Birding in the wild island of Saboga, a paradise under threat (Panama)

During my recent trip to Panama, the remotest and less known place I visited wasn’t in the depth of forests, but an island apparently far from the usual birders tracks: I couldn’t find, in fact, any specific information about the birds of Saboga (Pearl islands).

Despite this, in April I decided to go there with my patient girlfriend and to explore this tiny island of about 8,1 km², situated in the northern part of the “Archipiélago de las Perlas“, in the south of the Panama bay (“Bahía de Panamá”).

Together with the much more touristic and known Isla Contadora, Saboga was reachable directly by ferry from the harbour of Isla Flamenco, in Panama City, but in comparison with the sister island, had remained almost untouched by the mass tourism.

Situation that could not last for a long time, because the some new resorts were under construction and the plans of future management of the island, available on internet, show a complete destruction of the wild island I visited, transforming the natural coasts and the forest in another boring ghetto for rich tourists such Isla Contadora already is.

At the time of our visit, there were just a couple of expensive solutions about the accommodation, plus a single basic room on airbnb: that had been our choice.

The room was located on the only one two floor building of the village, a rather shaky wooden house that we quickly renamed “the uncle Tom’s cabin“.

Despite the lack of comforts, without a civilized bathroom and with no restaurants around except that of the French owner of our room, most of the island revealed to be forested and particularly attractive, with often no signs of human presence.

Our trip started at dawn from Isla Flamenco marina: the Bahía de Panamá, despite the number of boats, ships and container carriers, was plenty of sea-birds, going from cormorants, to pelicans and gulls.

View of the marina of Isla Flamenco
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus)
Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)
Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens), juvenile

One of the reasons of my visit to the archipelago of Pearl islands was to look for a sought-after bird like the Blue-footed Booby, that should breed somewhere on the islands, so I kept scanning and scanning the sea with my binoculars during the 2 hours of journey, but without success: the only boobies I had, almost by the islands, were Brown.

Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster)
Line of seabirds when approaching Saboga: Brown Pelicans, Neotropic Cormorants and Great Egrets.

There were no proper roads on the island of Saboga: few tracks were paved, but most of them were dirt roads. The only vehicles that moved around were a couple of 4×4 and golf-buggies.

The “suburbs” of the main village

The northern part of the island, being April the end of the dry season, was particularly arid and most of the trees were almost without leaves, although some of those were starting to bloom.

Land birds were active manly early in the morning or late in the afternoon, because during the mid hours the heat was almost unsustainable.

Yellow-bellied Elaenia (Elaenia flavogaster)
White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi)
Yellow-headed Caracara (Milvago chimachima), immature

Most of people lived in the small village, that counted about 700 inhabitants, and they were black people, unlike other corners of Panama were the majority of people had rather European somatic traits if not Amerindian indigenous faces.

They were in fact the descendants of slaves that had been led to the islands in order to look for pearls (from this the name of the archipelago) and to cultivate the land.

The XVIII century church of the village
The village by night

Houses looked often rather derelict and messy, but the people seemed happy in their simple life, based mainly on fishing to survive.

View into the bay of Playa Grande
Rusty fishing ship
Fishing boat

My expectation, arriving to such wonderful uninhabited and wild beaches, was very high, especially about the underwater wildlife.

Playa El Encanto
Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)
Playa Blanca
Painted Ghost Crab (Ocypode gaudichaudii)
Playa Blanca
Triangle Cactus (cfr. Acanthocereus tetragonus)
Playa Negra
Footprints of a crab around its den
Playa Blanca

Unfortunately this season wasn’t the best for snorkeling and the visibility underwater was worse than what I found in Coiba, with a thick suspension of micro algae that made invariably everything green. It was quite a challenge to correct this dominant in post-production and rarely the results were acceptable.

To be light during the trip, I carried only a very basic Fujifilm FinePix XP130 and in those harsh conditions the camera didn’t an impressive job, being just useful to record and identify some tens of fish species.

Starry Grouper (Epinephelus labriformis)
Acapulco Major (Stegastes acapulcoensis)
Giant Hawkfish (Cirrhitus rivulatus)
Starry Grouper (Epinephelus labriformis)
Graybar Grunt (Haemulon sexfasciatum)
Pacific Graysby (Cephalopholis panamensis)
Stone Triggerfish (Pseudobalistes naufragium)
Broomtail Grouper (Mycteroperca cfr. xenarcha)
Blacknosed Butterflyfish (Johnrandallia nigrirostris)

The beach was nevertheless a good place where to do some birding, going from the seabirds, to some raptors on passage, to passerines often related to the mangrove swamps.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea)
Panamanian Flycatcher (Myiarchus panamensis)
Cabot’s Tern (Thalasseus acuflavidus)
Mangrove Warbler (Setophaga petechia aequatorialis)
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens)
Mangrove Black-hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus bangsi)

Nearby the “uncle Tom’s cabin”, there was a field where in the afternoon were playing some children, once on drums, once on football, always looked after of by a marine: not a usual music and gymnastics teacher, that’s for sure!

Exercise drumming the tambours
Audience of the young musicians
Football match

During the second day, we walked south from the village along the dirt road that led to Playa Larga and to something that was called “lake” on the maps.

Dawn view from the church of the village
Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)
Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)
Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus)

16 subspecies of birds were reported to be endemic of the “Archipiélago de las Perlas”: most of those should be present in the largest islands of El Rey, San José and Pedro González, while on Saboga I managed to observe observe just 4 of these local subspecies, plus 2 species that were endemic of Panama and Costa Rica (see the last check-list at the bottom of the page).

Crimson-backed Tanager (Ramphocelus dimidiatus limatus)
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon pallidipes)
Streaked Saltator (Saltator striatipectus speratus)

The first part of the track followed the eastern coast, going through a brushwood, then it turned right, crossing a much more interesting seasonal tropical forest: unlike the north, here the trees and the palms were all bright green, sign of presence of water.

Seasonal tropical forest
Blue-black Grassquit (Volatinia jacarina)
Red Land Crab (Gecarcinus quadratus)
Pale-vented Pigeon (Patagioenas cayennensis)

We finally reached the spectacular Playa Larga, with nobody around but birds and crabs.

Playa Larga
American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus)
Great Egret (Ardea alba)
Playa Larga
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Ecuadorian Hermit Crab (Coenobita compressus)
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
Playa Larga

Behind the beach, extended a brackish water lake with mangroves: the vegetation along the banks was thick, so I couldn’t have a satisfying view, but I could just guess there was at least a colony of Brown Pelicans, possibly mixed with other species of egrets.

I was surprise in spotting a pair of parrots, always in back light an pretty shy: they revealed to be a protected rare species in Panama, the Yellow-crowned Amazon (Amazona ochrocephala)!

Yellow-crowned Amazons (Amazona ochrocephala)
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)

From Playa Larga, I tried to go snorkeling: the waters were rich in fish, including a large Longtail Stingray (Hypanus longus) and an impressive Hourglass Moray (Muraena clepsydra), but unfortunately, once again, the visibility was very poor.

Yellowfin Surgeonfish (Acanthurus xanthopterus) and Spottail Grunts (Haemulon maculicauda)
White-spotted Puffer (Arothron hispidus)
Cortez Sea Chub (Kyphosus elegans)
Longtail Stingray (Hypanus longus)
King Angelfish (Holacanthus passer)
Hourglass Moray (Muraena clepsydra)
Cortez Angelfish (Pomacanthus zonipectus)
Probable hybrid of parrotfish (Scarus x compressus)

In the afternoon, we went to Playa Grande, right in front of the village, but the sky got covered in clouds.

Quail Grass (Celosia argentea)
Small caterpillar colonized by creeping plants
Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus) with a domestic chick in the claws

The water resulted even darker and greener, with almost no chances to take any underwater photo.

Longspined Porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus)

The beach was covered by the beautiful purple and pink shells of Argopecten, while a weird call revealed a loud male of Bare-throated Tiger-heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum), singing from a boat.

Argopecten sp.
Playa Grande
Bare-throated Tiger-heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum)

By night, I didn’t hear any owl, but there were still pretty creatures around.

Scorpion (Centruroides sp.?)
Common House Gecko (Hemidactylus cfr. frenatus)

Our wander around the island showed how, even not considering the threatening plans to destroy the forest and cover Saboga in resorts, there were already very bad signs about how the actual rather low population impacts with the natural habitats and with the biodiversity, going from the lack of a proper rubbish tip, to the pollution of aquifer, to the risk of fires, to poaching and fishing.

Stretch of waste along a track few hundred meters far from the village
“Domesticated” Yellow-crowned Amazon on a terrace of the village, most likely captured in the forest
One of the many bottles and plastic pieces lying on the beaches
Burning piles of rubbish, with the risk to extend the fires to the adjacent dry woodlands
Haller’s Round Ray (Urobatis halleri) harpooned just for “pleasure” to show it to a friend and then thrown back to the water

The last morning was spent at Playa Blanca, because the evening before I had a glimpse of a very far Blue-footed Booby (Sula nebouxii) flying off-shore the north-western coast, so I tried again to do some sea-watching: the attempt was awarded with a closer observation of that bird, even if still rather far.

Playa Blanca
A beached jellyfish
Haller’s Round Ray (Urobatis halleri)
Shoal of Spottail Grunts (Haemulon maculicauda)
Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens)
Yellow-headed Caracara (Milvago chimachima)
Thermal with a mix of Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) and Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)
Bare-throated Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum)
Blue-footed Booby (Sula nebouxii)

Finally convinced that we will never see again, if once again we’ll visit Saboga in the future, the wild island we had, because too many threats were at the horizon, I spent my last hours looking for birds and butterflies in the gardens of the “El Remanso Inn” resort, where there were some flowers in bloom, something rare in the arid northern part.

Variety of Bougainvillea sp.
Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola cerinoclunis)
Orange-barred Sulphur (Phoebis philea)
Hook-billed Kite (Chondrohierax uncinatus)
Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba)
Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus)
Garden Emerald (Chlorostilbon assimilis)
Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus)
Plain Longtail (Urbanus cfr. simplicius)
Yellow-headed Gecko (Gonatodes albogularis)
Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)
Juno Silverspot (Dione juno)

Saying goodbye to Saboga, from the ferry on the way back to Panama City, I did once again some birdwatching, scanning the sea and seeing some more Brown Boobies, terns and 2 or 3 amazing Pomarine Skuas (Stercorarius pomarinus): a great end of my 3 days at Saboga.

The largest colony of Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) of Pearl islands, on the Isla Pacheca
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)
Pomarine Skua (Stercorarius pomarinus)
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus)
The skyscrapers of Panama City on the horizon

FINAL CHECK-LIST (9th-11th April 2019)

Birds:

(the subspecies were deduced mainly from hbw)

  1. American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus ramobustorum)
  2. Bare-throated Tiger Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum)
  3. Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea caliginis)
  4. Great Egret (Ardea alba egretta)
  5. Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
  6. Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis)
  7. Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)
  8. Blue-footed Booby (Sula nebouxii nebouxii)
  9. Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster etesiaca)
  10. Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus brasilianus)
  11. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
  12. American Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)
  13. Hook-billed Kite (Chondrohierax uncinatus uncinatus)
  14. Common or Mangrove Black-hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus bangsi) ENDEMIC of Panama & Costa Rica
  15. Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus platypterus)
  16. Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus)
  17. American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus palliatus)
  18. Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)
  19. Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)
  20. Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus maximus)
  21. Cabot’s Tern (Thalasseus acuflavidus acuflavidus)
  22. Common Tern (Sterna hirundo hirundo)
  23. Pomarine Skua or Jeager (Stercorarius pomarinus)
  24. Rock Dove (Columba livia var. domestica)
  25. Pale-vented Pigeon (Patagioenas cayennensis pallidicrissa)
  26. Ruddy Ground Dove (Columbina talpacoti rufipennis)
  27. White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi verreauxi)
  28. Garden Emerald (Chlorostilbon assimilis) ENDEMIC of Panama & Costa Rica
  29. Yellow-headed Caracara (Milvago chimachima cordata)
  30. Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
  31. Yellow-crowned Amazon (Amazona ochrocephala panamensis)
  32. Yellow-bellied Elaenia (Elaenia flavogaster pallididorsalis) ENDEMIC of Panama
  33. Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens)
  34. Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus satrapa)
  35. Panamanian Flycatcher (Myiarchus panamensis panamensis)
  36. Yellow-green Vireo (Vireo flavoviridis flavoviridis)
  37. Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
  38. House Wren (Troglodytes aedon pallidipes) ENDEMIC of Pearl is.
  39. Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus tolimensis)
  40. Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus)
  41. Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus peruvianus)
  42. American Yellow or Mangrove Warbler (Setophaga petechia aequatorialis)
  43. Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)
  44. Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)
  45. Crimson-backed Tanager (Ramphocelus dimidiatus limatus) ENDEMIC of Pearl is.
  46. Blue-grey Tanager (Thraupis episcopus cana)
  47. Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus carneipes)
  48. Slate-colored Grosbeak (Saltator grossus saturatus)
  49. Streaked Saltator (Saltator striatipectus speratus) ENDEMIC of Pearl is.
  50. Blue-black Grassquit (Volatinia jacarina splendens)
  51. Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola cerinoclunis) ENDEMIC of Pearl is.

Reptiles:

  1. Sea turtle sp.
  2. Yellow-headed Gecko (Gonatodes albogularis albogularis)
  3. Common House Gecko (Hemidactylus cfr. frenatus)
  4. Striped Crowned Snake ? (cfr. Tantilla ruficeps)

Fish:

  1. Longtail Stingray (Hypanus longus)
  2. Haller’s Round Ray (Urobatis halleri)
  3. Snowflake Moray (Echidna nebulosa)
  4. Hourglass Moray (Muraena clepsydra)
  5. Blue-spotted Cornetfish (Fistularia commersonii)
  6. Pacific Graysby (Cephalopholis panamensis)
  7. Starry Grouper (Epinephelus labriformis)
  8. Broomtail Grouper (Mycteroperca cfr. xenarcha)
  9. Giant Hawkfish (Cirrhitus rivulatus)
  10. Yellowtail Snapper (Lutjanus argentiventris)
  11. Pacific Cubera Snapper (Lutjanus cfr. novemfasciatus)
  12. Spottail Grunt (Haemulon maculicauda)
  13. Graybar Grunt (Haemulon sexfasciatum)
  14. Cortez Sea Chub (Kyphosus elegans)
  15. Threebanded Butterflyfish (Chaetodon humeralis)
  16. Blacknosed Butterflyfish (Johnrandallia nigrirostris)
  17. Cortez Angelfish (Pomacanthus zonipectus)
  18. King Angelfish (Holacanthus passer)
  19. Panamic Sergeant Major (Abudefduf troschelii)
  20. Dusky Sergeant (Abudefduf concolor)
  21. Scissortail Damselfish (Chromis atrilobata)
  22. Bumphead Damselfish (Microspathodon bairdii)
  23. Giant Damselfish (Microspathodon dorsalis)
  24. Acapulco Major (Stegastes acapulcoensis)
  25. Mexican Hogfish (Bodianus diplotaenia)
  26. Wounded Wrasse (Halichoeres chierchiae)
  27. Cortez Rainbow Wrasse (Thalassoma lucasanum)
  28. Hybrid Parrotfish (Scarus x compressus)
  29. Bluebarred Parrotfish (Scarus cfr. ghobban)
  30. Bumphead Parrotfish (Scarus perrico)
  31. White Mullet (Mugil curema)
  32. Panamic Fanged Blenny (Ophioblennius steindachneri)
  33. White-tailed Surgeonfish (Acanthurus thompsoni)
  34. Yellowfin Surgeonfish (Acanthurus xanthopterus)
  35. Stone Triggerfish (Pseudobalistes naufragium)
  36. Orangeside Triggerfish (Sufflamen verres)
  37. White-spotted Puffer (Arothron hispidus)
  38. Longspined Porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus)

Butterflies:

  1. Orange-barred Sulphur (Phoebis philea)
  2. Juno Silverspot (Dione juno)
  3. Plain Longtail (Urbanus cfr. simplicius)

Crustaceans:

  1. Red Land Crab (Gecarcinus quadratus)
  2. Painted Ghost Crab (Ocypode gaudichaudii)
  3. Ecuadorian Hermit Crab (Coenobita compressus)

Luca Boscain & Michela Ugazzi

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