February 24, 2012

The Cryptic Potoo Bird

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Long-tailed Potoo (Credit: Jeff Cremer)
Not all nights in the Amazon are pitch black. When the full moon takes to the sky, it can even become light enough to see shadows inside the rainforest. On nights such as these, you barely need a flashlight in the clearings or along the shore of the river. Certain birds also call more often during the full moon.

Spectacled and Tawny-bellied Screech Owls can be heard as they call near the lodges. Spix’s Guan, a large arboreal turkey-like bird, frequently calls on nights such as these. Some of the strangest sounds, though, are made by the potoos. Bizarre, nocturnal birds that are rarely seen during the day, they reveal their presence with eerie vocalizations that carry for long distances. The Common Potoo (Nyctibius griseus) gives a mournful series of whistled notes that go down in scale. The huge Great Potoo (Nyctibius grandis) utters loud squawks and a deep guttural sound that has frightened many a guest and given rise to folktales throughout its range. Deep inside the forest, the strange call of the Long-tailed Potoo (Nyctibius aethereus) is also occasionally heard.

Here are some facts about these strange fascinating Amazonian creatures:
  • Potoos have highly cryptic plumage: Potoos are only active at night and thus sleep during the day. Like most other nocturnal birds, they also have plumage that acts as camouflage and gives them the appearance of a piece of tree bark or broken off stump.
  • Wide, large mouths: Although potoos have small beaks, their mouths are huge. They have such wide, large mouths to aid them in catching moths, beetles, and other insects during the night.
  • The Common Potoo cries for the moon: According to legend, the call of the Common Potoo is the mournful lament of a spirit in love with but separated from the spirit of the moon.
  • No nest: Potoos do lay a single egg but place it in the nook of a branch or broken off stem instead of building an actual nest made of sticks.
How to see potoo species when visiting Tambopata on an Amazon adventure tour:
  • Ask guides about sites for potoos: The guides who work for Rainforest Expeditions make efforts to keep up on recent sightings of monkeys, eagles, frogs and other interesting animals such as potoos. If the roosting site of a potoo is known, they will be happy to show you one of these strange birds.
  • Watch for them on moonlit nights: Since potoos tend to call more on clear, moonlit nights, they are also easier to locate at such times. Listen for their calls and see if you can go on a night walk with a guide to track them down. Great Potoos often call from and perch on snags that stick up above the forest canopy.
  • Look for odd lumps on branches: Although it is very difficult to find potoos during the day, “lumps” on branches and the tips of dead snags occasionally turn out to be roosting potoos after carefully checking them with binoculars.

    Hear potoos call during the Amazonian night and look for them during the day on a tour to the Peruvian jungle with Rainforest Expeditions.

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