A melancholic liquid song floated through the understory. Reinaldo and I had left the lodge at Mt. Totumas early that morning to see if we could catch the dawn chorus. The night insects had not yet completely shut down while the birds had begun to wake up when we heard this tune. After a short pause, a clear whistle drifted through next. Reinaldo whispered Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush. This montane forest was thick second-growth and ideal habitat for this member of the genus Catharus.
This genus has twelve living species. Two, the Swainson’s Thrush and Hermit Thrush, breed in Western Washington, where I currently live. Those, too, have beautiful songs. However, this nightingale-thrush has a rich set of phrases that carry far. Sometimes they will sing more than 100 of them before taking a break. This one was putting on a good performance; fluty trills, whistles, warbles, and slurs kept filling my ears with delight.
Two other Catharus species breed at Mount Totumas, and the Swainson’s Thrush migrates through on its way back north from its wintering grounds in the Andes. The Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush breeds at lower elevations and the Black-billed at higher. The Ruddy-capped fills this in-between range on these mountains. Reinaldo took me up into La Amistad International Park to find the Black-billed, and we hiked down to the flood plain of the Rio Colorado to see the Orange-billed.
The diverse phrases of the Ruddy-capped continued to float around us. It sounded like a woodwind quartet, right here. Songbirds create their song in the syrinx, which lies at the base of the trachea and top of the two bronchi. With an elaborate set of muscles, they can control the tension of the wall of each bronchus. As the air passes over this tissue, it oscillates, creating each note. Remarkably, a bird, like this thrush, can control the syrinx at the top of each bronchus separately, allowing them to make different notes in each. Perhaps, this individual is alternating sides or even using both simultaneously to harmonize with himself.
The bird held its wings stiff and flat as it glided along the Krysuvikurbjarg. The wind whipped along these cliffs, making me cinch down my hat, and this guy was using the gale to drift smoothly right in front of me, almost floating. The crashing of the North Atlantic filled the air, and other birds’ cries added to the chorus. I felt like I could reach out and touch this Northern Fulmar, but I was staying a good twenty feet back from the sheer drop. He seemed to be hanging there, like a kite, just playing in the blow.
This was a bird I’d hoped to see on this trip to Iceland. A friend had called a few weeks earlier to say he had an opening on a photography trip; he’d asked, “Do you want to photograph puffins and skuas?” I did, but I also thought about these guys and would I finally have a close look at this marvelous family. They have a unique tube on the top of their bill that gives the order their name, Procellariforms, the tubenose. Albatrosses, shearwaters, and petrels are all in this group.
I’d seen this species in 2005 when I came to Iceland with my wife, daughter, and her future husband, but on that trip, they flew along a cliff more than half a mile away. So, I couldn’t study them in detail; see that bill. Also, my wife was sick with cancer, and that trip wasn’t about birds. But as we drove north toward Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a place she wanted to see because a volcanic crater, there, had been the inspiration for Jules Vern’s book, Journey to the Center of the World, I spotted fulmars flying, and she insisted I stop to look. I’d seen other members of this order a few times but also not well, not where one could have a feel for them. So, according to eBird, they were on my life list, but yet something still seemed missing. Mostly, I knew these birds from books.
Krysuvikurbjarg are a well-known breeding site for thousands of seabirds. The volcanic bluffs drop almost two hundred feet straight to the water’s edge, and birds nest on outcrops and in crevices. Siggi, my Icelandic guide, pointed out other great birds, including kittiwakes, murres, puffins, and gulls. He warned me not to get close because slabs of tuft or basalt sometimes crack, falling into the surf. He didn’t want to lose a customer. But right then, my concentration was focused on this Fulmar and its incredible ability to fly.
I used to dream of flying myself, especially when watching Red-tailed Hawks soar over our farm in Pennsylvania. They would catch the thermals that rose from the sun’s heating of the ground. On fixed wings, they’d make marvelous loops, never once twitching those wings, going in circles, often climbing higher and higher. They weren’t hunting, just playing in the afternoon, enjoying life. I’d be out helping with the hay or doing some other chore, stop, and watch in envy.
Although fulmars look somewhat like gulls, they are more closely related to albatrosses. This entire group is true pelagic birds, generally spending all their time at sea and only coming to land during the nesting season. This guy’s body was thicker than a gull’s, about the size of a Mew or Ringed-billed gull, with a heavier head and thinner wings. On the top of its bill was that closed-over tube, like someone had glued an inch-long straw to its dorsal surface. The bill was also thick and had a distinct hooked beak. Apparently, they have an excellent sense of smell and use it to find food — eating fish, invertebrates, and offal from the fishing industry. Their numbers have grown in the North Atlantic over the last two centuries, presumably due to the increased food the fishing industry has provided.
The word fulmar is derived from Old Norse and means “foul gull.” Adults and chicks produce a nasty smelling sticky oil from the lining of their stomachs and will regurgitate it onto something threatening the nest. Siggi told a funny story of climbing a steep hill to get a better perch for a photograph. Unknown to him, a pair of fulmars were nesting just over a little bump. As his head came over the grass-covered rise, they vomited right on him, covering him in this smelling goo. He said the smell didn’t wash off, and his wife was not particularly pleased to let him back in the house.
My attention, though, was focused on how this bird flew. This species and its close relatives, the shearwaters, petrels, and albatrosses, are best known for their flying abilities. Many of them travel huge distances on foraging trips, and Fulmars sometimes make many hundred-mile loops gathering food for their young. They can cover enormous distances across the oceans outside of the breeding season. His wings were longer and thinner than I expected, and that made sense as I thought about their ecology. The long-thin wings allow this bird to use any wind or slight updraft from waves to glide. When they do flap, their wingbeats are short and choppy and can take them readily where they need to go, but it was their use of the wind that I’d come to marvel.
My sister and I used to fly kites, especially in March and April when it was windy on our Pennsylvania farm. We take them up the hill, west of the house. Attached to a long string, with the appropriate tail, they’d climb above the hayfield, gliding back and forth with the constant breeze. Giddiness would fill our hearts. A gust might make them dip or crash if we didn’t react correctly, and a drop in the wind would cause them to fall. We had to turn and run to keep them up until the breeze picked up. Here, this bird was using the updrafts from the cliff. The brisk wind came in from the ocean, turned vertical, shooting up past us, and the Fulmar just drifted on that boisterous current.
Incredibly, this bird was molting flight feathers, yet it seemed to hang on this gale. Several inner primaries were growing. It also was replacing some of its coverts and maybe a few secondaries. All birds must replace their feathers each year to maintain their aerodynamics and insulation. The feathers wear with time and life’s actions, like our clothes. They are made of keratin, the same as our fingernails, and the complete plumage can weigh as much as a fifth or sixth of the bird’s weight. So, energetically, it is an expensive process, and they must keep their ability to fly throughout. Yet, it seemed to fly perfectly even with those new feathers growing.
Siggi called, “We need to move along now.” The others had walked a quarter-mile across the tundra toward the vehicle. Siggi stood not thirty feet from me, still watching the birds over the ocean. He was a big man, a good head and shoulders taller than me, with a build that looked more like a professional wrestler or defensive lineman in American football. When I’d seen him walk into the hotel lobby on that first morning, I’d dismissed him as someone not possibly interested in nature. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He walked through this natural landscape with reverence and freely shared his love of nature. He joked about being a Viking, and we all teased him about it too. But I’d follow this man into the wilds anytime.
Right then, the Fulmar banked right, dropping below the edge of the cliff, and disappeared. Maybe I already had this species on my life list, but this sighting I’d never forget. My kites in Pennsylvania never quite flew like this bird. A master of flight had passed, having fun with the blow, not once flapping its wings.
The two-note whistles came from the forest up the hill. The first note was slightly higher than the second, both were slurred, and they came in rapid succession. A Resplendent Quetzal was giving his territorial call on this April morning. A fainter reply could barely be discerned in the distance by a second male.
These altitudinal migrants had returned to the Westside of the Cordillera de Talamanca in the last few weeks. They spend October through March on the Caribbean side and return to the western side just as the rains begin in April. Here, they court, find a mate, and wait for the flush of fresh fruit that comes with the showers. I’d come to the Mount Totumas Cloud Forest in Western Panama in hopes of finding these magnificent trogons.
I imagined this quetzal sitting on a high branch, his long upper tail coverts flowing back and forth in the light breeze. His brilliant coloration, a golden-green iridescence, should make him stand out, but these birds blend into these forests quite well. Although I’d seen several individuals in my week here, I stood, studying every branch, hoping I might spot this one.
Jeffrey — the lodge owner — and I had come out before first light to listen to the forest wake up, and now we’re headed back. The forest was still full of sounds. Black-faced Solitaires, Flame-colored Tanagers, Slate-throated Redstarts all sang along with many things I still couldn’t identify. The screeches of a Three-wattled Bellbird seemed to overpower everything else. Finally, we gave up the search for the quetzal and continued down the trail.
We had gone a half-mile more when Jeffrey halted, whispering quetzal and pointing directly over our heads. Almost immediately, “keow kowee keow” came from above us as some feathers began to move in the leaves. “Courtship display,” murmuredJeffrey. Males do a courtship flight, often flying above the canopy or they may chase a female through the canopy. Two birds were above us, but the vegetation was thick; they appeared to stay in the trees. Active vocalization between them lasted over a minute as I craned my neck to look straight up.
When they stopped, “Wow” seemed to be the only thing I could say. Jeffrey nodded, and we continued back toward the lodge, absorbed by this spectacle.
Ch-chi-chuuruur came from my right, and I froze in my tracks, for I’d never heard that sound before. Coots, blackbirds, and Pied-billed Grebes had been calling since I arrived at Teal Lake twenty minutes earlier, and a Song Sparrow sang to my left. A scan of the lake had found Buffleheads, Lesser Scaups, and Blue-winged Teals. The Ch-chi-chuuruur drifted across the water as I crept toward it, binoculars ready.
Teal Lake sits in a depression on the Okanogan Highlands, probably carved out by the Pleistocene glaciers. It is nestled between gently rolling hills covered with conifers. The blue water glistened on that June morning, and lush marsh habitat formed a wide literal zone around much of this fifteen-acre lake. The birds here always seem to put on a show.
Crouching down, I spotted the source of that strange sound, a male Ruddy Duck. Two females followed him as he swam right toward me, again doing that call. A second male lurked a dozen yards behind the three. This was the bubbling display that I’d read about. The male bobbed his head a few times and then dipped his bill while slightly extending his neck and head. The throat expanded while the sound radiated. He was courting the females. Then, with a sudden lunge, he ran across the water, wings flapping and hitting the surface, before settling back down and doing the call again. At first, I thought maybe I’d spooked him, but then it occurred to me that this was probably part of the display. A few seconds later, he did it again as he came closer and closer toward me.
The male was in full breeding regalia. His bill was bright sky blue, an extra intense vibrance. The top of his head was black; he had a crisp white cheek patch and reddish back and side feathers. He held his stiff tail flat to the water. Ruddy Ducks aren’t like most ducks, acquiring their breeding plumage in the fall. Instead, these birds wait until spring, when they begin the courtship process to find a mate.
This male ran across the water again, coming between a few cattails and the bank. He began to cruise along a channel coming even closer to me. The females seemed hesitant to follow, so I slowly backed away from the edge and gave them their space.
As I strolled back toward my car, I continued to hear the Ch-chi-chuuruur from that male.