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CBC 2015: A Tale of Two Bitterns

The time is almost upon us for the next Christmas Bird Count – scheduled for 27th December, 2016. The CBC is an international activity started many years ago by John James Audubon himself, with the aim of attempting to quantify avian life in as many areas as possible. Initially focussing on American birds, it has since expanded with the advent of global communication to include many other territories. Here, in Trinidad and Tobago, we hold the annual event typically between Christmas and New Year’s. With just over a month to go until this year’s edition, I’ve reached the end of 2015’s images, in my seemingly never-ending battle with this image backlog. Here’s the story of last year’s CBC, the blow-mind sight of two of our most secretive birds, and the gentle demonic rain that changed my photographic life.

For the CBC, we’re broken up into groups, and different groups will be responsible for different areas. On the day of the count, weather was beyond dark. Thunder rolled across the sky. Before there was any light, you could tell that it was going to be dull, dreary and non-conducive to looking for birds in the warm Caribbean sun. Which probably was why my group consisted of two intrepid birders, myself included. No-one else showed up at our chosen rendezvous point, the Aripo Livestock Station. Needless to say, we got the show on the road, recording a Merlin tearing into a Ruddy Ground Dove before the sun came up. Then the rains came, in torrents.

All recording of birds was done from the comfort (dryness) of the vehicle for some time. As we drove further in, checking the fields, something caught my eye. From a distance, it seemed to be a strange dog. Getting closer slowly, I realized that it was unbelievably a Pinnated Bittern – in its full hormonal glory. White epaulets not normally seen flashed angrily in the muted morning light. Wait, there were TWO! Both birds sizing up each other, trying to figure out who exactly is the boss. Completely engrossed in settling their differences, they paid no attention to two casual non-feathered observers. They circled each other, strutting their stuff, each trying to look bigger and more impressive than the next.

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As if it wasn’t surreal enough seeing a bittern in the open, and if seeing two wasn’t pushing it, when they started to approach us I really began questioning my existence. Scores of unanswered questions later, I remained with this photograph of a threatening Pinnated Bittern, cementing the link between birds and their ancient ancestors.

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Eventually, we left the pair to continue their motions, and moved on. A female Ruddy-breasted Seedeater popped up briefly, soon followed by an Aripo specialty, the uncommon Grassland Yellow Finch. Similar to the common Saffron Finch, this variety lacks the orange cap of the latter, and is only a very localized resident in certain areas at the foothills of Trinidad’s Northern Range.

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A hulking figure on a dead tree further down the road drew our attention away from the tiny finches, and a quick check confirmed that it was indeed the fastest creature on the planet. Female Peregrines are up to three times the size of their male counterparts, and are truly an imposing sight. I took advantage of the overcast conditions and created this high-key image. I just love how high-key images bring out textures. I invite you to view this image large, and enjoy the individual feather patterns on the back of this bird.

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Even though the rain had stopped, there was a strange mist that hung around, especially as we gained altitude, searching for forest birds. In all, we recorded close to 70 species that morning. Somewhere along the way, both our lenses started malfunctioning. How? I have no clue. The rain had stopped. My rig had gotten soaked on a previous occasion (also in Aripo for that matter) but the symptoms I was getting were quite different. At the end of it all, my long lens never worked the same again, refusing to even take a photo, far less focus automatically. On the way back out, one of our two bittern friends stood tall in the field, his defeated opponent long departed. I tried photographing it, in a last ditch effort to revive my lens, to no avail.

8 thoughts on “CBC 2015: A Tale of Two Bitterns

    1. We couldn’t believe our eyes, Kamal. It was the first time my buddy Shawn saw bitterns I think. Reminds me of how you saw Rufous Crab Hawk on your first attempt 😉

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