Earlier this year we spent five nights in a Trinidad rainforest. While there, we were introduced to the Bearded Bellbird, a unique bird with a booming voice.
Named for the beard-like feathers on his throat, Procnias averano occur in a few areas of northern South America. See map below. Only the males have the “beard.”
A frugivorous bird, they feed on fruit and berries. They live high in the canopy, where you rarely see them…but always hear them.
The call is unmistakable, and loud, and carries very far. We heard it all day long and sometimes into the early evening: a loud, staccato croaking that echoes throughout the forest.
Males make the call, insistently informing other bellbirds of their territory. The species is polygamous, and during mating season the male attracts the female with an elaborate song and dance. The rest of the year, like when we were there, they just project the croaking calls. Mating season or not, they spend 87% of daylight hours in calling territories within the forest.
Sometimes the bellbird’s call is incessant, like in this recording. But I never tired of it.
There are so many alien sounds in a rainforest, and it is often a surprise when you finally locate the creature. Some of the tiniest frogs can sound like huge, menacing mammals; while an animal that can kick your guts out, like the Australian cassowary, may have no warning call.
Our first day there we were on a guided hike, and the guide took us right to the bird. The Bellbird was perched about 15′ off the ground (4.5 m). A couple of times I flinched from the racket.
For as loud and abrupt as the call was, I had imagined a larger bird. He was about the size of a pigeon, but for the volume he was projecting I expected an eagle. He shouted his croak for so long that finally, after everyone in our small group had observed and photographed from all angles, we left.
He was such a cool bird that the next day, sans guide, Athena and I went searching for the bellbird again. We went back down the same trail, following the bellowing croaks.
Everything seems so simple when you have a guide. Without the guide we somehow got off the main trail, lost in a dense forest.
Sweaty and bug-bitten, we eventually got back to the main trail, continued the bellbird pursuit for about a half hour. Regardless of how strikingly loud the call was, we could not find the bird anywhere. We have both been birding all over the world for 25 years, doggedly locating silent birds, tiny birds, and camouflaged birds deep in the brush. To not locate the caller of this loud and direct sound was stupefying.
But then a more important sound preempted the bird: the lunch bell.
So we reluctantly left the unfound bellbird, later learning another incredible feature of this bird: ventriloquism.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander