Creatures of the Night

El viento de la niche gira en el cuelo y canta.

Puedo escribir los versos mas tristes esta noche.

Yo la quise, y a veces ella tambien me quiso.

Puedo Escribir, Pablo Neruda

Nocturnal avifauna can be very tricky to see by day or night. Nocturnal birds remain the holy crucible for most birders. To see a creature of the night can be very fulfilling because the birds can be so mysterious and illusive. And to see them well can take time and a lot of patience.

During the day, their cryptic colors helps them blend into their daytime roosts, which can often be deep inside the rainforest foliage or hidden in a cavity in the trunk of a towering tree, high up in the canopy.

When we think of nocturnal birds, one group always comes to mind: owls. Panama has 13 species of owls, featured in The Birds of Panama by George R. Angehr and Robert Dean (my Holy Bible while I birded the Isthmus). But owls are not the only birds that earn their living in the dark. The members of the Caprimulgidae family (nighthawks, pauraques, and nightjars) are represented by nine species in Panama. The potoos (family: Nyctibiidae) are represented by the great and common potoo and are only found in the neotropics. The oilbird is the only member of it’s family (Steatornitthidae).

In my time in Panama I was lucky to see six members of these night phantoms. All where seen in the daytime as they roosted, awaiting their graveyard shifts and two of them were sitting on nests

The first nocturnal bird we saw was sitting on an egg in a tree by the side of the busy Gamboa Road. Oddly enough the large bird was out in the open and it’s cryptic color and posture made the great potoo (Nyctibius grandis) look like a vertical branch with its back facing the road. Here was a bird I had not anticipated seeing. What are the changes of seeing a roosting bird that can be scarcely distinguished from a snag? Full credit must be given to my Canopy guides who pointed the great potoo.

One bird that topped my wishlist is one of the largest owl in Central America. How hard would it be to see a large owl in the Neotropics? Again I hadn’t anticipated seeing this owl so getting my bins on Pulsatrix perspicillata would be a pure bonus. I wanted to see this owl so badly that it took two attempts.

We walked down the Old Gamboa Road, attempting to find the bird in its daytime roost in a palm. The owl flushed and I got a fleeting glimpse of the spectacled owl in flight. It felt a bit dishonest, even to myself, to calm to have seen a spectacled in the wild.

So on my last day in Panama, we again attempted to get a good look at Pulsatrix perspicillata. This time we used stealth, planting each footfall with care not to rustle any leaves and restricting any conversation. We slowly moved on the right side of the road and I crouched down and looked up under a palm and there was the adult spectacled owl looking right back at me. So much for stealthy humans.

There is something special, if not slightly unsettling, at looking an alpha predator in the eyes. It certainly not the gaze you want to encounter if you are a small mammal.

Spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata)

The final nocturnal bird featured in the triptych is the black and white owl (Strix nigrolineata). Again my guides at Canopy Tower made owling easy as they knew of a pair that were roosting just off of Semaphore Road on the way down the hill from Canopy Tower.

A very cryptic rufous nightjar on it’s nest.

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