Monday, March 31, 2008

Oropendolas Forever


In Guatemala, in the middle of the Gran Plaza at the ancient Maya city of Tikal there is a clump of trees with a nesting colony of Montezuma oropendolas. These large dark birds are loud and conspicuous as they call to one another, and their huge baglike nests are a curiosity noticed by even the most bird-oblivious tourists.

This large member of the Icterid family (blackbirds and relatives) is a Central American native. They are quite common throughout their range and are often one of the first truly weird tropical birds added to the lifelists of visiting birders (after the 'everywhere' birds are seen).

Gorging on the fruits of a fig tree.

Males are a bright chestnut over most of the body. The tail is primarily bright yellow but the head is where the crazy color action starts, with a large light blue face patch and pink wattle. The bill is black with an orange tip. For a more complete description of the Montezuma oropendola, get Wiki with it.

Some colonies of the Montezuma oropendola may contain more than 150 nests.


The nests are intricately woven things, made up of small bits of vine, grass, and other plant fibers. The nests can hang down more than five feet, looking like really giant Baltimore oriole nests.

I've seen larger colonies of oropenola nests than the one at Tikal, but this one is easily approached and observe. The birds in the colony were nest building when I was there in early March. One or more would stay behind to thwart the ever-present guild of nest raiders hanging around the plaza. I watch a melodious blackbird make a pass at the nests as well as a great-tailed grackle. Both were routed from the area by the oropendola sentries. There were brown jays about, too, and I'll bet they eat quite a few oropendola eggs and young.

An adult Montezuma oropendola standing guard near the nest which is still under construction.

Flying from the colony to get nesting material.

Returning past Temple II with some small vines to add to the nest.

As I sat there on the warm stones of a side temple in the Gran Plaza, watching the Montezuma oropendolas come and go, I found myself wondering if the Mayan people watched the antecedents of these same birds nearly 1,000 years ago. Did the raucous burbling calls of this species echo off these same temple walls?

I am certain they did. And it's an amazing thing to ponder.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The World's Ugliest Turkey Head

Tikal's Gran Plaza.


On Wednesday, March 5, 2008, I was part of a group of international birders who spent the day enjoying the birds, animals, people, and the stone temples of Tikal, the ancient Maya city in northeast Guatemala. In the mid-afternoon we encountered a small flock of ocellated turkeys foraging in the shade behind Temple IV. The birds were accustomed to hordes of people walking past them, so we were able to get close for some full-frame shots.

Tikal is famous as a place to see the ocellated turkey, one of only two native turkey species in the world—the other being the wild turkey of North America. The OTs at Tikal are tame because they are not persecuted. Most other places in this bird's range they are hunted because they are a large wild creature packing a lot of tasty meat.

I shot 100 or so images of the ocellateds. They have incredibly ugly heads (blue with orange 'warts') balanced somewhat by gorgeous iridescent body feathers. I thought they might actually win the prize for ugliest bird head.

Little did I know it, but just 40 hours later I would be up close to a flock of wild turkeys in Raymond, Nebraska. They were coming in to a feeding station at the home of our hosts and friends Steve and Cheryl Eno. I shot another 100 frames of the world's OTHER turkey species from point-blank range, but through the glass pane of a window.

Several of the males were getting their snoods in an uproar, fanning their tails and sending the blood rushing to where it would have the most apparent effect. After all, it was a sunny day and there were some gallinaceous hotties nearby.

This got me pondering: Which Turkey Has The Ugliest Head?

Is it the ocellated turkey of the Central American jungle?
Or is it the wild turkey of North America.
America, we await your votes.
With only two native turkey species in the world, the winner of this contest can lay claim to the title:

The World's Ugliest Turkey Head!

First, the ocellated turkey: hairy blue head with orange lumps and red eye skin.





Second, our wild turkey contestants in various states of arousal, from least to most:





Please use the comment button below to register your vote. Vote early, vote often, but please vote. We will tally the results and pick a winner by the end of the day Wednesday, March 26, 2008.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I Like Big Buttresses (and I cannot lie)


While walking a trail at Tikal, in Guatemala, our birding group encountered a GIANT set of buttress roots from a tree that was so tall we could not see its crown through the canopy. Here are Liz, Terry, and Sharon linking hands to show the scale of this huge tree.

On prior visits to Tikal I've always enjoyed communing with an old forest creature I call the Tarantula Tree. It's a huge ceiba tree, right along the main entrance path on the right as you walk in and it is ginormous enough that only the most oblivious of turistas miss it.

Two years ago I photographed a plumbeous kite in its upper branches. Last year I posed at the tree's base with fellow birder Jeff Gordon.

BT3 and Jeff Gordon showing both some scale and some legs at the base of the Tarantula Tree.

Why is it called the Tarantula Tree? Well, check out its bromeliad-covered branches. To me they look like giant tarantula legs reaching for the sun. Then again, the night before I coined that name for this tree, I encountered a large (six inches across) tarantula on the way back to my cabin.

The Tarantula Tree's uppermost portion.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

So Ugly It's Beautiful

I thought it was unfair of me to show a headless ocellated turkey from Tikal, so here is a close-up shot of the bird's head. Tikal is the best place in the world (many say) to see and photograph this unusual species. Dig those colorful caruncles?

I have a series of OT pix to share with you. GoogleBlogger is still gving me photo-uploading fits, so this one comes via Flickr.

Mas mañana, amigos!
--Guillermo de los Pajaros

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