A Lesson’s Motmot’s Lesson by Evan Barnard


A birder [ˈbər-dər] is a species of bird-watcher who actively pursues birds.

Well, that’s just the beginning of the story.

Birders often keep lists; they document species they find; the experienced birders know where species hotspots are located. The more experienced ones can identify species just by song and call notes.

And that’s where I am – finding my sweet spot as a birder on the UGA campus in sub-montane rain forest of Costa Rica’s rich Pacific slope.

Let me tell you about a few of my favorite friends.

The Keel-billed Toucan startles everyone when it flies, in part because its range is being pushed to higher elevations by rising atmospheric temperatures. Its cousin, the Northern Emerald-Toucanet, is quite a bit smaller but more common and has a slightly more pleasantly rough call. The “Easter egg blue” Blue-Gray Tanagers are easy to spot because of their color, which is of course iridescent because virtually no bird species in the world has actual blue-pigment feathers.

And it’s not just good looks. Quite a few other bird species have mesmerized me with their calls. Several times a day, I hear male Long-tailed Manakin lekking duos wooing females with their characteristic synchronized songs.

And then there are the hummingbirds.

Whether it is a Rufous-tailed hummingbird or a Green-crowned Brilliant (yes, here in Costa Rica hummers are not all denoted with the common name “hummingbird” and instead called names like “woodstars,” ‘mountaingems,” and even “mangoes!”), constant loud chittering is something I can get used to near the tubular flowers found wherever I look.

And finally, there is my best friend, my pal, my one and only – the Lesson’s Motmot.

During my walks on the campus, aside from passerines (AKA the perching birds) like Costa Rica’s national bird – the Clay-colored Thrush – and hummingbirds, the species I often see the most and certainly hear everywhere is the gorgeous Lesson’s Motmot (Momotus lessonii).

In flight, the mighty motmot shoots past as a blue flash, but when the medium-sized bird perches nearby, it never ceases to amaze me with its repertoire of colorful, iridescent feathers. I wish I could paint a mental image, but even such a painting would not show off the bird’s regal tawny front and neck as well as its green throat and back, which perfectly blends into two long cyan blue tail feathers with paddle-like tips. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the motmot’s appearance is its seemingly glowing azure crown. Long before the bird makes an appearance, it

makes frequent calls resembling its name, “mot-mot,” in a relatively low-pitched and quiet fashion which begs for more repetition.

I must say, I have truly come to love the motmot.

But with the Motmot, as with all the other birds I have seen it, it is not just about good lucks and beautiful calls. These birds are a measure of ecological health and sustenance. The Lesson’s Motmot – may be on the “least concern” end of the endangered species spectrum, but like the majority of the other bird species I have seen on my hikes here, this species of motmot is endemic and susceptible to both direct as well as indirect anthropogenic effects. The habitat range of the aforementioned toucans is now at an overall higher elevation due to atmospheric warming. In fifty or even five years’ time, the motmot could be similarly affected.

Perhaps the most important part of my time as a student here has been watching my peers’ attitudes towards birds change. From little to no initial interest they are realizing how birds are an integral part of this place. They have begun paying more attention to birds, specifically differentiating the calls of the many singing birds on the hikes. I even heard one friend describing how their perception of nature changed after their first sighting of a motmot.

Sometimes we need to listen to the natural world to understand human nature and its threats to the environment. It is time to heed the lessons of the Lesson’s Motmot.

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