Nyctibius jamaicensis is a rather large neotropical bird at 15-18 inches long (38-46 cm). They sit motionless on stumps, camouflaged and still, until it gets dark when they feed.
Noctural hunters, potoos eat large insects, mostly moths and beetles. More info here.
Armando and the boatman
We were in the Mexican town of San Blas for birding, and had three days with a marvelous local bird guide, Armando.
This small community lies on the Pacific coast, where there are many estuaries that wind through an extensive mangrove forest.
Family boarding boat, San Blas, Mexico
That afternoon we birded from a motorboat. We had seen many local Mexican families all afternoon, adventuring in motorboats. We also saw numerous crocodiles on the muddy banks.
At dusk we cruised beyond the mangrove forest, and the boatman turned off his motor in a reedy swamp. Here, in the boat, the four of us waited for darkness. There were a few quiet fishing boats and some dead tree stumps; but as the day turned into night, the fishers disappeared.
He told us to sit still, which was nearly impossible because in this hot, airless swamp, the mosquitoes were thick.
As daylight dwindled, we watched wading birds silhouetted in the sunset, heading for their nighttime roost. Although there were no people, it was not quiet.
Mangrove forest, Mexico
There was hooting and high-pitched cries, and occasional splashes in the water. The northern potoo has a frightening guttural sound, click here.
Armando whispered to Athena to get her camera ready, had his spotlight in hand. Then he pointed the light at a dead tree stump as a potoo flew off the stump, snagged a moth, and returned to the stump.
The moon was out so we could see the potoo repeatedly leave the perch, hawk a bug, and return; did this over and over, a nocturnal ballet. Every once in a while Athena and Armando would coordinate a light-and-photograph moment, diligently working to get a good capture.
Out of respect for the bird, we stayed only 15 minutes. By then the tide had come in.
Our one hour ride back through the mangrove forest had changed dramatically with much more water, closing us narrowly into the mangrove roots. It was the wildest boat ride I have ever had, but it was definitely worth it for a quarter hour with the potoos.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander