Unusual Birds for Unusual Times

Male Frigatebird in breeding, Seymour Island, Galapagos

During this homebound time, here are some of my favorite unusual-looking birds from around the world.

 

There are so many lovely creatures in this world, each one unique in its own way. But some are especially different-looking; for today I narrowed it down to 12 birds.

 

Bird #1. Male Frigatebird in breeding (above). We worked and saved for two years to see this sight. This exquisite seabird comes to land only to breed, we were determined to observe his remarkable display; journeyed to a remote island in the Galapagos.

 

The male’s pouch inflates and deflates. He spends a lot of energy to inflate his red gular (throat) pouch to attract females. Once it is inflated, he pounds on the balloon-like body part with his wings; makes booming sounds and vocalizations.

 

After the male has found his damsel, the pouch deflates and the business of preparing for the new chick begins.

 

Bird #2. Nothern Potoo. A nocturnal bird, they perch on the end of sticks, flying out to catch insects and returning to their perch.  Nyctibius jamaicensis blends into the perch, rendering it nearly impossible to spot.

 

Our guide took us in a small motorboat to a Mexican marsh.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

There are over 300 different hummingbird species in the world. Many of us have seen hummingbirds or photos of them, yet I found the two following hummingbirds particularly unique-looking.

 

Bird #3. Tufted Coquette. With that punk orange hairstyle, polka-dotted wings and iridescence, its not like any hummingbird I’ve ever seen…and I’ve seen a lot. We spotted him deep in a Trinidad rainforest.

Tufted coquette, male, Trinidad

 

Bird #4. Another memorable hummingbird is the snowcap. Microchera albocoronata is in a genus all its own. They are tiny birds, the male is reddish purple with a bright white cap. Even beneath the dark canopy of the Costa Rican rainforest, that snowy white cap could be spotted fairly easily.

Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

Bird #5. The Resplendent Quetzal. The male has long tail streamers, and the female has the same exquisite colors as the male, sans tail streamers. They eat avocadoes, so a guide took us to a wild avocado grove in the Chiriquí Highlands of Costa Rica.

 

Avocadoes that are not bred for human consumption are small, apricot-sized. These gorgeous birds were elegantly shimmering and fluttering from one tree to the next. They were not-so-elegantly eating: swallowing the avocado whole, then spitting out the pit. I vote this the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.

Resplendent Quetzal, male, Costa Rica

 

Bird #6. Cock-of-the-Rock. One of the strangest birds I have ever seen. We waited in the morning dark, in an Andes lek where males gather to perform courtship dances for the female. This bright orange male struts, bobs and hops while vocalizing a cacophony of staccato sounds. That morning there were five or six males vying for one female; she flew off solo after the show.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru. Photo: B. Page

 

Before we leave the western hemisphere, I want to show you a lovable strange bird who inhabits the deserts in southwestern and south-central United States. We saw it in southern California.

 

Bird #7. The Roadrunner. Clocked at 20 miles an hour (32 km/h), this bird is speedy. This creature was the star and namesake of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, the Road Runner Show. There’s a reason Wile E. Coyote never caught the roadrunner….

Roadrunner, California. Photo: Athena Alexander

Sporting a long tail and perky crest, Geococcyx californianus hunts lizards and snakes. You see them sprinting more than flying, though they can fly.

 

The other side of the world is also loaded with unusual-looking birds. Here are a few we found in Africa and Australia.

 

Bird #8. The hamerkop is a wading bird, found in Africa, and is most closely related to pelicans. The color is unremarkable brown, but the shape of the head is highly conspicuous, appearing to look like a hammer. Its name means “hammerhead” in Afrikaans.

Hamerkop, Zambia, Africa

 

Bird #9. The secretary bird is a long-legged raptor. The lower half of the legs are featherless, the crest has quill-like feathers.  Sagittarius serpentarius stomps prey with its muscular legs, and uses the large, hooked eagle-like bill to strike.

Secretary Bird, Africa. Photo Athena Alexander

 

Bird #10. Far less ferocious are the African hornbills. There are several species of hornbills, this one is the red-billed. Their conspicuous bill gives them a distinguished, albeit odd, appearance.

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

 

Bird #11. Vulturine Guineafowl in Africa. In a land of vast savannahs, guineafowl are large, gregarious birds who eat insects and seeds in the grasses. You often see large flocks of them pecking the ground, like chickens. The Vulturine species, Acryllium vulturinum, has elegant markings.

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

Bird #12. By far the oddest bird of all, the Southern Cassowary has a large casque atop its head, large bristly black body, long legs and neck, bright colors, and two dangling red wattles at the throat. We were birding deep in the rainforest in Queensland with a guide when we unknowingly came close to a cassowary’s nest. We had accidentally agitated the male.

Southern Cassowary, Australia

As big as humans, a cassowary has a large spike on its foot and can land a fatal blow to anyone in his way. We didn’t have long to chat with him.

 

Of course there are many more unusual birds in this world, as well as insects, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

 

As we all go through this unusual mammalian pandemic, try to remember that the world is full of odd animals.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Two Runners-Up:

Crested Guans, Costa Rica

 

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Australia

 

Jet (L) and Athena on Galapagos. Trees with breeding frigatebird colony in background.

 

 

96 thoughts on “Unusual Birds for Unusual Times

  1. I lived in Arizona for years and experienced only one sighting of the Roadrunner. This collection of photographs is testimony to your persistence and skill. Thank you for the interesting descriptions.

    • Yes, it’s not easy to see any of these birds, Michael Stephen, you are right. We are persistent and skilled, and find so much joy in it. Thank you for this astute comment.

  2. Wow, what an amazing collection of shots of incredible birds. There are probably not a whole lot of people who have had the good fortune and persistence to see all of them, given the worldwide scope of your selections. I noted that you had most of the continents included in this collection. Have you also been to Antartica? My favorite photo in this posting may very well be the final one–it is very rare that we get to see both you and Athena, “lovely creatures in this world, each one unique in its own way.” 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Mike, for your warm comment. I don’t usually show a photo of us, but today I thought it might be nice to add a personal photo after all those birds. We were so very happy at that moment, having finally seen the male frigatebird’s gular pouch…and so very many of them! No, we have not been to Antartica. I think we’d have to save up for half a decade to do that. If we did go, it would probably be South Georgia. Many thanks, my friend.

  3. So often I come to your blog and all I can think to say is Wow. Wow, wow, wow. A totally inadequate word.

    As I’m reading, I find I can visualize being in the dark, or the boat, or the rainforest with you feeling the excitement climb at each new sighting.
    What a lovely reminder that there are so many treasures to discover out ‘there’ in the wider world.

    Each one of these birds makes me smile, but I have a particular fondness for hummingbirds … especially the little rebel coquette. Hornbills too always make me smile. I can’t help it – they have such an unfortunate resting-angry-face 😆

    Thanks for such a delightful post to start my day!!

    • A lovely thing happens when I see each of these photos, for I remember exactly where we were and the adventure of the finding the bird. The telling of the story is great fun to share, and I appreciate your enthusiasm and interest so much, Joanne. With the “rebel coquette” we were on the airplane flying to Trinidad, reviewing the Trinidad field guide, and what we had the chance of seeing. The tufted coquette was a possibility and we both looked at the photo of him with complete awe, hoping we would see it. We were delighted to see it numerous times while there. I’m so glad I could jumpstart your day with delight, my friend.

      • That is the joy of photography! My sons call it surfing the past. Being able to relive an otherwise simple moment, just from looking at a photo, is pure magic.

    • Wonderful to “see” you today, cj. My aim was to offer just that, an amazing diversion to these times, to use your words. So I am truly delighted to have achieved it with you. Thanks so much…and be well.

  4. I always learn so much from your posts. I only recognised three bird species – the hummingbirds, and the Cassowary (which I learned about from one of your books)
    We certainly do live in an amazing world…filled with wonders making it vitally important that we changed our ways and respect Mother Nature.

    Love the photograph of you and Athena…you both look so happy. Stay well and remember to wash all hands and paws:). Janet X

    • Thanks so very much for stopping by, Janet, always a delight. I’m happy that you and the hummingbirds are so familiar with one another–no one can paint a hummingbird and bring it instantly to life like you, Janet. One of your hummingbird masterpieces rests proudly above our mantle. And I’m honored that the cassowary has made its way to you through Wicked Walkabout, that’s a fun thing for me to read and know. I’m also glad you found the unusual birds as amazing as I do. Glad you liked the photo of Athena and I, too. Everyday we spend together is a happy one, but that day we were especially high on life and all its wonders. You, too, stay well, my friend…and again, thank you for this spark of sweetness today.

  5. Oh man, what an amazing collection of birds you’ve seen and photographed! WOWZA!!!

    I’ve only seen the Roadrunner in the wild. The Cassowary surely must be an ancestor to the dinosaur! It is pretty and sounds very dangerous!

    The image of you and Athena at the end was lovely!

    • Wonderful to receive your comment, Deborah, your enthusiasm and kind words are much appreciated. It was great fun to share these lovely birds and our experiences with them. Thank you.

    • We never forget when we have had the pleasure of seeing a roadrunner, even if it is for just a split second. I’m happy you’ve had that joy numerous times, Craig. And I’m happy, too, to bring you other birds of the world. With over 10,000 species on this globe, photos are a great way to see more. Stay well, my friend — and thanks for coming on over today.

  6. Wow, an incredible collection of amazing birds! I’ve never seen several of these but have seen the Roadrunner several times. Beep beep! 🥰

    • I smiled at your “beep beep” recollection of the roadrunner cartoon, John. I don’t know, somehow that sound stays with us for all these years. That’s a funny thing I think. Many smiles and thanks to you, John.

      • Your welcome, I love those old Warner Brothers cartoons, created in a better, vanished time by true artists. Stay well you two! 😊

    • It’s very fortunate that we’ve had the privilege of experiencing all these different birds, and great fun to share it with you, Bill. I’m looking forward to a day when I can observe the wood storks in your backyard. Until then, sending you lots of love and smiles and thanks.

  7. Really enjoyed this, Jet! It must have been difficult to choose, given your many adventures – you could have had runners up to the runners up and so on. Each was wonderful, either for bright colours or an unusual appearance, but my favourite was the final pair!
    Thanks, and take care!

    • I woke up this morning at 1:30 am thinking, I need to change the runners-up. I had two different birds until this morning (the toucan and carmine bee-eater), then changed it to the emu and crested guan at the last minute. Because it’s exactly what you’re saying, I did have difficulty, in that fun sort of way, of narrowing this list down to 12. Your revelation of your favorite pair of birds, the final pair, gave me a big smile. Thanks so very much. Let’s keep sharing smiles in this world, pc, and my best to you and Mrs. pc.

    • I am so happy to know you enjoyed the birds, and were introduced to a few new ones here. I like knowing you have the memory of the roadrunner cartoon, too, Mike. I had a particularly spectacular virtual airplane ride with your post of the flight over the Matterhorn, Mike. Cheers to you, my friend, and thanks.

  8. The secretary bird made me chuckle. It looks like he has a pair of long shorts or short pants on! The tufted coquette made me smile, too. What a thrill it must have been to see the male frigatebird in person! But I think the hamerkop is my favorite. I love his coloring and the symmetry of his head and beak. (I love the coloring of mourning doves, too. Earth tones, I guess.) Thanks for sharing these treasures, Jet.

    • Oh how I enjoyed hearing about your experiences with the bird photos here today, Barbara. I can never ever get enough of the secretary bird, glad you liked him. Sometimes people say they have pantaloons on, for the very reason you have observed. And yes, it was a true thrill to see the male frigatebird colony. We had spotted the females in HI years earlier, and discovered the males bred in a different place. That’s when we knew we had to find a way to go where they are. I’m glad you like the hamerkop, isn’t that such a great head? And I, too, love the gentle tones and subtleties of the mourning dove’s coloring. It changes in the light, and if you wait long enough, you can see the eyelid when they blink, and it’s pink! Many thanks for your visit, Barbara.

  9. What an entertaining post to enjoy on these long days at home. It must have been hard to choose – and I’m glad you added a few runners-up! I also watched a few videos of the male frigate birds in their mating glory. My, such a show! My absolute favorites, though, were the two lovely “birds” at the end. Be careful.

    • I am pleased to know I have entertained you, Nan, on these long and often difficult days. I’m glad you had a chance to watch a few videos of the male frigatebirds. Just seeing a plain ol’ frigatebird in flight is a thrill, with that incredibly long wingspan, soaring over the skies of the sea. Then add all the rigmarole of the squawking and drum beating and that red balloon throat so big they can hardly move! It was only a few months ago when you so patiently waited for Athena and I in our dogged quest to see the rare Florida Scrub Jay, so it warms my heart to know you still like seeing the photo of the two birding birders. That reminds me…never did see the scrub jay, we’ll just have to go back!

  10. These are so, so beautiful, Jet. What a thrill it must have been to see these birds in their own environment, and to take their pictures. You and Athena have done a great job of sharing these with us and putting a smile on our face.

    • Your warm comment is much appreciated, Anneli. There are so many wonderful creatures to share on this earth, I’m happy to get to share some, and I’m happy to get see others on places like your blog, with that beautiful Great Blue Heron and all the other creatures you share. I’m honored to have put a smile on your face, my friend. Stay well and keep making pizzas!

      • I was reading that birds descended from the family of two-legged theropods which includes the T-Rex and smaller (<500lbs) velociraptors. Fossilized dinosaur embryos look just like modern-day birds!

        Because of genetic and evolutionary adaptation, one family of dinosaurs (coelurosaurs) began to shrink 200 million years ago.

        Their smaller size allowed them to feed and shelter in trees. Over the course of 10 million years they developed wings, feathers and the ability to fly.

        But I tend to believe that birds "simply" evolved from Pterodactyls.

  11. Nice shot of the two of you! Thanks for the welcome distraction into the world of exotic birds. There are so many interesting species on this planet (and you’ve probably seen more of them than most folks). 🙂
    Take care!

    • Hi Eliza. I’m happy you enjoyed the photo of Athena and I, and the gallery of exotic birds as well. These are times when a few distractions can be just the right thing. My warm thanks and well wishes to you.

  12. Great post, Jet. Your gallery of unusual birds has quite a selection of beauties and rare looking birds. I hope that you’re doing well with the pandemic going on. Please take care. 🙂

    • Thanks HJ. I would guess with your bird knowledge you are familiar with all or most of these beauties, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Doing well with the pandemic, as well as can be expected, not the rosiest of times, but am focusing on staying healthy, safe, and optimistic. My best to you and your wife and son.

  13. Oh, Jet! You just gifted me such JOY! Firstly, I LOVE the picture of You and Athena. So cute! And these birds! My word. I couldn’t stop laughing! I’m wondering if either You or Athena happened to get the Tufted Coquette’s phone number? I want him to be my personal stylist. Thank You! Sending Huge Hugs Your way! 🤗❤️😊

    • Unfortunately tufted coquettes are not only speedy but also a bit on the coquettish side, so no phone number was revealed, just lots of posing and flying off. ha ha. I love that you couldn’t stop laughing at this array of highly unusual birds, Katy. Thanks so much for your warm words and happy visit filled with hugs and smiles. Much appreciated.

  14. Every time … Every time I visit I see something new to me, I observe nature and have watched hours of wildlife documentaries, so this surprises me. Thanks pal!

    • Well, that is the beauty of nature and why I have devoted my life to learning more about it, for that same reason: there is always something new to learn. I really enjoyed your lovely comment, and am delighted I could enlighten you with new and exciting introductions. Thanks so much, Dawn Renee, for your visit today. Always great fun.

      • The pleasure is always mine. I’m grateful to know there are genuine animal lovers such as yourself and Athena. Do keep spreading knowledge of their existence, beauty, & environmental living quarters.

  15. I’ve seen photos or videos of some of these, and a few were brand new — but what a great diversion! What surprised me most was seeing the roadrunner here. When I’m in the hill country, they’re so common I rarely go a day without seeing one or more. Just like the old saw about trash and treasure, one person’s rarity is anothers commonplace, and vice-versa.

    In fact, I have a friend who raised a road runner and turned it into a sort of pet. It still roamed free, but it knew her call, and it knew there was raw meat waiting for it from her hand. She laughs now, remembering how her kids always griped that the bird got steak, while they got hamburger.

    I do hope you’re keeping well. It’s a difficult time, but it seems that people are beginning to adjust, and understand the seriousness of it all. At least, most are. There still are a few knuckleheads around!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the Unusual Birds post, Linda, and found it a pleasant diversion. I liked hearing that you commonly see roadrunners. It’s good to know that this lovely bird’s population isn’t disappearing. Funny story about your friend’s roadrunner. All is well here, gratefully, and I send my best wishes to you, my friend. Thanks so much for your fun visit.

  16. A fantastic post, Jet. What an eye-popping array of birds…I loved looking at them. The colors are incredible– that “Cock of the Rock”, the Frigatebird and the Quetzal…well, they all have amazing markings and colors. I’ve been fortunate to see the African birds you’ve shown but would love to see the others in person someday…someday, when we can roam free again. 🙂 Hope you are managing well. Take care!

    • It was great fun putting this post together, Jane, and I’m delighted you enjoyed all these wonderful unusual birds. I am also glad you’ve had the fortune of seeing the African birds. All is well here, thank you, and sending best wishes to you as well.

  17. Absolutely stunning birds, Jet! Such uniqueness and character! I can’t stop reviewing them, and dream of capturing them through my lens! Well, I have captured two, but they both were lucky/fast shots and could definitely be replaced with much more beautiful captures (Roadrunner and Frigatebird). Thank you for sharing these; and I love yours and Athena’s last photo, pretty special moment. 🙂

    • It is a true pleasure to share these magnificent birds with you, Donna. As a birder and photographer, you know well how these beautiful birds grace our globe, and the challenge of recording them. We have been doing this for 30 years, so it is a joy to pick out a few fun memories. I appreciate your warm and receptive comment and visit, my friend, and wish you the best.

  18. What a fantastic window and insight you give us on different aspects of the natural world Jet. I love these birds – I thought to start with, that has got to be one of the weirdest creatures ever, then I move on to the next one only to find even weirder! I think for me the ones that really stand out are the Roadrunner, the Hammerkop and the Secretary Bird – they are just amazing. They are all amazing of course but I think it is the form of those three that really take me. Thanks again for the entertainment 🙂

    • Oh how I love our exchanges, Alastair, thanks so much for your visit. I like hearing about your experience of seeing these birds in the post, one more odd than the next. There are so many avian oddities on this planet! I also liked hearing which birds you were drawn to. A total delight to bring you this entertainment, my friend, just as it is always a delight to be entertained by your multi-dimensional walks. Cheers my friend.

  19. Wow! Just wow! I sat and was wowing out loud with each and every bird, Jet! How LUCKY you and Athena are to actually have been able to not only experience these birds in their native lands, but to be able to capture them too. I cannot even begin to know the emotions that must have rushed through the both of you. Thank you SO much for sharing these pictures, birds that I will in my lifetime not see in their nativity. Each picture’s composition and clarity just excellent!! Stunning collection!!

    • Thanks so much, Amy, for your delightful visit. We are indeed fortunate to have had all these experiences finding and recording the birds you see here. It is great fun to share them with you, thank you, my friend.

  20. Thanks for this pictorial review of unusual birds, Jet. Some are very unusual and it’s good to be reminded of the immense biodiversity of Nature. I half expected the roadrunner to be taller. I hope to never meet a Secretary Bird, Vulture, Cassowary or Emu up close and personal in the wild.

    I recently read a news item about the return of birdlife to the cities during this period of social shutdown. Very interesting.

    • I’m happy I could bring these beautiful and unusual birds to you, Draco. Just like you travel the world photographing people and cultures, we travel the world photographing birds and mammals. Wonderful we all have each other to share in the beauties of this planet. I saw a photo this week of wild turkeys, real turkeys, in the courtyard of our county courthouse. Thanks for your visit my friend. I so enjoyed the vicarious visit to Myanmar you provided for me yesterday.

  21. You’ve certainly traveled to see all those birds, hon! The only ones I’ve seen are those hornbills and that was in a zoo. I’m sure you can find lots of ways to keep busy at home. Got another novel in the making? Take good care of yourself 🙂 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the unusual birds, Jo, and the travels. I have never been to Portugal, a place I have enjoyed thoroughly in your many posts and would love to see in person. So I’m glad we’re keeping each other entertained. I do have another novel in the making, another mystery novel, early stages, thanks for asking. Cheers, my friend, and warm wishes for healthy times.

    • Thanks for the kudos, Dave. You understand the tricky two-part task of spotting and photographing these birds. My best wishes to you and your loved ones for safety and health.

    • Great fun to hear from you, Kirt, and I am happy you enjoyed the unusual birds and photos. Thanks so much, as always, for your visit and kind words. My best to you and your family.

  22. Have to admit my favorite is the Road Runner… partly because of the cartoon. In addition, they represent an iconic sense of freedom to roam, to see and enjoy. I was beyond thrilled when I finally say my first one in the flesh (feather?) so to speak. Life’s precious little moments we savor when we’re forced to slow down. There are silver linings…

    Your first bird gave me pause (not that I blame the Frigate Bird), but this vision of our absurd POTUS popped into my head and it’s one of those things you have to work hard to unsee…… 😉

    Wishing you and Athena good health and joy.

    • Very nice to have you stop by, Gunta, and I thoroughly enjoyed your comment, as always. I, too, was thrilled the first time I saw the roadrunner…any of these birds, for that matter. Had to chuckle at the vision that the male frigatebird brought to your mind. Many thanks, my friend, blessings to you.

  23. I’m with Joanne (and many of your followers). Wow. Wow. Wow. This is better than any biology or environmental/nature class I’ve ever attended. Not only are the photos remarkable, but your narrative with the photos is simple and clear and yet holds the awe you feel about each bird. You are so fortunate to have this talent, means, and sense of adventure, the two of you, to travel and observe Nature’s wonderful creature.

    • Thanks so much, Pam, for your kind and warm words. I feel fortunate to have had these experiences, and also fortunate to be able to share them with appreciative friends like you. Best wishes to you during this unusual time.

  24. Jet, I saved this post so that when Ben was done with all his work I could share it with him. Because I knew how much he too would love it!

    Love love this post. The colors, the range and the introduction to some new ones for us. The male frigate we were lucky to find by chance when we took a boat ride in Panama to a tiny island, which on the one side was chockfull of these gorgeous male birds with their large red throats like balloons. It was a noisy colony but seeing so many of these was an incredible sight.

    The hammerkop I know from growing up in South Africa ~ But Ben had not seen that one.
    Neither of us has ever seen or heard of a “cock of the rock” bird. Certainly very unique.

    Extraordinary photos and love the sighting of the two of you at the end. A rare sighting indeed 🙂

    Here in our new home base on the Oaxacan coast of Mexico we are greeted every morning by some bright yellow birds with rather large chests, but have no idea yet what type of birds they are. Also, lots of hummingbirds visiting us. Where was the marsh in Mexico where you saw the Potoo?

    Great post. We both thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Peta & Ben

    • A pure delight to hear from you and Ben, Peta, and to receive your wonderful message. I am not surprised that you have visited a tiny Panamanian island and seen a colony of male frigatebirds, as you two are fluid and adventurous travelers. I am truly happy that you two have seen this, yes, noisy but incredible sight, for it is a marvelous occurrence. I was surprised to hear you’re on our side of the planet now, and it reminded me I need to stop by and visit your blog. I always enjoy reading about your intrepid adventures. To answer your question, we visited the town of San Blas in Mexico for a week in 2009, as it is a terrific bird migration spot. It is in the state of Nayarit, just north of Jalisco, not that far north of you on the Pacific Coast. We loved it there, I’m sure you two would as well. We took the boat down the San Cristobal River to see the potoo. Adios and gracias.

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