Bird Buzz: Rufous Potoo!

Nightbirding leads us to some of the most interesting and poorly known birds we encounter on tour. Guide Bret Whitney‘s photos, video, and text below introduce us to one of the most seldom seen, the fabulous Rufous Potoo of Amazonia. The text and photos are great, but be sure also not to miss the 1-minute video at the bottom of this page.

Of the seven currently recognized species of potoos –- all in the genus Nyctibius (Greek for “night-feeding”) –- the Rufous Potoo is certainly the most distinctive… and the most mysterious.  Up until the late 1980s, very few ornithologists had seen one alive, and its voice remained unknown; to this day only a small cadre of researchers and birders has thrown the beam of a spotlight on one.  In that moment of epiphany, each and every one of them, without doubt, has marveled at the intricacy of the pearl-spotting on “gold-leaf” (hence the Latin epithet bracteatus) plumage that so sets the Rufous apart from its brethren. It is by far the smallest potoo, too, and it possesses the strangest dark apron at the bottom edge of its pupil, as if a black keyhole were set into the brilliant yellow orb of its iris.

The Rufous Potoo has evolved some remarkable life traits and survival strategies.  The “nest,” for example, is the exposed top of a vertical, broken stub a few inches in diameter in the understory of terra firme (never flooded) forest.  The single white egg is laid, necessarily, with unerring aim.  To escape the eyes of predators, adults rely on the camouflage of their plumage augmented, if even slightly threatened, by a slow, steady rocking motion that transforms the speckled, rufous lump of a bird into a dead leaf with holes in it stirred by the breeze!  (Watch the 1-minute video below to see this.)

The chick is an absolutely adorable creature that resembles a bird only vaguely.  Covered in cute little rufous-and-black curls and pinfeathers with a fierce stare and outsized feet to secure it atop its stub, it hopes, best-case, to be passed off as a tuft of rotting vegetation.  For those fearful moments, however, the Rufous Potoo chick reserves a threat display as shocking as any I have experienced in the world of birds.  If you get too close (as I did only once!), the tiny beast suddenly lunges forward with its mouth hugely open to flash a startling pink gape; it truly made me gasp and shiver, so unanticipated was it. Here’s a collage of three images of a chick:

Indeed, the Rufous Potoo is the oddest member of the bizarre and ancient potoo lineage, and recent studies including molecular analysis indicate that it deserves a separate, monotypic genus.  If you haven’t yet had the great luck to see a Rufous Potoo, you have a wonderful treat in store for you one day…or more likely, one starry, moonlit Amazonian night.

Check out the video below of an adult Rufous Potoo, especially the gentle rocking motion mentioned above (very cool!) and the amazing eye. For best resolution after you’ve started the video playing, click on the “360” button at the lower right to choose the higher-resolution “480” setting.

Meet Marcelo Padua!

Folks, we have a wonderful new guide we’d like you to meet. His name is Marcelo Padua and he’s from Belem — that big Brazilian city at the mouth of the Amazon River. Marcelo has been leading his own birding tours in Brazil for a few years now and has gained a remarkable knowledge of not only the amazing bird life of Brazil, but also of what it takes to be a superb tour guide.

Marcelo Padua

I’ve known Marcelo since 2005, and last year he informally co-led parts of tours with me at Alta Floresta, Manaus, and Carajas. We had a great time on each of those trips and participants have had overwhelming praise for him. Marcelo loves guiding tours and it shows! Marcelo will join me for most of the Brazil tours I’ll lead in 2010 and 2011 (we just completed a great Northeast Brazil together; see the tour’s Birding Wrap-up); so you lucky folks already signed up for those trips are going to have two guides for the price of one! That’s “Beleza!” with two big thumbs up! Indeed, many of our Brazil tours fill quite early, often going to waitlists, and we don’t have enough staff to handle the flow. Marcelo will soon be guiding Field Guides tours on his own, and you’ll have even greater opportunity to see beautiful Brazil and all of its rare birds.

Marcelo is already first rate around his home in Cuiaba, both in the Pantanal and cerrados and also the complex rainforests of Alta Floresta, and he’s learning fast how to consistently show people the rarest endemics of the Atlantic Forest of eastern Brazil and the treasures of the northern and central Amazon. For the talented birder, the birds come with practice and patience. What doesn’t always come naturally are the people and logistical skills that make for an outstanding tour guide, but Marcelo comes with the complete skill set, everything you expect of one of our Field Guides guides. He went to high school in Middletown, Pennsylvania, speaks English fluently, and even taught English in Brazil for a couple of years.

We encourage you to come birding in Brazil and to meet Marcelo on his home turf, either with the two of us as guides or on one of his new tours starting in 2011. A sneak-peek into Marcelo’s future (details will be up on our website soon): a new, 12-day tour to the Pantanal and neighboring areas of Mato Grosso to maximize chances of spotting a Jaguar and the ultra-rare Cone-billed Tanager (on the books as Conothraupis mesoleuca). The tour will be scheduled for July/August of 2011 and the itinerary will be available in spring 2010. Check out Marcelo’s complete upcoming schedule of tours on his guide page.

Oh yes, and when you’re down there, ask Marcelo to tell you the full story of how he suddenly became a birder…and watch out when you see displaying manakins of any kind — he’s got a weakness (or is it a strength?) there!

Bret’s Brazil Book

I have now birded or relaxed in, and have led Field Guides tours through, most of the enormous Republic of Brazil, and there remain just a handful of Brazil’s nearly 1900 species of birds I haven’t yet met in the field (aarrrgh, I missed the only Kinglet Calyptura in a hundred years by just a couple of days in October, 1996—my friend and Brazilian colleague Fernando Pacheco was the second of five amigos to see it!).

Bret (l.) and Fernando just before they got their lifer Stresemann’s Bristlefront (an ultrarare, endemic tapaculo-thing) in Minas Gerais, Oct. 2005 (you should have been there just after!).
Bret (l.) and Fernando just before they got their lifer Stresemann’s Bristlefront (an ultrarare, endemic tapaculo-thing) in Minas Gerais, Oct. 2005 (you should have been there just after!). (Photo by Paulo Sergio Fonseca)

In the process of getting around to find and learn about all of those species, even describing some new to science, Fernando and I decided that what Brazil needed was a good guide to field identification of its birds. And as I have continued to spend half of every year in Brazil over the past decade, it has become increasingly apparent that the very best thing that I personally could give back to Brazil, with all its wealth of ecosystems and challenges to protect them, would be to produce an authoritative, beautifully illustrated, yet very inexpensive bilingual series of regional field guides to the country’s birds.

Our project, to be published by Lynx Edicions (publishers of the Handbook of the Birds of the World series), and those of colleagues working with Princeton University Press, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and others producing field guides for Brazil are together soon going to result in a huge surge forward in the interest and fervor that an already growing number of Brazilians feel for enjoying and protecting their birds and other wildlife. Our first volume will focus on the Atlantic Forest biome of southeast and southern Brazil, where the majority of Brazilians live, where an unequaled number of endemic species have evolved, and where conservation problems are severe. I am 100% confident and optimistic that the conservation tide can and will be turned to an increasingly positive direction largely through the accessibility of birds to the Brazilian people.

Peter Burke, surrounded at far right by some of his fabulous work for the project, is, in addition to everything else in his life, one of the main artists for the Brazil field guides. He’s currently hard at work finishing the 12 raptor plates for Volume 1, all to be auctioned off to help with funding for subsequent volumes (stay tuned!).
Peter Burke, shown with some of his fabulous work for the project, is, in addition to everything else in his life, one of the main artists for the Brazil field guides. He’s currently hard at work finishing the 12 raptor plates for Volume 1, all to be auctioned off to help with funding for subsequent volumes (stay tuned!).

My co-authors are my excellent friends Luís Fábio Silveira of the University of São Paulo and, of course, Fernando, both of them incredibly knowledgeable Brazilian ornithologists and committed conservationists. As we head into the final two years of work to publish this first volume (three others will follow at much shorter intervals!), we invite all of you to contribute to our IRS-accredited, tax-deductible account at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Through low-key, unpracticed fund-raising and online investing of personal resources, I’ve gathered enough to pay artists, mapmakers, and sound-digitizers for these 10-plus years. I am deeply appreciative of all of you out there who have already contributed (and to timely picks with APPL, JBLU, and especially EWZ)!

Lynx has generously provided to me as much of their excellent HBW art as I can use, and they’re tremendously supportive of helping to produce an inexpensive Brazilian edition of the books for which none of us will receive royalties, commissions, reimbursements, or other monies—it’s truly a labor of love, and truly a conservation-enabling gift to Brazil.

Please help us make great things happen with your kind contribution to an everlasting celebration of Brazilian birds!

Contributions may be sent to:
Kristen Kepics
Science Administration
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
215.299.1065 (phone)
215.299.1079 (fax)
kepics at (email — change ” at ” to the @ symbol to complete the address…we’ve omitted it here to avoid spam)

Checks should be made payable to “The Academy of Natural Sciences,” with “Whitney Birds of Brazil Book Project” on the memo line or in an attached note.

NE Brazil: Last-chance Pickup, Part I

If you’ve traveled with us before, I’m sure you’ve heard tall tales and humorous anecdotes from your guides. Over nearly 25 years of Field Guiding, we’ve accumulated quite a few! Every year at our late-August business meeting, with as many of us as possible gathered together from the field and our Austin office, our Field Guides step forward to add new ones to the archives. But we don’t forget the past…

A pair of fabulous Lear’s Macaws on their favored food source, the licuri palm

If you’ve traveled with us before, I’m sure you’ve heard tall tales and humorous anecdotes from your guides. Over nearly 25 years of Field Guiding, we’ve accumulated quite a few! Every year at our late-August business meeting, with as many of us as possible gathered together from the field and our Austin office, our Field Guides step forward to add new ones to the archives. But we don’t forget the past — often there’s a call for an encore telling of an especially memorable or funny tale that we treasure and can relate to from our collective experiences in the field. Here’s one by Bret, from way back, with a little history, a few rocks, some bum tires, a little booze, a little good luck, and a whole lotta bird. Bret’s updated a few key bits with recent info, but even with the passing of ten years and more the story’s still current for birding adventures in places far off the beaten path. Enjoy!
—Jan Pierson

It was the Ides of March 1996. I was leading a small group of birders through the hinterland of northeastern Brazil on our fourth Field Guides tour to that fascinating region. Having spent much of the previous ten years in Brazil, and living in Rio at the time, my pork-n-cheese, I mean Portuguese, was getting pretty good. I would need it that memorable day, the day we set out for Lear’s Macaw in the arid outback of the vast state of Bahia.

You see, the Lear’s (or Indigo) Macaw is a mighty rare bird. For most of ornithological history it was known from only a few specimens that had come to light through the cage-bird trade. Then, in late 1978, a few months after I graduated from Earlham College, Helmut Sick (the German “father of Brazilian ornithology”) and two students set off from Rio de Janeiro to traverse the northeast in hopes of discovering the secluded stronghold of Lear’s Macaw. At the time, this ranked among the top ornithological mysteries yet to be unlocked, and the team had to start from near “zero.” But luck and a healthy dose of perseverance were with them. At dusk on 31 December 1978, they became the first ornithologists to encounter these magnificent macaws in nature. In the following days, they discovered the breeding area in the remote Raso da Catarina of interior Bahia where the birds nested on high cliffs in rugged canyon country. What an incredible thrill it all must have been! Imagine a spectacular bird like this being discovered alive in the wild as recently as 1978!

Today, there are probably fewer than 500 individual Lear’s Macaws surviving in this same core area of north-central Bahia. The birds receive reasonably effective protection (at least in the main breeding area), but their natural reproductive level is low and their numbers are easily decimated by hardships of the environment exacerbated by ongoing attempts to capture and smuggle out young and adults for sale on the black market. Finding Lear’s Macaws in the wild, hearing their strange voices and admiring their beautiful indigo plumage set off by striking yellow patches on the cheeks, orbital skin, and tip of the tongue, is one of the great quests we expect to realize on every Northeastern Brazil tour we offer. And we have been successful all 17 years now, but that 1996 trip was a close call…

We departed that day pre-dawn from Petrolina, Pernambuco, a busy town of some 250,000 on the great Rio São Francisco. I had a small group that year, only seven participants, and our vehicle was a “12-passenger” van. That translates to room for 8 adult gringos and their usual massive amount of luggage — and nothing else. Consider that a couple of the boys in the backfield were pretty big fellas, Jim Plyler and David Galinat, with skyscraping Jane Brooks cheerleading all the way, and you get the picture: we were loaded to the max! Tom Raque, John and Barbara Ribble, and Polly Rothstein rounded out the group. We were in exceptionally high spirits, because we had found a pair of Buff-fronted Owls a few days earlier and had seen the last wild Spix’s Macaw only yesterday (that bird sadly disappeared in late 1999). Our route would take us across the river and eastward along that little black line you can still see on today’s maps, through Poço de Fora, Uauá, Bendegó, and Canudos all the way to Jeremoabo. It’s 250 km of rocky dirt road, narrow and potentially muddy in places; one impasse along the way (serious mud, broken-down vehicle blocking the road, bridge washout…worse yet, your vehicle dying), and you backtrack to make the swing over the top of the São Francisco and down through Paulo Afonso — in other words “game over,” you missed Lear’s Macaw and you have to use another day in hopes of getting it right (but see Note 1 at the end of Part II).

Our day seemed to be going well enough, albeit slow and steady as we kicked up a rolling cloud of dust and braced against the constant bashing of rocks on the floorboards. Goats and sheep trotted ahead of us, scampering off the road just before we bumped them off, bells clanging on all sides. A veritable plague in northeast Brazil, these animals eat everything from the roots up allowing essentially no regeneration of native vegetation — but they are the lifeline of many poor families in northeast Brazil, the only livestock able to survive the harsh dry seasons. We took advantage of the cool, early hours for a couple of birding stops. Then, just 60 km into the drive near Poço de Fora, we blew a tire. The spare got us another 50 km to Uauá. Uauá is on the map, but just barely. I am here to tell you that Uauá had a borracharia, and thank goodness for it (Spanish-speakers, see Note 2 at the end of Part II!). The greasy-armed, smiling little man who came out to greet us was the usual, hard-working Bahian soul who resolves problems with genuine interest and hospitality, and we were soon on our way with all five tires. But the road was merciless. I gritted my teeth against sharp rocks and tried not to think about our weight and low clearance. We made it the 40 km to Bendegó, but blew another tire halfway to Canudos, this time irreparably. The spare again did its job, getting us to Canche. But we had no “spare” at that point, and the way things had been going, I saw little chance of us making it to Jeremoabo that night. Unless, that is, we could somehow get another tire…

( continued in Part II )

NE Brazil: Last-chance Pickup, Part II

A pair of Lear’s Macaws…what spectacular birds!

(Did you miss Part I?)

Limping gingerly through Canche, a place with apparently no wheeled vehicles larger than wheelbarrows, we came to a bar at the far edge of town. There were three pickup trucks parked at odd angles in front of the place. Our driver pointed out excitedly that one of them had tires just the size we needed. “Graças a deus,” I thought to myself as I asked the group to wait a moment and I went in to find the owner of that last-chance pickup. The sun was still about 30 degrees above the horizon, and it took my eyes a minute to adjust to the hot, dark interior of the bar. Waving flies out of my face but not the smell of drying cachaça (Brazilian aguardiente) from my nose, I asked loudly (“polite” would not be appropriate in this setting), “Opa! Quem é o dono daquele pickapy verde?” (“Hey! Whose is that green pickup out there?”). Faces stayed down on tables, not a sign of life in the joint. I gave three loud claps and repeated the question. A head came up and a red-eyed, scraggly-bearded guy about 30 or 50 said, “Quem quer saber?” (“Who wants to know?”). Time to get a little more polite. I said that I was passing through town and needed to buy his spare tire, and could we go look at it. He slumped back down and said he didn’t have a spare. I said no matter, any tire in decent shape would do. He thought about that for a minute, then raised up to exclaim in no uncertain terms, “Look, dumb___, I DO NOT HAVE A SPARE!” Time to get quite polite. I sat down and introduced myself to this deeply drunken man, explaining that I had a group of innocent and aged tourists out there needing to make it to Jeremoabo in the worst way (nothing about the macaw to muddy the picture; apologies to all of you who were there with me that day). He was unimpressed, and reiterated that there was not a thing he could do about it.

All tour leaders the world over will now chime in in agreement that there is indeed one thing that will resolve an issue such as this one (as well as almost anything else of material worth): money. I offered him the equivalent of about $60 for the tire of my choice. Unbelieving, I guess, he looked at me for a long, cross-eyed moment as he processed this new information, and grinned as he stood up. We walked (staggered, more like it) out into the blinding sunlight. Leaning on the truck, he paused (I feared he was going to hurl) then raised his arms silently as if to say, “Go ahead, she’s yours, just take it!” Our driver had the best tire off that truck and on to our van (bad tire already off) in a flash. We left the pickup on a block of wood and I shook hands with the guy as I gave him his money. He expressed no apprehension at having so handcuffed himself to that bar; his world hadn’t changed significantly (yet). I thought to myself that I envied him being able to do that, to just let things play out as they would “amanhã” (mañana). And I entertained the idea that he might be one heckuva nice guy even as it occurred to me that he had very few brain cells firing forward.

But forward, onward, it was for us. With renewed but not replenished confidence, we continued our eastward way from Canche. The sun was getting low as we pulled up to the reliable feeding area of Lear’s Macaws that I had come to know over the past several years. I’d prepared folks for the possibility that we were too late that day, that we might well have to take tomorrow morning to retrace a long section of bad road from Jeremoabo to have a chance at finding the macaws. Our ears were ringing from the pummeling of that relentlessly rocky road. We walked into a dry, yellow pasture studded with low licuri palms, the favored food plant of the macaws. Several long minutes elapsed. A Burrowing Owl gazed lazily in our direction. We scanned the palms and tall shade trees for dark, long-tailed shapes within…then it happened. First calls of distant birds, then Tom picked up a pair flying through a gap in the trees. Minutes later, we had the scopes on several brilliant Lear’s Macaws as they preened in treetops and flew around calling loudly just before departing the feeding area for the distant cliffs of Raso da Catarina. We’d made it!! The day was an overwhelming success despite a heavy dose of frustration along the way — but isn’t that so often the way on a birding trip? Just when you fear all is lost, the best pulls through and what was a desperate mess becomes a good story.

Now, I wish that were the end of the story for that day. But we had 50 km of nasty road between us and our simple little hotel in Jeremoabo and, all agreed, little chance of making it on the rubber we had. We optimistically resolved to take it really slowly and just “think light.” But only about 10 km along the way, we lost another tire which sent us from orange to red alert (despite the world being a lot more peaceful place back then). As our tour itinerary says to this day, “…if the tire and radiator gods are with us, we will see Lear’s Macaw, not a moment too soon.” Well, the gods fortunately were with us, though working in mysterious ways, and we did make it to the hotel for a good, home-cooked dinner washed down with lots of cold beer. We toasted the Lear’s Macaws heartily that night, “Long may they live!” And I quietly toasted the drunk in Canche, as I have done a number of times since.

O Fim (The End)


A couple of notes
(1) The road through Uauá and Canudos is in much better shape these days, and our huge (Greyhound-sized), comfortable bus lets the miles slide by painlessly. Yes, some things do improve over the years!

(2) You Spanish-speakers out there are no doubt raising an eyebrow (“borracho” meaning “drunk”), but rest assured that this is merely the equivalent of a vulcanizadora, a tire-repair shop (“borracha” in Portuguese is “rubber”).

If you’re pondering a Lear’s Macaw in your future,
see our Northeast Brazil: Long Live the Lear’s page.

14 JUNE 2008: Day of the Jaguar

Every tour has its outstanding moments, producing memories that stay with you long after you’re home. We do our best to help them happen with extensive guiding experience, careful itinerary planning, selection of the best seasons for weather and birding in general, and other logistical details that position us advantageously…

The Jaguar in question, by Bret Whitney
The Jaguar in question, by Bret Whitney

In fact, most of the great events that happen on tours are, for well-seasoned guides, expected (though often not predictable) peaks on the daily chart of activities. For example, Gray-bellied Goshawk (Accipiter poliogaster) is a bloody rarely seen bird. It occurs almost everywhere across Amazonia and we operate tours to lots of places in its range, but I’d guess we’ve seen it on Field Guides tours only about a half-a-dozen times in 20+ years. Thus, it was a tremendous highlight to see it well (and for so long) on this year’s RAINFOREST & SAVANNA tour to Alta Floresta and the Northern Pantanal. But it wasn’t surprising to me, because we “did it right” by getting up on the tower quite early when this raptor fairly regularly perches conspicuously on treetops and vocalizes. So, there it was. Excellent!

But there are some events that mark you for life, events that are all about just being LUCKY to be in the right spot at the right moment. We had one of these ultra-rare events on this tour, a completely fortuitous surprise of the highest order, when Jorge, a guide for the Cristalino Jungle Lodge at Alta Floresta, burst into the dining room and hollered “BRET, BRET!!” Jorge had just left a Jaguar on the riverbank a short distance downriver. We jumped up from lunch and were in that boat in about one minute. Ten minutes later we were gasping as we watched a big Jaguar loafing on a tree trunk leaning over the river. Continue reading “14 JUNE 2008: Day of the Jaguar”