The Flight of a Neotropic Cormorant

A Neotropic Cormorant in the Pantanal of Brazil uses both its feet to launch from the water.

The splash came from my right. A Neotropic Cormorant ran across the water, flapping its wings, trying to gain lift. It was coming along the shoreline and would pass our boat as we floated on the Rio Sararé in the Pantanal. They typically need to run into the wind, but this morning it was calm, and surprisingly it had taken off by coming right toward us.

These cormorants are compact, dense, and look like torpedoes. They are pursuit hunters, chasing down fish underwater. Their body, neck, and head are all hydrodynamic for the least drag possible. Their feet are set well back on their body; this makes them ideal for propulsion underwater but not the best for walking around on land. All four of their toes are connected by webbing, totipalmate feet, where a duck or goose only has three toes webbed. 

I’d brought my GoPro on this trip in the hopes of doing some underwater filming. But unfortunately, the water here in the Pantanal of Brazil is high in tannins and organic matter, so nothing is visible a few feet out. So, no luck, but the athleticism of this bird taking off was a treat to watch. 

Neotropic Cormorant
The Neotropic Cormorant pulls both of its feet forward to push again hard on the surface of the water.

To take off, the bird pushed hard down with both feet like it was trying to launch from the water’s surface. At the same time, it flapped its wings, the outer primaries hitting the water, helping to lift its body. It then drew both feet forward as far as possible and pushed hard on the water, flapping again. In essence, it was hopping as fast as it could while smacking the water with its wings. Finally, it gained enough altitude to fold back its feet and move just to wing beats.

Neotropic Cormorant
The Cormorant is now gaining lift and can switch to just flapping rather than running on the water. Pantanal, Brazil.

The cormorant disappeared down the river. Neotropic Cormorants are smaller than the widespread Double-crested Cormorant of Northern America. They live all through Latin America and even extend into Southeast Texas. This is one of the most adaptable birds in the Western Hemisphere, ranging from sea level to some Andean Lakes at 5,000 meters.

A flying Cormorant
The elegance of flight by a cormorant in the Pantanal of Brazil.

Neotropics and Double-crested look much alike, and the size difference is often impossible to tell. Double-cresteds don’t occur in South America. The best characteristic to separate them is to look at the profile of their gular pouch, the yellowish area behind the bill, and at the top of their neck. On an adult Neotropic, this structure looks like a horizontal “V” with the bottom pointed backward and is less than 50% of the rest of the head. The V also has a thin white border along the back edge. In the Double-crested, the pouch is bigger and rounded rather than “V” shaped.

Farther down the river, a cormorant sat on a branch hanging over the river. Its webbed feet curled around the twig as the combination swayed slightly. In this morning sun, the feathers had a sheen to them. It didn’t fly as we cruised by.

A Neotropic Cormorant in the Pantanal of Brazil.
A Neotropic Cormorant sits on a branch along a river in the Pantanal. Note the V-shaped gular pouch with a white strip against the black neck feathers. Also, all four toes are connected by a web, totipalmate feet.

A Marbled Murrelet by Edmonds Pier

Marbled Murrelet
A Marbled Murrelet drifted in the water off of Edmonds in Washington State.

A light breeze came in off Puget Sound, keeping the temperatures in the mid-60s on this August morning. I headed onto the fishing pier at Edmonds to see what birds might be around when a small bird floating just beyond the tideline stopped me. The tide was out, and little waves caused by the ferry lapped along the shore. The bird floated only a dozen feet from the edge. It was dark brown, stubby body and short bill. A Marbled Murrelet cruised in the shallows. I backtracked to walk down onto the sand.

Its plumage was transitioning from summer to lighter winter plumage. Overall, it seemed a dull brown, with no evidence of the brighter brown of a breeding adult. Perhaps this was young of the year. The chest and neck had mottled white and brown. The back and sides had white flecking. Scientists do offshore surveys in the late summer to determine how many young might have been produced. They can tell adults from juveniles quite well, but I wasn’t sure which this was.

Marbled Murrelet

Marbled Murrelets are endangered in Washington. Their populations have plummeted over the last 50 years, and this decrease seems mostly related to the loss of suitable nesting habitats. Surprisingly, these birds fly inland and nest high in the canopy of old-growth coniferous trees. They find a broad branch covered in mosses and lichens. They make a depression in the vegetation and lay a single egg. Then, both parents fly back and forth to Puget Sound or the ocean to feed and care for the egg and nestling. Some nests can be as far as 50 miles from the water. 

This alcid shifted directions and began to swim parallel to the beach. Its bill had a small hook at the tip, and the nostril slit near the base was thin and long. The feathers were tight against the body, and a few water droplets clung to them, glistening in the sun. It looked plump, but I’d worried that being this close to shore was not a good sign. Might this bird be skinny, not in good health? Maybe, if it was a young bird, it was just learning the best places to fish. Once they leave the nest, it appears they are on their own, needing to find all their food themselves.

Marbled Murrelet

With the tide still receding, the murrelet had come into a small pool between two sandbars. It turned and started to head out to sea, but the water was too shallow to swim. Here it attempted a stumbling walk. Its legs are far back on its body, making walking difficult, so it raised itself on its legs and then plopped forward. After ten minutes, it was back in deep water and headed offshore.

A Marbled Murrelet begins to swim out into Puget Sound and away from the shore at Edmonds.

What Did You Expect from a Toucan?

A pair of Toco Toucans land in a tree at House Alegro in the Pantanal of Brazil.
A pair of Toco Toucans land in a tree at Pouse Alegro in the Pantanal of Brazil.

“Toucan,” erupted from the person on my right. In the canopy, two large birds with bright colors were mainly silhouetted against the sky, but some yellow, red, and white showed. The long bill was enough to confirm that two toucans had arrived in the Pantanal.

This was my last day in Brazil, and I’d seen Toco Toucans fly over two or three times but never had a decent look. Yesterday, a pair at Rio Claro flew across the Rio Sararé just as the sun broke the horizon. The sky and low light silhouetted their bodies. That long thick bill was unmistakable. Unfortunately, my camera didn’t focus fast enough in that nonexistent light.

Toco Toucan

The bill on a toucan is a thing of wonder. In this species, it is about a third the length of the bird but weighs very little. With strong, finely tuned muscles in their necks, these birds can use it like a fine tweezer. The bill is strong and tough. The outer layer is a series of overlapping keratin tiles that are fused – like armor plating. The interior is like foam and is made of bony fibers and drum-like membranes to form a strong ridge and brace structure – a three-dimensional lattice. The middle is hollow. The bill is a marvel of engineering, and a person who could design something like this would be considered a genius. The overall configuration gives a high degree of strength for minimal weight—evolution at its most remarkable.

Toco Toucan
The bill of a Toco Toucan is large and long but they can manipulate it like a fine pair of tweezers.

The pair hopped down to where both were visible. This Pantanal lodge had put fruits, nuts, and seeds out at first light this morning, and a plethora of doves, finches, guans, chachalacas, and others had come to feed for the last 90 minutes. Toco Toucans are splendid birds, bigger than I’d expected. They are the largest toucan species. Their white bib, black body, red under-tail coverts, and distinctive red-orange bill make them pop on a tree branch. Females apparently average a little smaller, but there was no way to tell that difference in the wild.

A Toco Toucan in the Pantanal of Brazil.

One glided down to a horizontal log attached to two fence posts. This species is primarily frugivores, but they will take bird eggs, nestlings, small birds, lizards, and insects. They can hang upside down and use that long bill to snip fruit from twigs or probe deep into holes. Earlier, a person had spread bananas and mangos across the back of the branch and dropped small pellet-looking stuff on the feeder. Paulo, our Brazilian guide, had said the small fruit-like nuggets were items the toucans particularly liked.

The second one flew to the other end of this natural-looking feeder. It stood staring at us. Maybe fifteen people congregated behind a small fence watching the feeders. We all had homed in on this unique bird. The second one reached down, picking up a small quarter-inch pellet from behind the branch. It seemed to roll it in the tip of that foot-long bill much like a jeweler might role a diamond between her index finger and thumb. It then cocked its head slightly, flipped the nugget up, opening its mouth as the morsel flew to the throat; its foot-long tongue showed for a second as it closed its bill, to then twist a stare right into my eyes as if to say, “What’d you expect?”

A Toco Toucan tosses a nugget in the air and then swallows it. Pantanal, Brazil.
Toco Toucan in the Pantanal of Brazil.
The Toucan looked straight at me.

Fishing by a Black-collared Hawk

Black-collared Hawk hunting from the edge of a river in the Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil
Black-collared Hawk hunting from the edge of a river in the Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

Brr-rrrrrrrdddd came from behind me and lasted for close to two seconds. I whipped around and realized it was our boatman making that sound. He was standing in the back of the boat with a five-inch fish in his right hand. The fish was shaped like a bluegill and probably was a piranha, for we were in the Pantanal of Brazil. He made the call a second time and then paused while he waved the fish in the air at a 45-degree angle above his head.

Almost instantly, the exact same sound came from a tree boarding the small river. I put my binoculars back onto the large overhanging branches 20 meters above the water where two Black-collared Hawks sat. I’d watched and photographed these birds as we progressed down the Rio Sararé. The tree was the tallest along this section of the river, and the pair had built their nest in a large branch that projected to the left. Paulo, our Brazilian guide, said the one on the nest was a young one and to watch the other one. I guessed the other might be the female, and probably the male was out hunting. Our boatman began talking in Portuguese. Perhaps, he was telling us to be ready. He continued to wave the fish. The hawk called again, then the boatman, then the hawk. Maybe it would come down to the bait.

Black-collared Hawks occur from southern Mexico south through Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and very northern Argentina. They are associated with freshwater and brackish habitats in lowland tropical regions. This bird feeds primarily on fish, and the undersides of their toes have spines that aid in grabbing and holding onto their prey. Rivers and their gallery forests — like the Rio Sararé where we were right then — are perfect places for this species to feed and breed. I’d never seen this species before this trip, but I knew about it.

A few months ago, Paulo posted a photograph of this hawk flying low over a river in the Pantanal, and I wrote to him about the stunning take and the color of this unique species. I’d come to see it for myself and had asked him when we met a few days ago in Cuiaba if we might see them. 

The head is a creamy white with darker stripes, making the bird look like it had just come out of a beauty parlor. The front of the neck is black, as if the bird is wearing a bowtie or fancy lace collar. The body and inner wings are a bright rufous, and the primaries and tips of the secondaries black. The short tail has some black and rufous barring. Overall, this hawk looks as if it had dressed for a fancy gala. 

Ten of us were in a narrow, flat-bottomed boat with a small outboard motor. The boatman was in the back and Paulo in the very front. The boatman had carefully placed the other eight of us, two across, to even out the weight in this tippy contraption. He’d assigned me to the back row just in front of him and opposite from where I thought he’d throw the fish. To balance, one knee was pushed hard into the seat in front of me, and my other foot spread wide to be as stable as possible. I would need both hands to operate my camera and photograph the bird when it flew. The gentle rock of the boat made me nervous, and I figured it would tip even more when everyone started photographing, but I was determined.

The boatman and Paulo kept talking back and forth in Portuguese, and Paulo would interject “Is everyone ready?” to the rest of us. The sun was behind us, and the water was calm on this July morning. The light was perfect for outstanding photography. The boatman hurled the fish a good 75 feet, and the hawk instantly left her perch, spreading her four-foot wings, flapping gracefully as she dipped toward the fish. I jammed my camera tight to my right eye and pressed the shutter, the motor drive taking pictures as fast as possible. I tried like the dickens to keep the bird in the frame; fortunately, it wasn’t flying particularly fast and seemed to be making a beeline for the fish. Yet the rocking made it particularly tricky, probably meaning I’d sometimes cut off its wings.

A Black-collared Hawk grabs a fish at the surface in the Pantanal of Brazil.

As she approached the fish, her legs dropped down, the talons spread apart, and her legs moved forward like outstretched front legs on a horse coming down from going over a jump. She picked the fish off the water with practically no splash and circled left, away from us to head back toward the tree. I kept following her, taking more photographs, and praying I captured this magnificent demonstration of athleticism. Sure, it was staged, but this showed the grace and precision of their hunting techniques. 

A Black-collared Hawk makes a small splash as it pulls the fish from the water in the Pantanal of Brazil.

I dropped the camera to my chest and plopped back down into the boat, breathless with excitement. Paulo yelled from the front, “Did everyone get it?” And I hoped I had. The motor drives on nine cameras made it sound like multiple machine guns were going off all at once. Hundreds of pictures had been taken. I began to look at mine on the back of my camera. Smiling, I seemed to have an incredible series; unfortunately, on a few, I had cut the wings, and on others, the bird wasn’t in the middle, but I was delighted with the results. I raised my binoculars to look back at this stunning raptor.

Black-collared Hawk rises from the river with a fish in its talons.

The Black-collared Hawk had gone back into the tree, but I couldn’t tell if she still had the fish or had given it to the nestling. Apparently, this species generally lays only one or two eggs and often raises just a single nestling. The young looked fully grown and probably was close to leaving the nest. After fledging, it will stay with the parents for several more months as it learns to feed on its own. According to Birdlife International, the species is still relatively abundant and not of immediate conservation concern, but the Peregrine Fund warns that populations have been declining in recent decades. On the other hand, we’d seen a lot of individuals over the last week in the Pantanal, so maybe they are doing well here.

The boat drifted for several minutes as we chattered about what had just happened. Eventually, the boatman started the motor, and we cruised down this Pantanal river for another hour, photographing other riverine wonders. My mind, though, kept coming back to that flight, the grab, and the return.

Oh, To Be a Northern Shoveler

Northern Shovelers were actively feeding on Central Pond at Union Bay in Seattle, Washington.

Their heads were underwater; occasionally, their eyes came above the surface, but mostly they stayed down. Somehow, they were getting breaths, but I couldn’t see how. True, their nostrils are near the base of the bill, and maybe only an instant is needed. These ducks, two males and a female, were swimming fast. The body plumage said Northern Shoveler. The males had cinnamon-brown sides, white in front and behind the cinnamon patch. The heads appeared black, showing, though, as green when the light was right, and their backs dark. The female was streaked brown and light, like so many female ducks. But I hadn’t seen their bills, those large spatula-like projections. Ornithologists created the genus Spatula for these and their three close relatives in honor of that bill.

I’d come to the Union Bay Natural Area at UW’s Horticulture Center to look for them and see if I could watch them feed on this April morning. During spring in Seattle, shovelers are often on the Central and Carp ponds. Most would be paired by this time and traveling as a unit or in small feeding groups. Finally, one raised its head entirely out of the water and showed that humungous projection. I always think that bill should cause them to fall over, but its structure makes it surprisingly light, and I suspect they have strong neck muscles. 

A pair of Northern Shovelers swim in a tight circle while feeding.

They use their bill to filter out food. These birds suck water through the front of their beaks and push it out through the lamellae on the sides. They specialize in small nektonic invertebrates, which is the scientist’s way of saying swimming critters. Probably, Daphnia and many other minute things fill the water column in these shallow ponds. These shovelers swam in straight lines, occasionally doing turns, moving their heads up and down in jerky motions. A few weeks ago, pairs were swimming in tight circles. That behavior probably stirs the crustaceans and other invertebrates, seeds, and microscopic vegetation up from the bottom, making them better for filtering. We’d had strong winds in the last couple of days, and the water column was probably well mixed. 

A female Northern Shoveler opens her mouth wide to show the lamellae that allow her to filter out microscopic organisms from the water column.
The fine lamellae on the bill of this female Northern Shoveler allow her to filter out small crustaceans and other microscopic food items from the water column.
A group of Northern Shovelers swim in an oval. Each is stirring the bottom with their feet and the one following can filter any food items stirred up.
Northern Shovelers swim in a wide oval, following the one in front to catch the stirred-up water.

Once, a year ago, on Carp Pond, I watched some shovelers swim in an oval. The oval swimming, as well as the circling, are cooperative feeding techniques. It is an ingenious way of working together, everyone benefits. They can exploit the stirred-up food items by following, filtering out the good pieces. For example, we filter out noodles and vegetables from soup by pulling a spoon full along the side of the bowl and letting the liquid drain out. These ducks suck in a mouthful of soupy pond water and then use their tongue to push the water out through their built-in sieve. 

A male Northern Shoveler actively preens while a female takes an bath in the water beyond him. These are probably paired for the coming breeding season.

At the eastern end of Carp Pond, I found a shoveler pair actively preening. The female floated in the water, using her bill to pull through the body, wing, and tail feathers, occasionally taking a vigorous splashing bath. The male stood on a log, using his bill to work all its feathers. This log must be a favorite perch for ducks. A week ago, a female shoveler had her bill tucked under back feathers on one end, two Green-winged Teal were preening in the middle, and a drake shoveler was on other end. 

I find it amazing that the skin on these ducks is dry. Water doesn’t get to their skin even when swimming. The tight barbules on each feather vein act like Gore-Tex, and the weaves are so close that water droplets can’t get through. The layers of feathers and the coating they put on their feathers make the plumage waterproof. A drop of crude oil on the plumage negates all this and allows water to seep through the plumage, reaching the skin. Birds that encounter an oil spill will vigorously try to preen off the oil. The oil is toxic, but often they die of hypothermal because of the water that reaches their skin, chilling them. Just a dime-size dot of oil may spell their death.

A male Northern Shoveler actively preens while a female sleeps. Two Green-winged Teal also care for their feathers while resting on the log at Union Bay.

Birds spend a lot of time each day taking care of their feathers. Probably, these two were well fed and preparing for an afternoon nap, if not the night. Once they felt they had thoroughly cleaned and straightened their feathers, it would be time to sleep. We do something similar before bed each night.

A Magical Musical Bird: The Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

The whistle came from a thick grove of old growth western hemlocks and Douglas firs. It might have been a tenth of a second long and then was followed immediately by a 2 second upward spirally flourish. It seemed like a flute or maybe an oboe was up in the trees. I stopped dead in my tracks along the dirt road and pointed my parabolic microphone in that direction.

The dense forest where the Swainson’s Thrush Sang.

Three seconds later a much softer whistle opened the tune followed almost immediately by a louder longer one and then a beautiful spirally flourish. The flourish was also a set of over-slurred phrases, each close together and slightly higher than the previous, getting softer as they went. My eyes closed to listen to this Swainson’s Thrush, a one-ounce bird who only recently arrived from his wintering grounds in South America. They breed in the temperate rainforests of Western Washington, and this one was defending its territory and maybe still trying to find a mate.

I’d read that each male has 3 to 7 song types. They vary in their detail and successive songs will be different. I cupped one hand behind an ear to listen closely. The opening whistles seemed to vary in pitch, sometimes one note and sometimes two. The flourishes were so complex and fast that I couldn’t tell how they varied. Maybe the sonograms of my sound recording would help me understand his melody.

The first song of the Swainson’s Thrush on my recording.

The first tune in the sonogram opened with two notes and then the upward spiraling flourish. The second note was louder than the first (as shown by the brighter color on the sonogram) and then the first section of the flourish was loud before it became fainter and went really high in pitch. The opening over-slurred whistles seemed to peak around G6 on the note scale. The first second of the next part went from G6 to G7 to B7 in a series of up and down notes. Then the song became softer and went all the way up to B8 before trailing out for another second around F7. The highest pitches and faint parts I could not hear, but I’m sure the birds could.

The second song by this same Swainson’s Thrush.

The next tune was dramatically different from that first. It opened with a soft up-slurred note and then two over-slurred whistles that were slightly louder before moving into a quicker paced flourish that included a series of over-slurred, up-slurred, and down-slurred notes. The pitch of the entire tune never went as high as the first, only reaching about D8. The next several also appeared a little different from these first two and after six or seven tunes, the bird was clearly repeating itself. 

Above is a Five-Minute Recording of the Swainson’s Thrush singing. The Sonogram of the recording will play as a movie and allow you to see the changing notes. The scale runs from 0 Herts to 10,000 herts.

The songs of Swainson’s Thrushes make my tension float away. These magical musical birds provide a gift of music to our souls.

Swainson’s Thrush

A Breathtaking Baritone

Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation, Washington

Author Note: This trip was done in 2017. As of late April 2020, Washington is in a “Stay at Home” mode as we try to control the coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 disease. In early May, the state will open some protected areas for recreation while we continue to practice social distancing. If the Stillwater Wildlife Area opens, I hope to make it out early one morning to search for the “pump-er-lunk” bird. An earlier version of this essay appeared in WOSNews 173 in 2-18. I thank Dan Steiffert for letting me use some of his amazing photographs. https://www.flickr.com/photos/danstreiffert/

The trees were just beginning to show a little shape as I inched my way along the dike at Stillwater Wildlife Area. It was 5:00 AM on a Sunday morning in early May, and sunrise would not come for another hour, even longer before the sun hit this area at the western base of the Cascades. My flashlight was off so as to not disturb any wildlife. The songs of American Robins filled the air. Their “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up” melody proclaimed spring had arrived, and they were ready for another day, even though it looked like night. 

American Bittern – Photo by Dan Streiffert

A different sound made me stop, a gulping like someone was swallowing large mouthfuls of air. It came from the marsh across the small pond to my south. Five gulps were quickly followed by an eerie call: “pump-er-lunk,” then another “pump-er-lunk” and finally, a “dunk-a-doo.” A male American Bittern was trying to woo a female. 

I’d come to record this exact sound, so I settled onto the ground to put my stereo microphone rig on a tripod and see if I could hold still for the next hour. I slid off the gravel-topped dike to station my mic with its back to the bank, partially blocking sounds from behind me. The water was ten feet below, and a few bushes and cottonwoods lined the pond’s edge. Open water extended fifty yards to a thick marsh. The bittern was probably sitting at the water’s edge, hoping a female would like his display. 

Sonogram of the morning chorus at Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation Washington. The American Bittern has a deeper call than most birds. They hide in the marsh where this deep call will travel farther through the thick vegetation.

A second male began gulping; he was roughly a hundred yards east of my seat. The closer one instantly responded with his answer. Last week, I was here with a group of birders. The sun had risen as we searched along this old railroad bed, now a hiking trail. One person discovered a male bittern, probably this same one, lurking in the reeds and focused her spotting scope on him. We watched the male contort its neck as it lunged forward to gulp in air, expanding its esophagus like a balloon, and then used that air to make this resonant “pump-er-lunk” sound. 

In five decades of birding, I had never heard their call until last week. They don’t breed in Florida where I lived for more than two decades and were not common breeders near my Maryland home either. The sound last week took me by surprise; I watched the male for a long time while the birding party walked farther down the dike. Every few minutes, the bittern would begin again to blow up his esophagus and bellow out this resonating sound. This behavior and sound were so astonishing that I felt the need to return to see if I could record this spectacular call.

Their courtship boomings have a ventriloquistic nature, and rural people have given them some exciting names; “stake-driver,” “thunder-pumper.”  These are low-frequency sounds that will travel much farther through thick vegetation than the high pitch songs of most birds. Ornithologists think that these calls function both to attract females and tell rival males that this marsh was taken.

American Bittern (adult) Photo by Dan Streiffert

American Bitterns are members of the heron family. Their streaky brown and buff plumage allows them to disappear into the reeds, blending perfectly with the vertical shoots. They often freeze in a pose with their bills pointed skyward, neck stretched, so the streaks in their plumage will run parallel with the reeds. If they see people, they usually sulk back into the marsh.

But on that day, I was alone along this dike; no other person was out this early. I was hunched low; I had headset over my ears; my stereo mic pointed right toward the marsh where the bird just called. My eyes were closed so I could concentrate on absorbing the morning chorus of birds. It was still 45 minutes until sunrise. In addition to the robins, the Red-winged Blackbirds had started their “conk-la-ree” song, and I could imagine them drooping their wings while leaning forward and puffing out their bright red shoulder patches as they bellowed. They reminded me of my high school years when the football jocks would strut down the aisle, not moving aside for anyone, puffing out their shoulders when passing a pretty girl. The six-phrase melody of a Song Sparrow came from right above me. He was probably sitting at the end of a branch, looking across the marsh, and raising his head, puffing out his chest when he sang his beautiful song. Individual male song sparrows have about nine different melodies, and they mix them up in their morning repertoire. He hopes this diversity will impress a mate. 

Juvenile American Bittern (left) being fed by Adult (right) Photo by Dan Streiffert

These birds would be an excellent background to the bittern, creating a musical filler between this heron’s calls in my recording. He’s my quest today. To think a bird could be such a breathtaking baritone. Each time the sound came across the marsh, I was amazed by how these notes were made and wanted to show others this unique love song. Another bittern called to my left, and a third at the limit of my hearing on the right. A long pause happened between their trumpets and then once one started to gulp in air, the others followed. I tried not to move or say anything in spite of my excitement. My recorder picked up every nuance of the morning.

Dawn at the Old Mexican Elm

Drifting fog at Dawn, Mount Totumas, Panama.
The fog drifted past the Old Mexican Elm Tree. Dawn was just starting at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama

The drifting fog produced a ghostly look in the canopy, and dripping water filled the forest with a tingling sound. Dawn was just starting at Mount Totumas. Bromeliads, ferns, and mosses draped over branches, and dense bushes covered the understory. I stood mesmerized, my hand stuck in my pockets, eyes unfocused, but ears at their peak. Bird songs were everywhere in this Panamanian jungle.

The forest was waking. This was early April, and the valley was in transition from the dry season to the wet. Rains over the previous few days had sparked the community; spring was here. A Flame-colored Tanager serenaded me from the treetops. His raspy voice sounded like he had a sore throat. Up the hill, a Black-faced Solitaire began his melodious song. The oboe, clarinet & flute-like notes were sweet, delicate, and made me think a woodwind quartet was nearby. He was using both syrinxes to produce that complex tune. Right then, I cupped my hands around my ears so I could hear him more clearly. Perhaps, the solitaire sat a dozen feet up in a tree, bending his head back slightly as he projected that melody. 

Flame-colored Tanager, Mount Totumas, Panama
A male Flame-colored Tanager works through the branches at Mount Totumas, Panama. They sing loudly at dawn and often throughout the day.

I’d left the lodge 45 minutes earlier to hike into the forest, through the dark jungle, walking slowly but deliberately, picking my way, flashlight on dim and partly covered. This little rise, near the Old Mexican Elm, was a perfect place to stand, just listening. Here moderately mature second-growth forest surrounded three-quarters of the compass, and younger trees grew in the other quadrant. The birds should be diverse.

Right then, the wavy notes of a Slate-throated Redstart, high in pitch and rapid, came from just into the forest. I moseyed over to look for this bird. It should have a blackish head and back, and its belly yellowish; it would be a small bird, probably flitting through the understory. Falling water droplets kept twitching leaves, and I could not spot this warbler. 

Resplendent Quetzal, Mount Totumas, Panama
The long tail of a Resplendent Quetzal blows in the wind at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama

The monotonous notes of a Resplendent Quetzal resonated from farther into the dense vegetation. This altitudinal migrant would have just come back to this side of the mountain. During the dry season, this species spends its time in the lowlands of the Caribbean, returning here to the Pacific slope just before the rainy season. Now they would be pairing and finding a nest cavity. Probably, he was using that call to defend a territory and court a female. The flush of fruit that comes with the rains will be the source of food for their nestlings. They particularly like the relatives of avocados because of their high nutrient content.

Howler Monkey, Mount Totumas, Panama
A mother Howler Monkey lets out a bellow early one morning at Mount Totumas, Panama. Howler Monkeys wake at dawn and usually sing for the first few minutes before they go off to feed on leaves.

A bellowing wail came from my left. A Howler Monkey was complaining that it needed more sleep. Every morning when the alarm went off, my wife used to say, “Just five more minutes.” I’d then have to wake her. The troop went quiet for a little while before they began to sing their morning wake-up call. The locals have a saying, “The monkeys call the rain.” Perhaps, the Pacific would win out on that day, and more rain would fall.

I began to stroll up the trail, my hands back in my pockets. The monkeys continued to bellow, the tanager projected his raspy voice, and the Quetzal tooted. Several birds that I didn’t recognize chimed into the chorus. A chatter possibly made by a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper and some high-pitched buzzes rose in front of me, so much to figure out.

Then, finally, almost 18 minutes after the chorus started, a Three-wattled Bellbird let out its first squawk, much louder than it needed to be.

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper. Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama.

The Undertaker Bird

A muster of Marabou Storks congregated in the outflow from a small pond in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A muster of Marabou Storks congregated in the outflow from a small pond in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Three park rangers stood at the Y in the road, and our Landcruiser coasted to a stop. Our guide, Robinson, began talking with them in Swahili. The words were musical, crisp, and delightful to hear. I understood nothing. He handed them some papers, and I worried that something might be wrong. The one ranger stepped backward as she scrutinized the documents. Meanwhile, Robinson continued chatting with the other two, everyone’s hands waving in the noontime light. Robinson hesitated, turning to look over his shoulder and asked, “Do you want to see Marabou Storks?”

“Yes,” I blurted out without thinking. These are big birds, standing close to five feet tall and uglier than anything one could imagine. They are a bird of the savanna in East Africa, often visiting carcasses of large mammals where they feed with the vultures. I’d seen them in zoos but never up close in the wild.

Our guide went back to chatting with the rangers, and when they handed his documents back, we turned south to head deeper into Nairobi National Park. It was just a road check to make sure we paid our entrance fees. I stood in the back, my head out the roof, looking for any signs of these large birds. I’d spent a decade working on wading birds in the Everglades and had an affinity to these long-legged, long-necked creatures.

The adult Marabou Stork stood in the shallows, resting. He looked like a finely dressed gentleman out for the evening. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The adult Marabou Stork stood in the shallows, resting. He looked like a finely dressed gentleman out for the evening. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Twenty minutes later, we bumped around a corner to look onto a large pond. Two Egyptian Geese waddled along the bank, and a Spur-winged Lapwing flew out with a squawk. To the right, though, below the dam, were the storks, at least 50 of them. Many were wading in the swift-flowing water while others stood ankle-deep or in the grass along the edge. The ones feeding moved their bills laterally in the water, holding the tip open a few inches. They were searching for food, hoping that something would touch that bill, and they could gulp it down. Robinson drifted to a stop where I could gaze right down on these magnificent creatures, adults and flying young.

African lore says that this species was created from scraps of other birds, making something more Frankenstein looking than pleasant. Their habit of eating carrion resulted in them being known as the “Undertaker Bird,” and they are often part of the death folklore.

An adult male stork stood with his head hunched down on his shoulders. I smiled; he looked like a gentleman, all dressed up in his most elegant attire. A gray suit coat covered his shoulders, and it had white trim along its front and tails. The coat overlay a white shirt and a puffy pink tie hung from his neck. Long gray trousers ran down his pencil-thick legs. His balding head had the pink cast of too much time in the sun, and his long yellowish snout finished off that resemblance. This gentleman, in all his ugliness, gazed up at me as if I was some peon. I liked him, a grand specimen. 

The young Marabou Stork had a shorter bill than adults and lots of white down feathers on its head. Nariobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The young Marabou Stork had a shorter bill than adults and lots of white down feathers on its head. Nariobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Several looked like they must be young of the year. Although as tall as the others, their bills were noticeable shorter, and they had white down all over their heads and necks. White also edged all the covert feathers on their wings, giving them a distinguished look. These individuals showed no indication of the pink wattle. During courtship, adult males can puff up that structure. A tube connects the wattle’s pouch to their left nostril, and when full, the pouch resonates the guttural croaks he makes, noises that strengthen his bond with a female. My wife never liked it when I sang.

The Marabou Stork moved its bill sideways so quickly that if formed a wave in front of it. It was feeding in the shallow waters. If the bill touches something, it will snap shut. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork moved its bill sideways so quickly that if formed a wave in front of it. It was feeding in the shallow waters. If the bill touches something, it will snap shut. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A stork started to walk right toward me. His bill was several inches in the water, and he moved it so fast to the side that a wave formed in front and a whirlpool behind. In the water, they are tactile feeders, not using their eyes. When the bill touches a fish or invertebrate, it snaps shut, and hopefully, they have caught a morsel. Several large fish were swimming among all the feet, and that innate behavior is probably why these storks didn’t go after them directly. It may be that those fish were what drew this crowd here, and many birds had already eaten their fill. It might also be that those fish were here for something smaller, and the storks were after that too. After five minutes of watching the feeding, I hadn’t seen a stork catch a thing.

A large fish swam in the shallows of a small creek where a flock of Marabou Storks were feeding. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

A large fish swam in the shallows of a small creek where a flock of Marabou Storks was feeding. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

A squabble grabbed my attention. Down the creek, three storks had their wings out, bills raised and pointed at each other. Maybe one walked too close to another. These are social birds, though, nesting in large colonies, and often found together at feeding sites. Right then, individuals stood lazily all around, probably digesting a good meal. It reminded me of dinner parties, where everyone lingers at the table after a superb meal, conversations lively, friendships strong. Some storks started to preen their feathers, using that long bill to work the vanes and make sure the barbules were aligned correctly. Those mighty wings were flexed in the process.

Their wingspan is over 9 feet, and their flying would rival — surpass actually — any glider pilot. A slight updraft is all they need to rise effortlessly into the heavens, not having to beat those wings. I followed Wood Storks and Great Egrets leaving a nesting colony in the Everglades to see where they went to feed. Our pilot would circle 700 feet above the colony and when a bird caught a thermal, I’d yell to the him to start climbing as fast as he could. He’d crank up the engine on our Cessna, but the birds sometimes past us on a good thermal. We’d lose them. 

The Marabou Stork began to preen its feathers, using its bill to carefully check the allignment of the barbules and make sure the feathers were in perfect condition. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork began to preen its feathers, using its bill to carefully check the allignment of the barbules and make sure the feathers were in perfect condition. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Some people mistake these storks for vultures when seen high overhead because of how effortlessly they soar. Their silhouette — the long legs and big heads – helps separate them from the vultures.

My stomach growled right then. It was almost noon, and Robinson had picked us up at 5:30 AM. It would take an hour or more to drive out of here, mainly because something else would likely grab our attention. I’d hoped these birds might fly, and I could see the power of those massive wings, and then maybe one would grab a thermal, vanishing as a speck into the blue.

“Thanks, Robinson, this was great,” I said, “I hadn’t expected so many at such close range.” He nodded and started the motor. We turned to retrace our path. 

I watched the muster for as long as it remained in sight, but no bird made any effort to fly. The Undertaker was content.

The Marabou Stork stood at attention, his right eye glued right on me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork stood at attention, his right eye glued right on me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Making a Connection

A bullet shot across the road in Nairobi National Park, hesitated, and then dropped onto a flower. A Scarlet-chested Sunbird had appeared. (Thomas Bancroft)

Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A dark bullet-like object shot across the road, it hesitated, and then dropped into the wildflowers. On the other side of some acacias, Yellow-necked Francolins were giving their “ko-waarrk” calls; loud, raucous, chicken-like. The songs of longclaws drifted from some grasslands in the distance, and a light wind rustled the acacia leaves. The clouds had filtered the sunlight, and I felt magic in this landscape, mesmerized by the beauty, sounds, and sweet smells. This was the Africa of Beryl Markham and Karen Blixen, and I was stunned to be in this land. A place where lions dozed, impalas browsed, and hartebeests ambled by. 

The bullet transformed into a bird of only 6 inches and a gorgeous one at that. It hung from a vertical stem, rigid; one eye fixed on me. A large vermilion chest seemed to puff out. A metallic emerald-green forehead added additional color to an otherwise black object. The bill, though, was longer than its head and down curved in an even arch. Dropping its gaze, it hopped up the stem and began to probe the flower buds. A male Scarlet-chested Sunbird was less than two-dozen feet away, my first.

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird worked up the stem and began to prob among the flower cluster. Nairobi Natonal Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird worked up the stem and began to prob among the flower cluster. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

My binoculars were fixed on it. This sunbird fed much like a hummingbird in the Western Hemisphere or a honeyeater in Australia. The long bill explored between buds and darted around the inflorescence. Probably, nectar and insects were his goals. Sunbirds are distantly related to Australian honeyeaters, and other than being in the class Aves, not particularly related to hummingbirds. Their similar shapes and behaviors are a result of convergent evolution brought on by selection to feed on similar food sources, flower nectar.

One of my goals for this trip was to see examples of this convergence, many were topics of graduate school discussions, and they still needed my pondering. The sunbird flew to another stem, landing right below a cluster of red-tubed flowers. These birds are bigger than most of the hummingbirds I’d seen and don’t hover as often. Their shape, though, is remarkably similar as are color patterns.

If the flower tube is too long, sunbirds will pierce it near the base, sucking out the nectar. If so, then the plant doesn’t get the benefit of pollination assistance. Many plants have coevolved with sunbirds, hummingbirds, and honeyeaters, so they provide nectar to these birds, and the birds unknowingly carry pollen between flowers, helping provide cross-fertilization — another ecological process to brood.

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird flitted to a new flower stem and hung just below the flower cluster looking back at me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird flitted to a new flower stem and hung just below the flower cluster looking back at me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

This bird didn’t seem to be focused on nectar right now but rather probing between the flowers, probably trying for insects or spiders. His behavior made me think about the female, and I started to scan the surrounding vegetation for her. She’d be a dark brown color. This species often travels in pairs, and she was nowhere to be seen. Might she have a nest right then, in December, here in Nairobi National Park? Maybe, he was gathering protein to feed her or her newly hatched young. The nest might have been nearby, in a bush or back across the road from where he came, and I turned to look in that direction.

Scrub habitat with lots of grass extended for a long way. With the good “short rains” in the previous few months, blossoms were opening. In their memoirs of living in Kenya, Karen Blixen and Kuki Gallmann talked about their gardens, and the flowers they grew. Might they had looked for these birds and named them. Giving them a name makes them real, shows a level of respect. I turned back, wanting to see this bird that I’d only just identified, but it had flown. The image, though, remained in my brain.

An incredible warmth filled my body right then. In Africa, I’d just seen the first member of the family. I’d seen a different sunbird species in Australia a few years ago, but there was something about seeing one in Africa, more the center of this family’s distribution and abundance. I’d read about sunbirds for years, studied their pictures, attempted to learn the dozen or so species that might be on this trip. Seeing this first one, created a unique sensation that I hadn’t expected, a connection that will last.

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird hunched down on the stem to look through the flower patch, possibly preparing to check out another cluster. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird hunched down on the stem to look through the flower patch, possibly preparing to check out another cluster. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

 

More Photographs from Nairobi National  Park, Kenya