The marshlands and waterways of south Trinidad were packed to the seams with avian life by the start of the second quarter of 2015. The usual suspects such as this Wattled Jacana were around in numbers, here and there scuttling searching for decent nesting areas.
Now when I say “usual suspects” I refer to the creatures that are most often seen. These do not include those that are there every day but escape detection. In our backyards, we have these little lizards that seem “slimy” – I used to call them skinks when I was a child. Turned out they’re not skinks, they’re a species of tegu – Underwood’s Spectacled Tegu. And I had never seen any specimen that was bigger than my finger. This one was about eight inches long though. And just like the small ones I remembered from my childhood, they can slip away into nothing instantly.
Avian masters of the craft of remaining undetected are the bitterns. Whether in the Old or New World, these secretive relatives to herons and egrets hide in plain sight. For many years I had been searching for bitterns, and with some luck had managed to see two of the three species found in Trinidad. The one species that had been eluding me all this time was the largest – the Pinnated Bittern. After seeing one or two at a distance flying away, I was completely convinced that I’d never be able to see one up close. One afternoon this all changed. There was a patch of grass that didn’t look like any other. Sure enough, it was the coveted Pinnated Bittern. After observing the bird for about ten minutes, it slowly rose upright, out of the reeds, and flew off with that characteristic gangly, lumbering flight pattern.
For the following weeks, we returned to that spot. The bittern beds, we called it. We observed enough Pinnated Bitterns to be able to tell the difference between females and males. We finally heard the unearthly mating call of this species. It’s exceptionally difficult to describe, but let’s say it sounds like water bubbling, with a slight metallic knocking thrown in at the end. Yeah, it’s weird, but such a beautiful sound. One early morning outing to these “bittern beds” yielded at least eight birds. The issue was that they were all in the distance. But with bitterns, you just don’t complain.
On a casual drive through one golden afternoon we decided to stop and wait around a little. Eventually, a head popped up out of the reeds. Whoa, and it was close. Staring straight into my eyes. It ducked down again. A few seconds later, it popped up again, even closer. I had to rotate my camera to portrait orientation to get the entire bird in the frame.
This continued for around twenty minutes. Each time the bittern would pop up, look at me, then duck down and reappear closer, only to repeat the process. We started to feel a sort of bond with this bird. Here it was, a Pinnated Bittern – master of the unseen – seemingly as interested in us as we were in it. Not that I was complaining. Eventually this curious bird approached so close that all I could photograph was its head against the golden light of the setting sun. Then a truck roared through the road, shaking the ground. And that ended our brief, but enriching, relationship.
That time of year (March/April) is also the time that our migratory visitors are getting ready for the northward journey. Which means that meals are of paramount importance. All efforts must be made to stock up on energy, so any hunting must go on as long as one can see. This Peregrine Falcon rocketed through, unsettling all birds as it banked and dived as the light faded.
In an earlier post I mentioned the tens of thousands of Dickcissel that were roosting in the southern marshlands. These charismatic birds are irruptive visitors to Trinidad – some years there are tens of thousands, other years there are fifty birds, other years there are none at all. To be close to where they roost for the night means that every evening, they fly en masse from wherever they had spent the day feeding. From every direction flocks of at least a few hundred to a few thousand birds dipped and swirled, diving into the reeds where they’d spend the night. They were passing so close, I was tempted to take out my wide angle lens. And I don’t regret that decision, not in the slightest 🙂