Masked Boobies, Part 1

Dominic and I fell into birding as a hobby during a holiday trip to Panama a few years ago. We spent Christmas in Bocas del Toro, an archipelago on the eastern side of the nation extending into the Caribbean Sea. We had a a few days of pristine, postcard worthy weather, but after five days of continuous rainfall we decided to return to the slightly drier Pacific coast. On a whim, we booked a room near the canal in a defunct radar tower that had recently been converted into a hotel. The hotel was a cylindrical, and we had to walk a few hundred spiraling stairs to get to our modest, utilitarian room. Our shower window looked into the canopy of the rainforest. Ascending a few more flights, the stairs opened to central living and dining space, and by climbing a ladder one could enjoy the fantastic panoramas offered by the roof, a viewing deck circling the radar itself, an enormous sphere at least 200 feet in diameter.

The place was funky. We were attracted to its shear oddity as described in the guidebook, and because Dominic the engineer wanted to check out the radar tower and be near the aura of the canal. What we didn’t realize was that the hotel was situated along Pipeline Road, a mecca of birding, boasting some of the greatest avian biodiversity the Americas have to offer—Harpy Eagles, Rainbow Toucans, Birds of Paradise, the works.

As a result, we found ourselves surrounded by the most zealous birders the Americas have to offer. Meals were served collectively, and over dinner the woman sitting across from us explained that her husband, enjoying his soup and carrying the exact same model backpack we were carrying, had seen the same the same number of bird species as the fifth ranked birder in the world. Can you believe it?

They looked at us, incredulous and horrified, when we confessed that not only had we not yet started our life lists, but we didn’t even own a set of binoculars. We had never even gone birding before! And here we were, on Pipeline Road, totally unprepared.

We had our first birding excursion the next day, and it wasn’t so different from hiking really slowly and appreciating the angelic nature of the fluttering wings on the trail. I remember being most impressed with our guide; he blasted bird songs from his Jeep as we drove, and he could hear a bird call, whip out his enormous monocle, and focus on the teeniest parakeet between the leaves some 300 hundred yards away.

In the meantime, we have pilfered birding books from the libraries of our parents, received a fantastic set of binoculars as a wedding gift, and have been wading in waters of ornithology ever sense. I wouldn’t quite call us birders per se, still no life lists, but it is a pleasant way to pass the time as birds are our most common visitors from the animal kingdom (except for the flying fish, of course, those daily reminders of the fleeting nature of life).

Which brings me to the next turning point on our current journey: the shift from Field Guide to North American Birds to The Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. Woot woot! Above, in silhouette, are two Masked Boobies. They’re large, the size of the Laysan Albatross, consistently appear in pairs, and when we sighted them for the first time, they were the first species not present in our North American reference.