Birding and snorkeling around the tropical paradise of Coiba (Panama)

The “isla de Coiba“, the largest of Central America, is often considered the Galapagos of Panama because of richness of wildlife and pristine state of conservation of its nature.

Since the 1919, the island hosted a penal colony and because of that remained uninhabited by civil population for most of the XX century, maintaining untouched its natural habitats composed by rain-forests, mangroves and coral reefs.

In 1992 the government established the Coiba National Park, but it was only in 2004 that the prison was definitely closed and, in 2005, the UNESCO declared the area World Heritage Site.

Map of Panama with the position of the island of Coiba

Now such a large area risk a lot because, on one side, it is not enough patrolled by authorities, so fishermen and poachers can threat the wildlife often undisturbed, especially by night, and, on the other side, the beauty of its beaches and reefs could attract the interests of the mass tourism. Anyway, so far the plans to build there exclusive resorts luckily were rejected.

At the time of our visit, in April 2019, was impossible to sleep in the national park for just a night (at least three) and to explore more than a single day the island: all the organized excursions from Santa Catalina were focused on diving and didn’t offer many land excursion for an acceptable price.

Therefore we decided to have a private excursion of a day, leaving before the dawn in order to reach very early the island, before the arrival of other boats and with better chances to see animals, including the Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) that here has the only remaining colony of all Panama.

Unfortunately, as usual, there was a complication because the sailor had an agreement with the fuel-truck to fill the tank of the boat at dawn, but the fuel-truck arrived with an hour of delay, therefore we left rather late…

Dawn at Santa Catalina
Boats beached on the sand of the estuary

The navigation with the first lights of the day was particularly scenic, with amazing cliffs, rocky islands covered in forests, stack rocks and, unfortunately, also a lot of smokes of the frequent fires that burn the bush during the end of the dry season.

Being in delay, we hadn’t the time to stop to check the sea-birds, as well as we didn’t dedicate much time to the landscape photography: the strong wind and the rough sea made the tries almost unsuccessful.

Beautiful stacks rocks
Pantropical Spotted Dolphin (Stenella attenuata)
American Black Tern (Chlidonias niger surinamensis)

We still had to land to a deserted beach south of Punta Esquina, in island of Coiba, that we spotted the first Scarlet Macaws in flight: what wonderful birds!!

Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)
The endless deserted beach south of Punta Esquina
Mangrove Black-hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus bangsi)
The expanse of coconuts on the litter of the undergrowth
A beautiful coral left among the leaves by a storm
Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)
Common Basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus)
Sea Hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus var. pernambucensis)
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao)
Panama Flycatcher (Myiarchus panamensis)
Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus), female
Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) mobbing a Roadside Hawk (Rupornis magnirostris)

Together with the many birds we observed, particularly interesting were the footprints on the sand: sign that the beach was much more crowded by night!

Footprints of two seaturtles
Footprint of a crocodile
Pacific Hermit Crabs (Coenobita compressus)

Then we shove off to navigate a bit more to the north, till the beginning of the Monkey trail (“Sendero Los Monos”), where we landed again and we penetrated for a loop of about 1.7 km in the forest.

Bahia de Juncal
Our boat anchored

The trail climbed for a while, going through a rather dark and thick woodland: the temperature had already risen, so there wasn’t too much bird activity and we didn’t see any mammal, unfortunately, but we still got some nice species!

Sendero Los Monos
Lance-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia lanceolata), moulting male
Barred Antshrike (Thamnophilus doliatus eremnus), subspecies endemic of Coiba
Middle American Ameiva (Holcosus festivus)
Lance-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia lanceolata), breeding plumage male
White-throated Thrush (Turdus assimilis coibensis), subspecies endemic of Coiba
Blue-throated Sapphire (Hylocharis eliciae)
Yellow-green Vireo (Vireo flavoviridis)
Rufous-capped Warbler (Basileuterus rufifrons actuosus), subspecies endemic of Coiba
Red-crowned Woodpecker (Melanerpes rubricapillus subfusculus), subspecies endemic of Coiba
Another small bay of the eastern side of Coiba
Eastern side of Coiba
The small island north of Granito de Oro

After the trekking, we took again the boat to reach a little island north of Granito de oro, where we went snorkeling: the current was rather strong, but the visibility good and the reef plenty of colorful fish.

Snowflake Moray (Echidna nebulosa)
Rockmover Wrasse (Novaculichthys taeniourus)
White-spotted Puffer (Arothron hispidus)
Panamic Sergeant Majors (Abudefduf troschelii) and Pacific Creolefishes (Paranthias colonus)
King Angelfish (Holacanthus passer)
Pixy Hawkfish (Cirrhitichthys oxycephalus)
King Angelfish (Holacanthus passer), juvenile
Mexican Hogfish (Bodianus diplotaenia), male
Long-spined Crown-of-Thorns (Acanthaster planci)
Giant Damselfish (Microspathodon dorsalis)
Moorish Idols (Zanclus cornutus)
Threebanded Butterflyfish (Chaetodon humeralis)

After about half an hour of snorkeling, we came back to the main island of Coiba, landing at Punta El Gambute, where there is the Biological Station of the island and some offices of the national park.

Punta El Gambute
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Yellow-green Vireo (Vireo flavoviridis)
Common Basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus)

From here, I walked to the top of a hill called Cerro Gambute (150 m): despite the low altitude, being about the 13.30 and the heat at its maximum, it was an sweating effort to hike up there!

The view was wonderful, but I didn’t see many birds and I could just hear the far calls of the endemic Coiba Howler Monkeys (Alouatta coibensis).

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon carychrous), subspecies endemic of Coiba
Lesser Elaenia (Elaenia chiriquensis)
View to the Punta El Gambute from the Cerro Gambute (150 m)
Cobita island
Turquoise waters in front of the Tito beach
Crimson-backed Tanager (Ramphocelus dimidiatus arestus), subspecies endemic of Coiba
Hirtella racemosa
Streaked Flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus)
Blue-headed Parrot (Pionus menstruus)

Later we had another snorkeling session: particularly exciting was the encounter with one or two Whitetip Reef Sharks (Triaenodon obesus), while couple of sea turtle disappeared too quickly to allow the identification.

Redlip or Ember parrotfish (Scarus rubroviolaceus)
Green Spiny Lobster (Panulirus gracilis)
Spottail Grunt (Haemulon maculicauda)
Starry Pufferfish or Guinefaowl Puffer (Arothron meleagris)
Whitetip Reef Shark (Triaenodon obesus)
Blue-barred Parrotfish (Scarus ghobban)

On the way back to Santa Catalina, we had more time to stop to admire the breath-taking breaching of a group of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins (Stenella attenuata), a single Brown Booy (Sula leucogaster) and the wonderful coastal landscapes.

A cub of Pantropical Spotted Dolphin (Stenella attenuata)
Pantropical Spotted Dolphins (Stenella attenuata)
A fishing boat
Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster)
Stunning landscape with little islands, stacks rocks and vast forests
Little coastal island

Check-list of the observed species (* = endemic of Coiba):

Mammals

  1. Coiba Howler Monkey (Alouatta coibensis)*
  2. Pantropical Spotted Dolphin (Stenella attenuata)

Birds

  1. Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster)
  2. Bare-throated Tiger-heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum)
  3. Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
  4. Great Egret (Ardea alba)
  5. Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis)
  6. Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)
  7. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
  8. Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)
  9. Mangrove Black-hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus bangsi)
  10. Roadside Hawk (Rupornis magnirostris)
  11. Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)
  12. Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)
  13. American Black Tern (Chlidonias niger surinamensis)
  14. Pale-vented Pigeon (Patagioenas cayennensis)
  15. Blue-throated Sapphire (Hylocharis eliciae)
  16. Red-crowned Woodpecker (Melanerpes rubricapillus subfusculus)*
  17. Blue-headed Parrot (Pionus menstruus)
  18. Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)
  19. Barred Antshrike (Thamnophilus doliatus eremnus)*
  20. Lesser Elaenia (Elaenia chiriquensis)
  21. Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus)
  22. Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus)
  23. Panama Flycatcher (Myiarchus panamensis)
  24. Streaked Flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus)
  25. House Wren (Troglodytes aedon carychrous)*
  26. Lance-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia lanceolata)
  27. Tropical Gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea cinericia)*
  28. White-throated Thrush (Turdus assimilis coibensis)*
  29. Black-striped Sparrow (Arremonops conirostris viridicatus)*
  30. Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)
  31. Rufous-capped Warbler (Basileuterus rufifrons actuosus)*
  32. Crimson-backed Tanager (Ramphocelus dimidiatus arestus)*
  33. Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus)
  34. Streaked Saltator (Saltator striatipectus scotinus)*
  35. Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola)
  36. Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivaceus ravidus)*

Reptiles

  1. Common Basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus)
  2. Sea turtle sp. (Cheloniidae sp.)

Fish

  1. Whitetip Reef Shark (Triaenodon obesus)
  2. Snowflake Moray (Echidna nebulosa)
  3. Houndfish or Hound Needlefish (Tylosurus crocodilus)
  4. Blue-spotted Cornetfish (Fistularia commersonii)
  5. Starry Grouper (Epinephelus labriformis)
  6. Spotted Hawkfish (Cirrhitichthys oxycephalus)
  7. Pacific Creolefish (Paranthias colonus)
  8. Bluefin Trevally (Caranx melampygus)
  9. Gafftopsail Pompano (Trachinotus rhodopus)
  10. Yellow Snapper (Lutjanus argentiventris)
  11. Spottail Grunt (Haemulon maculicauda)
  12. Cortez Sea Chub (Kyphosus elegans)
  13. Threebanded Butterflyfish (Chaetodon humeralis)
  14. Blacknosed Butterflyfish (Johnrandallia nigrirostris)
  15. King Angelfish (Holacanthus passer)
  16. Dusky Sergeant (Abudefduf concolor)
  17. Panamic Sergeant Majors (Abudefduf troschelii)
  18. Scissortail Damselfish (Chromis atrilobata)
  19. Bumphead Damselfish (Microspathodon bairdii)
  20. Giant Damselfish (Microspathodon dorsalis)
  21. Acapulco Major (Stegastes acapulcoensis)
  22. Beabrummel Gregory (Stegastes flavilatus)
  23. Mexican Hogfish (Bodianus diplotaenia)
  24. Rockmover Wrasse (Novaculichthys taeniourus)
  25. Wounded Wrasse (Halichoeres chierchiae)
  26. Sunset Wrasse (Thalassoma grammaticum)
  27. Cortez Rainbow Wrasse (Thalassoma lucasanum)
  28. Blue-barred Parrotfish (Scarus ghobban)
  29. Redlip or Ember Parrotfish (Scarus rubroviolaceus)
  30. Large-banded Blenny (Ophioblennius steindachneri)
  31. Moorish Idol (Zanclus cornutus)
  32. Whitecheek Surgeonfish (Acanthurus nigricans)
  33. Convict Surgeonfish (Acanthurus triostegus)
  34. Razor Surgeonfish (Prionurus laticlavius)
  35. Orangeside Triggerfish (Sufflamen verres)
  36. White-spotted Puffer (Arothron hispidus)
  37. Starry Pufferfish or Guinefaowl Puffer (Arothron meleagris)
Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)

Luca Boscain & Michela Ugazzi

One thought on “Birding and snorkeling around the tropical paradise of Coiba (Panama)

  1. Hola soy Flavia Cozzarelli directora Ejecutiva del Panamá Bird Festival, encuentro de observadores de aves, científicos, fotógrafos, medios y tour operadores internacionales. Me ha gustado mucho su blog y comentarios sobre su experiencia en Coiba y me gustaría hacer contacto con usted. Mi email es flaviacozzarelli7@gmail.com y mi cel en Panamá 66859118.

    Like

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