A Squirrel Moment – Squirrel Cuckoo that is

Ranging from mid-Mexico down through central South America, the Squirrel Cuckoo is common and is most often seen in gliding from one tree to another, or energetically hopping from branch to branch in search of a wide variety of arthropods. It is a fairly common resident in the Yucatan Peninsula, but had somehow eluded me in my previous birding stops. As I related in my Let’s Groove Tonight post I had been photographing some very cooperative Groove-billed Anis along the side of the road.

Groove-billed Ani

The anis were feeding around a big ant swarm and other birds were joining in on the feast. Seemingly out of nowhere, my “lifer” Squirrel Cuckoo seem to just appear on a branch in front of me. The Squirrel Cuckoo is in the same family of birds, Cuculidae, as the Groove-billed Ani.

Squirrel Cuckoo

The name ‘Squirrel Cuckoo’ comes from their coloration and the fact that their movements in trees resemble those of a squirrel at first glance.

Squirrel Cuckoo

According to BirdLife International, the Squirrel Cuckoo is listed as a species of Least Concern.

Holy Batcave – Batman

Taking a slight deviation from my theme of Yucatan Birds, one of the biggest Holy Guacamole moments was actually of a different kind of flying vertebrate – bats. Deep in the forests of southern Campeche is a unique natural protected area known as “Zona Sujeta a Conservación Ecológica Balam-Kú” in Calakmul Municipality. This ecological area is home to “El Volcán de los Murciélagos”.

There are seven bat caves known in Mexico, but this is the only one featuring a visual volcano of erupting chiropterans. In fact, it is one of only two know to exist in the entire world. The second one being in Malasia.

There have been 9 bat species identified in this cave with one being nectivorous,

  • Pallas’ Long-tongued Bat – Glossophaga soricina,

and the others insectivorous.

  • Davy’s (lesser) Naked-backed Bat – Pteronotus davyi,
  • Big Naked-backed Bat – P. gymnonotus,
  • Parnell’s Mustached Bat – P. parnellii
  • Wagner’s Mustached Bat – P. personatus
  • Ghost-faced Bat – Mormoops megalophylla
  • Mexican Funnel-eared Bat –Natalus stramineus
  • Hairy-legged Myotis Bat – Myotis keaysi 
  • and Broad-eared Bat –  Nyctinomops laticaudatus).

Over the years a 130-feet-deep landslide has formed due to rainfall and erosion. At the bottom of this landslide there is a cave with an entrance 400 feet wide and 500 feet deep, at its longest with a depth of almost 2,000 feet. Every afternoon, approximately between 5 and 6 pm, “the volcano”, erupts with between three and four million bats as if they were lava. From the first handful of emerging bats, the eruption can last up to 90 minutes until the last bat leaves its roost.

SENSORY OVERLOAD

Hushed conversations in Spanish, French, English and German coming from the small group of ecotourists that were gathered with much excitement in anticipation of this living volcano of bats. Standing on the edge of this expansive grotto, the quiet conversations seemed to be absorbed by the mysterious and beautiful setting. Suddenly the talking stopped as the first handful of bats flew right past our observation point – “Here they come!”

My mind tried to envision what the guide said would be almost 8 million bats erupting from the cave. At first, a few dozen began to circle around the opening, slowly rising higher and higher. Gradually the numbers grew, slowly at first and then increasing almost exponentially. Dozens became hundreds became thousands became MILLIONS. ABSOLUTLEY INCOMPREHENSIBLE.

Soon, the cave walls resonated with the sound of a million tiny bat wings flapping mightily to rise into the jungle sky. Creating their own mini-weather system, the circling bats generated a funnel of rising winds, laden with the sulphureous odor of uncountable tons of bat guano.

Links to more details

Conservación de Murciélagos en Campeche

Cueva de los murciélagos en Calakmul, Campeche

Reserva de Balam Kú: El “volcán” de los murciélagos

Let’s Groove Tonight

Groove-billed Ani – Crotophaga sulcirostris

Ranging from the tip of Northern Chile to the lowlands of Southern Texas, the Groove-billed Ani is a member of the Cuculidae Family that also includes Roadrunners and Cuckoos. It can be found throughout the Yucatán Peninsula often found foraging on the arthropods flushed up from ant swarms.

In Search of…

After getting a great night’s sleep in Rio Lagartos, Yucatan, the four Pajareros left before dawn in search of any number of Lifers for me.

We ended up walking along a very quiet dirt road listening and watching for cooperative birds.

Miguel, Claudio and Chino, Pajareando

One of the three amigos called out rather casually, “Groove-billed Ani.” Unbeknownst to them, the Groove-billed Ani was on my list of US birds that I did not have a photo of. Miguel Amar quickly pointed out a distant Ani and I snapped off a dozen shots of the VERY distant bird. Even though it wasn’t something I’d ever share in a presentation, it was a decent record shot and clearly showed its most unusual bill. Miguel chuckled and commented, “Don’t worry, we’ll see many more. And much closer!” (Yeah right, I thought to myself, I’ve heard that before…)

Groove-billed Ani

Well, it only took another 20 minutes to prove Miguel right! We came upon a swarm of ants and the birds started coming in. 25-minutes and 140 images later, I landed a few really decent images of the GROOVE-BILLED ANI.

Groove-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani

Black Phoebe – Sayornis nigricans

A medium-sized flycatcher with a sooty-black back and head with a white belly. Typically seen singly or in pairs, usually sitting conspicuously on a low perch often near water. The Black Phoebe can frequently be seen pumping its tail up and down.

Black Phoebe at Merced NWR 11/18/2021

View from the Valley 

The Black Phoebe is a common year round valley resident that may turn up in your backyard. They are quite vocal giving a Tsip call throughout the year and in several different contexts (e.g., during flight, foraging, interaction with potential nest predator). They can be found in almost any habitat that includes water, i.e., streams, wetlands, ponds and backyard pools. The Black Phoebe is insectivorous and can usually be seen flying out from a low perch to catch flying insects and other arthropods.

Black Phoebe at CSU Stanislaus 12/16/2018

Global Conservation Status

This species has an extremely large range, appears to be increasing and the population size is extremely large (>5,000,000), and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable. For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern. “BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Sayornis nigricans. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 05/01/2022.”

Black Phoebe at Basalt Campground, Merced County 4/16/2016

Fun Facts

Black Phoebes are monogamous and frequently raise 2 broods of young during a breeding season. Their adherent nests are composed of a mud shell lined with plant fibers, typically placed over water and plastered to a vertical wall within a few centimeters of a protective ceiling. Nest construction or refurbishment usually begins in March or April and takes from 1 to 3 weeks. (Wolf, B. O. (2020). Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.blkpho.01 on 05/01/2022.) 

Black Phoebe at the San Joaquin River NWR 9/25/2016