this was no usual day. Birds were everywhere flying, swimming and scurrying on the shore.  The river was a little low and running clean, without too much current.  In the center of the river a shallow bar had formed setting up a timber and grass matt which was the perfect habitat for many species to congregate.  We enjoyed beautiful looks at Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, five species of herons/egrets, and best of all, one of the participants spotted a Wilson’s Phalarope, a species not shown on the field guide maps to occur in this area of Panama.  He even got great picture of it, don’t you just love good evidence.  After a short lunch, while floating in the river being buzzed by a Ringed Kingfisher, we got out on the beach to walk the shoreline.  We brought our scopes, but we didn’t need them, the black sand beach seemed to be moving there were so many shorebirds.  Just in front of us there were dozens of Ruddy Turnstones, Black-necked Stilts, Black-bellied Plovers and Sanderlings.  Collared Plover was a standout, but we also had Semipalmated and Wilson’s plovers.  Across the cut we saw large flocks of Brown Pelicans and Terns diving on a rip line, so we decided to cross the river and check the action on the other side.  What we found was a complete shorebird blowout.  There was some kind of very small krill being washed up on the shore and dispersed in the beached sea grasses.  All the birds were going crazy with the little morsels.  As we walked down the shore, the birds were constantly welling up in a swarm 30-feet in front us and then falling just behind, seeming more inconvenienced than concerned.  In addition to the shorebirds mentioned, we were able to walk up to Least, Semipalmated, Spotted and Western sandpipers, Sanderlings, Lesser and Greater yellowlegs, and many Short-billed Dowitchers.  One participant found and photographed a Pectoral Sandpiper (also not shown to occur in this area).  We also enjoyed walk-away scope views of dozens of Lesser Nighthawks perched on logs and we identified Laughing and Franklin’s gulls along with Gull-billed, Black, Sandwich and Royal terns.  There were also Whimbrels and lots of Willets, “simply a shorebird extravaganza,” as Jeri put it.  To top it all off, as we left the river mouth and went offshore, we found a Red-billed Tropicbird swimming in the Caribbean.

I have seen many unbelievable things in nature and often recall those special moments when needed.  Sometimes all you need to remember of your time in the field is that one special thing, large aggregations of the same species, the outlandish number of species that you saw or just that one bird that didn’t read the field guide.  It’s not often you get volume, variety and vagrants all at the same time, but if you ever do, I’m sure it won’t be soon forgotten.

Birdwatching Panama

The conditions couldn’t have been better for my best day ever of shore birding in Panama.

Panama Birdwatching

Shorebirds covered the beach gorging on some small washed up form of krill. Photo by Jennifer Green.

Birding Panama

Lone Red-billed tropic bird taking a swim in the Caribbean, Bocas del Toro, Panama. The first of many we saw later that day, but that is another story. Photo by Jennifer Green.