Nothing illustrates my passion for birding more than the following. 9:00 a.m. Thursday, 24th February, 2011. Dreamlight Computer Center. I get a text from Wilfred Mutrie: “Mystery bird at Machaca Hill. Need your help. Come up this afternoon.”
I called Wilfred. He wouldn’t give me any details, just “Be here at three.” Why wait until three, I thought? Why not now? What if the bird flies away? I puzzled over this most of the day but dutifully waited until three before arriving at the lodge. The receptionist informed me that Wilfred was down at the dock waiting for me. Half way down the 340 steps to the dock I was met by a gentlemen sporting white hair and a robust white mustache. I had seen that mustache before. But where?
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” the gentleman said as we greeted each other. “I’m John Fitzpatrick.”
Then I remembered. Dr. Fitzpatrick was director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and one of the world’s preeminent ornithologists. I subscribed to the Lab’s biannual publication The Living Bird, and his mug was right there, every issue, on the editor’s page. John and his wife Molly were staying at Machaca Hill while exploring the possibility of including southern Belize in one of the Lab’s tour packages.
“Come on,” Wilfred hollered from the dock. “We have to leave.” At the dock, Wilfred told me that they had seen a bird that morning a short ways up the river that they believed was a Great Potoo. Potoos are a group of birds that look like a cross between a pauraque (locally known as Hoo-You) and an owl. They fly about at night catching insects on the wing, and spend the daylight hours perched motionless on the end of a nearly vertical broken-off branch relying on their cryptic coloration to blend in, looking every bit like an extension of the branch. The expected species in Belize is the Northern Potoo, small cousin of the Great Potoo. If Wilfred and his guests that morning had really seen a Great Potoo, it would be a new bird for me and only the third for the country. Now I understood why Wilfred had been in no hurry to show me the mystery bird—it was not going anywhere before sundown. Photo: The Great Potoo somewhere at Belize’s Rio Grande, Toledo District, Belize.
About a mile up the river we drifted to a halt. “Over there,” Wilfred said, pointing to a distant tree. After about five minutes of Wilfred explaining to us where the bird was, John and I finally made out a distant bump on the end of a short branch that looked more or less like a bird. Only a speck to the unaided eye, through a telescope we could make out a few of its features: owl-like aspect, gray plumage mottled with black streaks and blotches, perfect camouflage for the limb it was perched on. While scanning the trees with binoculars that morning, one of the guests at the lodge had found the bird, an incredible feat considering that it was several hundred meters away and blended in perfectly with the branches of the tree. After many minutes staring through Wilfred’s scope, they had determined that it was a potoo, but it looked too large to be a Northern. That’s when Wilfred had decided to text me.
After studying the distant bird for a few minutes through the scope, I was still not convinced. Why not a Northern Potoo? John Fitzpatrick also studied the bird, carefully weighing each feature. He had just come from Pico Bonita Lodge in Honduras where he had seen several Great Potoos. “I don’t know. It kind of looks like a Great to me.” We compared the pictures of the two potoos in my book Birds of Belize. “The picture in your book sucks,” he said, only half in jest. We looked at the lump on the branch some more. After about a half hour, I said, “I have to agree with you. It may be a Great Potoo after all.” To my surprise John countered, “I don’t know. The pattern in the wings doesn’t look right. It could be a Northern.” We left the bird eager to learn more. That night, John googled “Great Potoo” and found several dozen photos posted on the internet. I pored through my reference library at home. I compared illustrations and photographs from other sources with the one in my book. Indeed, the picture in my book did suck! My only excuse: I had never seen the bird before, so how was I to know what it looked like?
Identifying The Great Potoo
The next morning John and I compared notes. Both of us had concluded that it was probably a Great, but neither of us was willing to declare it a Great. “Someone needs to go there before dawn and listen for it to call,” John said. He was right. While the two species look very similar, their calls are quite different. I looked at John. John looked at me. We both looked at Wilfred. “Tomorrow morning, 4 a.m.,” Wilfred said. John and I both grimaced. Looks like the “someone” John had referred to was going to be the three of us.
4:50 a.m., Saturday, 26th February. Somewhere on the Rio Grande. John, Wilfred, yours truly, and three cold cups of joe were parked at the spot where we had seen the bird two afternoons before. Silence. Long, insufferable silence. Nothing. Nada. Zip
Why had we been foolish enough to think that the bird would have hung around for two days and had the disposition to call? We had been there nearly a half hour with, at best, maybe a half dozen pauraques to our credit. But no potoo.
“Over there!” John whispered. “Did you hear that?” Wilfred and I both nodded. “That sounded just like the birds I heard in Honduras last week. Great Potoo!” he declared. It did sound like the recording I had heard over and over on xeno-canto, the website dedicated to audiotracks of bird sounds from all over the world. But it was way off in the distance and barely audible. We heard a second bird on the opposite side of the river, but it was even farther away. Each bird had called only once.
After several more minutes of silence, we went farther up the river. This time we hit the jackpot. Almost immediately a bird called from a nearby tree. Then a second bird. “Grrraaawwww” they said to each other in a language that could only be appreciated by a Great Potoo — and three exuberant birders!
Footnote: After several more trips up the river in the following week, Wilfred and his assistant found several more Great Potoos, including two at a potential nest site in a hollowed out branch not far from where we had first seen the bird.
H. Lee Jones is based in Punta Gorda and is the author of the very popular ‘Birds of Belize Book’ .
This article was originally published in The Toledo Howler in March 2011 and is reprinted here with permission.