100 Seconds – Montezuma’s Oropendola 4/7/21

My Journey to a Central American Rainforest

Most of us can instantly remember the scariest plane ride they’ve had. Mine was the short flight from the airport in Belize City to a remote rainforest eco-lodge, an enclave of elevated cabins and dining hall built on an ancient Mayan site. Over 300 species of birds have been spotted there. Nature lovers came from all over the world; but with Covid, I can’t imagine how these lodges survive or how the rainforest can be protected very long from “development”, or rather, destruction.

A single engine, four-seater Cessna had an engine that growled and rumbled ominously throughout the half hour trip to the lodge. I peered anxiously out the window at the dense green canopy below, where jaguars still roamed. I muttered a silent prayer when the wheels finally bounced on the ground.

On arrival, I heard a sound like no other -– something making a long-drawn, echoing, liquid burbling noise, becoming a loud gurgle, ascending in pitch. The lodge employee carrying my duffel bag to my cabin laughed when I asked what was making that sound. She said, “wait until you hear the dawn chorus of these birds. Montezuma’s Oropendolas”. What a name! She laughed again and pointed to the tree canopy, where a colony of twenty-odd, intricately woven nest sacks was hanging three feet or more from the branches. These oropendolas wove vines to create their pendulous nests to secure them from predators.

Then I saw one fly out of the cup of the nest. I lifted my binoculars and stared at this strange creature. An oropendola was similar in size to our red-winged blackbird, chestnut with a blackish head and rump, and a bright yellow tail. Its face had a blue cheek patch and pink wattle, with a long bill, black at the base with a red tip. Colors off the chart!

Found only in Central America, the English and scientific names of this species commemorate the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II, a very unlucky name, as he and his empire never survived the invasion by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. The word “oropendola” is derived from the term “gold pendulum”, referring to the bird’s tail and the male’s unusual habit of bowing forward when calling the female as part of its elaborate courtship display. The name also references their distinctive hanging nests.

The diet of these birds consists of large insects (of which there were plenty), nectar and fruit, including bananas. It belongs to the New World family of blackbirds, called Icterids. With howler monkeys, they are the definitive sound of the Central American rainforest. It was worth the worrying plane ride to get there.

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