Written by Cyril Brass
A Snake Bird, A Water Turkey, A Darter. It's always exciting and rewarding to go on a wildlife excursion into the tropical jungles of Costa Rica. The mystery of the unknown to what lies ahead and the discovery of exotic wildlife.
This is the case when you travel into the coastal rainforest on a flat-bottomed boat along an infinite maze of meandering channels and streams of the Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica. The encroaching trees and marshes to this inter-connected water highway system provide ideal habitats for many species of birds like the egret, heron and kingfisher. But what about a Snake Bird, a Water Turkey and a Darter? These are some commonly used names for the large black aquatic bird, the Anhinga.
A relative to the Cormorant and Pelican, the Anhinga possesses several unique characteristics from other wetland bird species, resulting in these unusual titles given to it.
Unlike most water fowl which swim on top of the water, the Anhinga swims in the water with only its long neck and thin head visible above the surface. It stretches its head and neck flat on the water surface, giving the appearance of a snake gliding through the water. Thus given the name Snake Bird.
This tropical bird spends many hours basking in the sun. No, not for sun tanning. The Anhinga has no oil glands therefore the feathers are not waterproof. The water does not repel off the bird like it does with ducks and other waterfowl. After being in the water for some time, the Anhinga will get waterlogged causing it to be less and less buoyant. So it must stand in the sun for long periods with its wings spread out to allow the feathers to dry out. This is the most identifiable characteristic of the Anhinga. Seeing a large black bird perched on a branch, I knew it was an Anhinga.
It was very impressive to see this large aquatic bird up close without scaring it away. As we quietly floated along the water, several Anhingas were perched on low lying branches having to wait for their feathers to dry. If the Anhinga must escape from potential danger, while drying out its plumage, it is still able to fly but with more difficulty and effort.
As it absorbs the suns rays with wings spread open, you can notice the long fanned-out tail similar to a turkey's tail. Thus given the name Water Turkey.
The intense sun also warms up the body of the Anhinga. It has no insulating layer of feathers on its body like other water birds. While in the water, it loses body heat quickly. So it must stand in the hot sunshine to maintain its body temperature. On a cloudy day the Anhinga is not as active due to lack of sunshine and heat to keep the body warm and to dry out those feathers.
But what appears to be a disadvantage to the Anhinga, can also be use to its benefit. Without the oily covered feathers, the wet feathers actually help the Anhinga dive and stalk its prey underwater for long periods of time. I have watched this skillful diver plunge into the waters depth wondering where and when it would reappear. Eventually the snake-like neck and head pop back above the surface in a far off unsuspecting direction.
The Anhinga is a skillful hunter with fish being its primary food source. It hunts its prey underwater tracking slow moving fish. With its long neck, it quickly strikes out spearing the fish with a lightning fast jab of its long serrated beak; like an arrow hitting the target. The S-shaped neck allows for a more accelerated strike towards its prey. Thus given the name Darter.
It then brings its catch above the water, flicks the fish off of its bill into the air and gulps it down head first.
The type of habitats the Anhinga can live in is limited due to its lack of oil glands and insulating body feathers. There must be consistent amounts of sunshine and hot temperatures year round like the climates of the tropical and subtropical regions of the world for the Anhinga to survive. Plus, being a water bird, the Anhinga needs to be close to slow moving bodies of water like streams, lakes, swamps and lagoons.
The Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica is an ideal environment for the Anhinga as well as many other water fowl species as the dense forest borders the connecting canals, streams and lagoons.
The Anhinga does not hang out in large flocks. It is mostly a solitary bird when hunting, resting and drying out but it can be seen with other wetland birds like herons.
And one more different characteristic of the Anhinga is it can be seen soaring high in the sky like hawks and vultures. With outstretched wings, these graceful fliers travel long distances without flapping its wings riding the warm air currents overhead.
The Anhinga ..... a Snake bird, Water turkey, Darter ...... a skillful diver and hunter.
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