Expats who choose to live along one of Panama’s many lovely beaches often find the bird life a major form of entertainment. When I lived at Playa Uverito I spent hours being charmed by the shore birds running back and forth in the surf and laughing at the beach dogs attempting to catch seagulls.
In the morning and the late afternoon, lovely, long flights of pelicans drifted past like scarves floating on the wind. But what fascinated me most were their distant cousins, the frigate birds, so lovely especially at dawn.
Frigate birds have an almost architectural angularity to them, a sharply carved outline worthy of their dinosaurian ancestors. They have the largest wings comparative to their body size of any bird and often spend up to a week aloft without landing. In fact they only land to rest or tend their nests, which are usually on rocky cliffs. The area over which they regularly fly can be astonishingly large.
Bryson Vorrin, a doctoral student at Max Planck Institute in Germany, is studying sleep in frigate birds on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula. He writes an amusing story of an astonishingly placid female frigate bird on whom he placed a GPS tracker. He recorded her making a wide oval over the entire tip of the peninsula, with one edge of the oval quite far inland.
Sometimes frigate birds are called “man’o war birds” because they are so aggressive with other birds – rudely snatching their food – but poor social skills have no effect on the singular beauty of one floating across the sky. With a seven foot wingspan and the distinctive forked tail, the black silhouette is unmistakable, serene and impressive.