On our boat tour through the mangrove swamp near San Blas, in Mexico, we saw no less than three Northern Potoos, one of the most highly-sought-after species for birdwatchers. Bob and I had booked a week’s stay in the tiny fishing village on the Pacific Coast and planned to use our time wisely. Known as a birding hotspot, the town attracts scores of avian enthusiasts, so we had to secure our guides and tours promptly upon arrival to ensure availability.
We began our adventure at a pier on the outskirts of San Blas at precisely 3 p.m. in the afternoon. As we motored about the San Cristobal estuary observing myriad species of birds on the mud flats and in the skies overhead, Bob and I were being introduced to the art of photographing birds from a moving boat. The allure of the canopied channel into the mangrove swamp had my imagination running wild.
About midway on the jungle ride to our final destination, La Tovara Spring, the channel through the mangroves passes by a boat rental agency strategically located to allow access into the swamps.
The tour guides who man the boats have become quite familiar with the roosting locations of various birds, so it was no wonder that Chencho picked out this Northern Potoo where it rested in the shadows on a branch the same colour as its plumage. To our eye, it would have remained invisible.
Northern Potoos are nocturnal birds that typically roost motionless during the day, and because of the cryptic nature of their plumage, these birds can almost disappear from view by assuming a posture that mimics a part of the tree.
As Chencho angled our boat in beneath the roosting location, we had a much clearer view of the Northern Potoo’s long tail and long, pointed wings.
The primarily brown plumage appeared quite beautiful owing to the intricate pattern of black, grey and cream bars and patches that simulate the bark on trees.
Once I zoomed in on this Northern Potoo, it was obvious to me how this species of bird resembles the Frogmouths. The mouth is wide and the bill is short. Another unique characteristic is the eyelids that have several slits in them allowing the bird to detect movement or changes in light even when asleep! It also helps that these birds rest with their eyes half open.
With the sun retreating below the horizon, and the swamp coming alive with nighttime sounds, I pretty much figured that was it for our bird and wildlife viewing that day,…
but Chencho’s searching LED flashlight provided glimpses of a couple of Pauraques, a Wood Owl and this alert Northern Potoo. It is actually easier to spot these birds at night because, one, they come out and perch in the open to facilitate hunting at dusk and under the cover of darkness, and two, their striking eye shine is visible from a fair distance.
The typical upright posture of this Northern Potoo showcases the large head and eyes with their striking yellow irides, and even the outline of the unusually large gape can be distinguished. When open, the mouth is cavernous and enables a Potoo to handily capture flying insects and even small birds that are swallowed up whole. As we quietly motored on our way, this Northern Potoo continued its vigilant observation over the inky darkness of the quiet swamp. Bob and I were absolutely thrilled!