The Curse of the Potoo


‘We spot a most unusual specimen — and suffer the cosmic consequences’

Nope. That’s not the ‘unusual specimen’ in the photo at the top of this story. That’s Chuck. Or, as he came to be known on this trip (by me anyway) ‘UpChuck’. For reasons which will soon become apparent.

The ‘unusual specimen’ in this story is a bird called, I kid you not, the Potoo. I first heard about the Potoo when The Dude and I were birdwatching in Panama last year. Dude Man kept asking ‘Hey, can you find us a Potoo?’ And Guide Man would just smile and shake his head, as if to say ‘That’ll be the day’. And I’d be like ‘Potoo? Potoo? That’s not a real bird, is it?’

See, I thought The Dude and The Guide were having me on. That looking for a Potoo was kind of like going on a ‘Snipe Hunt’. Which, if you grew up in the Midwest like me, you remember was an elaborate practical joke that Big Boys would play on Smaller Boys, like at Scout Camp. Or sometimes the joke would be played on Naive High-School Girls by Naughty High-School Boys. ‘Hey, wanna go in the woods tonight? On a Snipe Hunt? (Snicker Snicker)’

Potoo? Oh, wacky little Potoo? You in there?

But no. Looking for a Potoo is a Real Thing, all right. It’s just that those wacky Potoo are notoriously hard to find, being dead ringers for sticks or leaves. They do their moving around at night, to hunt. But stay absolutely motionless during the day, and so are nearly impossible to spot.

There you are, you little devil! If he didn’t have that eye open, you’d totally mistake this Potoo for a dead leaf

Now you have to picture yourself marching along in the jungle in zillion-degree heat, on a recently-machete-cleared path, trying to keep out of the way of Army Ants and wasps, to set the stage for finding this Potoo. Which, to be honest, we weren’t actually looking for, since that would be a total Loser’s Quest. We were looking for Ant Birds and Puffbirds and Parrots and such. Which aren’t that easy to find, either, but a virtual snap compared to the Potoo.

That’s us, marching along, not looking for the Potoo

So Micah, this young guide-in-training, hears a bird and stops to scan the jungle when he goes, remarkably dead-pan-like, ‘There’s a Potoo.’ Bret, our Ace Head Guide, goes ‘Potoo? Where?!?’ And Micah points his trusty spotting scope (that thing he’s carrying in the photo above) right at the critter. (They don’t move, remember. Well, except to sway a bit, to more accurately mimic a dead leaf.)

Well. You could have knocked us over with a feather. There were folks on this trip who’d been birding for like 40 years who’d never seen a Potoo. At least not during the day. They’re a bit easier to find at night. You shine a searchlight, and catch their eyes.

Here’s another Potoo, found at night via boat-top searchlight. Cool, but not nearly as exciting as finding that needle-in-a-haystack one in the jungle

So anyway. What’s with the Curse? Well. This is my own theory, you understand. But I’m thinking there was a bit of Cosmic Payback involved with finding that Potoo. See, the Very Day we found it, Chuck became violently ill. He was (sorry, Chuck) ‘upchucking’ right and left. His wife thought he just had a touch of ‘traveler’s whatnot’ or had eaten something that didn’t agree with him. But then, the next day, she got it. Then it was Larry. And, yup, I was next. Then Paul. Then Marcelo. And, finally, The Dude himself.

Turns out that it had also swept through the crew. Honestly, it was like ‘And Then There Were None’ around that boat. We never did figure out What It Was, but least it didn’t last long—24 hours, tops. It was, as Thomas Hobbes might have said, “nasty, brutish, and (thank goodness) short”. I can say that, during its duration, the only thing that I could keep down was Coca-Cola, which, being a Diet Coke aficionado, I hadn’t tasted in years. (I must say that after Diet Coke, Real Coke is like unprotected sex.)

Its funny though (sort of, haha) that the only people who didn’t suffer the Curse of the Potoo were the two actual people who found him: Micah and Bret. Hmmm. Some kind of Potoo Pact?

Oh, did I mention that I celebrated my birthday on this trip? Rest assured it was before we found the Potoo. Which means I enjoyed every bite of my passionfruit birthday cake. Not to mention my caipirinha.

One of my friends said to make sure The Dude took me someplace expensive for my birthday. I said he did: to Brazil

Anyway. We all survived — and much lighter on our feet, in fact — to search for birds another day. And had a most marvelous time doing so.

Checking out birds (between bouts of booting) under the laundry on top of our boat, the Tumbira

I’ll close with this photo of The Dude feeling mighty fine — with the world at his feet and the moon in his hand.

He’s got the whole moon in his hand

Amagansett, New York. November 2017

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10 thoughts on “The Curse of the Potoo

  1. Glad you got your Potoo! a (seemingly) trash bird for our group in Ecuador… sorry about the Curse of the River of Doubt. Wait. Didn’t TR’s son have that too???? Hmmmm.

    • “Trash bird”? Hmmm. Better not let our Potoo know you said that (!) As for the Curse and TR’s son, wow. Didn’t know that. Coincidence? But I’m only on the first chapter of the River of Doubt. Thanksgiving and tons of company, you know.

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