Must-see Aerial Insectivores in the Greater Antilles: Part 5/5

Northern Potoo perched on a fence post near the Windsor Research Station, Trelawny Parish, Jamaica. (photo by Justin Proctor)

This post is part of a series; visit Part 4 here.

Let’s move now from the diurnal species to a nocturnal favorite, the Northern Potoo (Nyctibius jamaicensis), which has been featured here before a couple times. These birds actively hunt for insects at night by sallying out from low-lying perches where they remain camouflaged and motionless until prey is spotted. If you’ve got a little bit of energy left in you after the sun goes down, and you also remembered to pack a decent headlamp or flashlight, I can’t encourage you enough to just go for a little walk down a quiet road nearby.

Pasture roads are best, as they are often lined with fence posts – a favorite perching spot for potoos. But before you start shining your light slowly around from one potential perch to the next, stand still in the dark and just listen. Oftentimes the call of a potoo will help navigate you close enough to the bird to get an immediate visual upon turning on your light. Keep in mind that potoos rely on darkness to hunt, and that a beam of light to the eye is unnatural and stressful. Illuminate the bird with only the outer, weaker edge of your light’s beam, and keep your observations brief. A good sighting of a potoo is an unforgettable memory to take home from your Caribbean vacation.

So why are aerial insectivores worth your time and effort?

My answer to that is “high rewards”. Many of these species display incredible behaviors that you won’t see anywhere else. Once you cue into them, they become addicting to watch. They also make you think differently about the complexities of the sky above you and the ecosystem that it supports. Amazingly, most of this goes largely unnoticed by the masses. Aerial insectivores are an entire branch [metaphorical pun, not taxonomical] of the avian world that often gets pushed to the back pages of birders’ “must-see” lists because of the challenges often associated with seeing and identifying them. However, I think it’s important to reinforce the fact that most of them aren’t more difficult to view compared to other families of birds, they just require the implementation of different search tactics. So why not be the first one in your birding group to notice a vortex of swirling White-collared Swifts, or identify a mixed flock of four different aerial insectivore species feeding together on a swarm of flying ants over the beach?

The scientific community is discovering new and exciting information about these guys all the time, which is important, because there are growing concerns that several of the aerial insectivore species have been facing noticeable long-term population declines. The cause(s) aren’t definitive yet, but likely point towards an amalgam of changes to their habitats and food supply. Excitingly, a lot of the ground-breaking work underway has been – and continues to be – sparked by observations from birdwatchers like you. That’s why it is critical that you contribute to these efforts by entering your observation checklists into eBird Caribbean. So the next time you find yourself in the Caribbean, shoo those obnoxious Crested Quail-doves and Rufous-throated Solitaires away, and set yourself up in a good position to scan the skies for some aerial insectivores cruising by.

Who’s with me?

[Read my original article, which is reproduced here, in BirdsCaribbean]

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