We started moving into progressively larger bodies of water. I spotted a few small groups of Groove-billed Anis, all-black relatives of cuckoos. Finally, we rounded the bend to see the wide, muddy Colorado stretching before us. We headed past basking American Crocodiles, just feet away from feeding Little Blue Herons and a Roseate Spoonbill.
The first spot we tried was a bust - no fish were biting. This was also the first time I truly experienced the sweltering tropical sun. I actually felt like I was melting. Luckily for me, we pulled anchor and went downstream to the river mouth. Here there was at least a breeze - but any relief I felt was soon crushed by the huge swells coming in off the sea. Not good news for someone who gets seasick. We were in a pretty small boat, and the water was just a few inches from spilling over and sinking us as each wave went by. My dad and I were legitimately worried by the time our guide Roberto dropped anchor. Pretty soon, though, 100+ pound Tarpon started biting, and we pretty much forgot about the waves. We couldn't keep any of them on for long - we weren't exactly experienced with fish nearly the size of a person!
There was a lull in the action, and I looked around me. A sizable flock of Royal Terns were resting on the beach on the south side of the inlet. To my surprise, they all took off. I spun around to see a powerful gull-like bird barreling toward the terns at top speed. It was mottled brown with striking white patches on its inner primaries. I knew what it was, a bird I had never seen before. A jaeger.
"Skua!" Roberto shouted, "that bird belong WAY out in da ocean." He was right. Parasitic Jaeger (called Arctic Skua in many parts of the world) was just about the last bird on my mind at the time. It wasn't even in the field guide I brought along. I jumped down to grab my camera, and started firing away. I knew the only way I would be able to safely identify the bird to species would be with photographs, especially considering my lack of experience with the genus. (Note - I am pretty sure about my ID, but if anyone disagrees, feel free to comment below. Jaegers are hard.)
The word "jaeger", used in North America to describe the smaller species of skuas, comes from the German word "jäger", or "hunter". It's not really an accurate name - this bird doesn't do as much hunting as its name suggests, at least not in winter (they feed on smaller birds more frequently in summer). In fact, it gets most of its food by stealing from other birds - a habit known as kleptoparasitism, the natural world's equivalent to piracy. Jaegers chase and harass their victims, particularly gulls and terns, until they give up whatever prey they may have caught. It's awesome. I watched this particular bird bolt after the flock of terns, singling a few out to target at a time. It clearly had an upper hand with its freakish speed. After just a few minutes at the inlet, this avian pirate turned back to the sea, and melted away into the horizon.
This was the highlight of my day (my dad's highlight was catching a 100 pound tarpon - I failed to land one). On the way back, Roberto did find one more nice surprise for us - a slightly out-of-range Snail Kite perched above a backwater. It was pretty cooperative, though the heat shimmer made the photo a little blurry.
We finally got back to the lodge around mid-afternoon, finishing up the boat ride with a group of White-collared Swifts circling overhead. It had been a fantastic last day in the lowlands - our next destination would be completely different.
|Parasitic Jaeger flying over the rainforest - not a caption I ever thought I'd write.|
|Snail Kite - a kite that eats snails.|