Sunday, 7 November 2021

Coiba Island

Coiba National Park has long been a destination that I have wanted to visit. Composed of 38 islands (the largest by far being Coiba Island), this archipelago is located off of the Pacific coast of Panama, west of the Azuero Peninsula. Coiba actually holds the distinction of being the largest island off the Central American coastline. 

Coiba Island likely separated from the mainland between 12,000 and 18,000 years ago as sea levels rose globally. As a result of isolation over thousands of years, many of the plants and animals found on Coiba have evolved into their own forms. 

Indigenous peoples once inhabited this area; the name of these people gave rise to the current name of the island. As is so often the case, colonialism eradicated and dispersed the Coiba people from their lands. The Spanish were the guilty parties and the people were forced into slavery after the Spanish arrived in 1560. 

Sendero Los Pozos - Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Coiba Island has seen relatively limited human disturbance. Most of the forests have never been logged, while the marine life is protected from commercial disturbance. A prison colony was built on Coiba Island in 1919, housing some of Panama's most notorious criminals and political prisoners. The prison was shut down in 2004. In 1991, the waters had been assigned protection as a national marine park, but it wasn't until the closing of the prison in 2004 that the whole area was afforded full protection as Coiba National Park. The area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site the next year. 

For most birders, the interest in Coiba Island is to seek out one particular species: the Coiba Spinetail. Found only on Coiba and nearby Rachería Island, it has no close relative on mainland Panama. It is most similar to the Rusty-backed Spinetail of Amazonia, thousands of kilometres away. Of course, many of the islands' other birds are unique; over a dozen of them are considered unique subspecies found only in Coiba National Park. These include local forms of Black-striped Sparrow, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Streaked Saltator, Gray-breasted Dove and more. The Gray-breasted Doves are considered by some to be its own species endemic to the islands, called the Brown-backed Dove.

Moon Satyr (Pierella luna) - Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

I reached out to Kees Groenendijk of Hotel Heliconia to arrange a visit to Coiba Island. While multi-day camping trips are not currently permitted (as was allowed before the pandemic), Kees is still allowed to run day trips to the island with a goal of searching for some of the endemic birds. We settled on a date - October 14. As I detailed in a previous post, Laura and I arrived during the afternoon on October 13, settled into our room, and even set up the moth light for some bugging out. We hit the hay early. 

Kees, Laura and I awoke while the sky was still dark, ate breakfast at 5 AM, and made the short drive over to the marina. The sky was beginning to lighten as we met the captain and first mate and loaded our gear into the boat. We set off just after 6 AM. 

While the endemic birds of Coiba Island were the main draw, I was also interested in the seabird possibilities. Pelagic species are present in low numbers between the mainland and Coiba Island (one needs to get out to the continental shelf to see really impressive quantities), but Kees has documented quite a few interesting species over the years.

Unfortunately, the weather was not making the seabirding easy. Intermittent bands of rain soaked us during the 2.5 hour trip, though the last hour or so was dry. We were thankful for the ponchos that Kees brought onboard. 

Seabirds were practically non-existent, while the choppy water made using binoculars almost impossible. If we did see something, Kees would signal to the captain to stop, but we didn't see much that was worth stopping for. Highlights included a Pomarine Jaeger that powered past the boat at close range (I botched my photos), several Brown Boobies, and a handful of common tern species: Royal and Sandwich close to shore, and Common and Black further out. 

Common Tern - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Brown Booby - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Our reward for sitting through the driving rain was a beautiful rainbow stretching all the way across the sky. 

As we approached the shallow waters near Coiba, the fins of several dolphins sliced through the sea's surface. These were Pantropical Spotted Dolphins, a common species through much of the world's tropical and subtropical regions. 

Pantropical Spotted Dolphin - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Pantropical Spotted Dolphins - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Pacific Green Sea Turtles also appeared in the distance. As we approached, it was clear that some love-making was going on. We paused briefly to photograph the amorous couple then left them in peace. 

Pacific Green Sea Turtle - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Pacific Green Sea Turtle - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Our first order of business was to walk one of the few trails on Coiba Island. Dubbed Sendero Los Pozos, this 1.5 km path leads to some hot springs, long since abandoned. A Whimbrel, several Ruddy Turnstones and a Green Kingfisher met us on shore. 

 Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

The first mate was first down the trail with his machete. Clearly, not a lot of visitors had been here recently. It was even Kees' first visit since the pandemic hit, over 18 months earlier. 

My main target would have to wait as we began to walk down the trail. Some of the other common birds appeared - Barred Antshrike, Scrub Greenlet, House Wren, White-browed Gnatcatcher, Chestnut-capped Warbler. All of these are endemic subspecies to Coiba. The Barred Antshrikes were quite vocal and a little different sounding when compared to their mainland counterparts.

Barred Antshrike (ssp. eremnus) - Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

We also spotted a female Canada Warbler flitting low in the undergrowth. According to eBird, this is the first record of Canada Warbler for Coiba Island. 

After around 30 minutes of slowly birding the trail we heard the first Coiba Spinetail vocalizing off in the distance. Another one sounded off nearby, this time a little closer. After a tense few minutes we finally got our binoculars on one. 

Coiba Spinetail - Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

We watched the spinetails work the vine tangles high up in the trees. They never came low enough for good photos but the views were decent enough through binoculars. One bird finally paused out in the open for a few minutes to preen, allowing me to take a series of "record shots'. 

Coiba Spinetail - Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Coiba Spinetail - Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Elated with the success, we continued on down the trail to the hot springs, adding more bird species to our list and marvelling at the forest. 

 Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Unfortunately, my other main bird target (Brown-backed Dove) was nowhere to be seen, though I heard one vocalizing at one point and we also flushed what was likely one of them off the trail. Lance-tailed Manakins were a little more accommodating, allowing their photos to be taken. 

Lance-tailed Manakin - Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Our time at Sendero Los Pozos was over too soon, though we had spent nearly three hours here. Time was of the essence and we had other stops to make. We got back in the boat and motored to the north of the island, passing pristine shorelines and picturesque islands along the way. 

 Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

We anchored in a secluded sandy bay at the north end of the island and got out for a few minutes. The park's administrative buildings are located here and Kees needed to complete some paperwork for our visit. Laura and I wandered around, enjoying the company of a Black Spiny-tailed Iguana and a Coiban Agouti (another one of the island's endemic species). 

Coiba Agouti - Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Great-tailed Grackle - Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Coiba Agouti - Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Black Spiny-tailed Iguana - Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

I implored Kees on the possibility of finding a Wandering Tattler, a tough bird to see in Panama. He had just the spot - a couple of rocky outcrops not far from our location. We zipped over there, and bang, there were two of them! 

Wandering Tattler - rocky islet near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Wandering Tattler (left) and Willet - rocky islet near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

These islets are a favoured resting spot for boobies. We noted three Blue-footed mixed in with the gang of Brown Boobies. 

Blue-footed Booby - rocky islet near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Blue-footed (center) and Brown Boobies - rocky islet near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

No visit to Coiba is complete without observing the life under the water. The snorkeling here is famous for a reason, and Kees took us to a favoured spot of his. We anchored off a small island under the watchful eyes of a Mangrove Black Hawk. But soon our attention was shifted to the life below the water's surface. It was incredible. 

Guineafowl Puffer (Arothron meleagris) - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Long-spined Porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus) - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Scissortail Chromis (Chromis atrilobata) - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Green Sea Turtle - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

Two hours passed in a flash. I could have stared at the kaleidoscope of colours all day long. 

The weather gods must have been looking favourably upon us for the trip back to the mainland, since the rain held off and the seas were a touch calmer. We even saw a few additional pelagic species. 

On two occasions we were buzzed by phalaropes. I miraculously managed a photo of the first one. It was a Red-necked, as expected. 

Red-necked Phalarope - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

After scanning the mostly empty seas for an hour, a swirling flock of birds got my attention. Could they be shearwaters? Terns? The captain steered our vessel towards them, and it became clear that they were Black Terns - around 40 of them. We later saw a second group as well. 

Black Terns - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

One final surprise was in store - a young Red-billed Tropicbird. This species is somewhat uncommon in these waters so I was pleased to come across one. Following the tropicbird delay, we made good time the rest of the way back to the harbour. It had been a good day. 

Red-billed Tropicbird - waters near Coiba Island, Veraguas, Panama

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