Speaking of Nature: Capturing my Bermuda nemesis: The Great Kiskadee nearly evaded me, until I followed its song

 I eventually caught up with this particular bird, which was initially uncooperative, in a secret grotto hidden among some lava rocks.

I eventually caught up with this particular bird, which was initially uncooperative, in a secret grotto hidden among some lava rocks. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON


For the Recorder

Published: 05-06-2024 6:01 AM

We’ve reached that point in the school year when it is actually painful (I mean physically painful) for me to leave my yard in the morning. May is the true month of the reawakening and blooming of Nature’s splendor and last week she was in full shock-and-awed mode. On one particularly warm morning, after a nighttime of rain, I walked out onto my deck and was bombarded with a symphony of beautiful sounds. American toads and spring peepers were singing, Wild Turkeys were gobbling, Barred Owls were hooting and White-throated Sparrows were in full voice. Anyone standing in my yard might also have heard the sound of gentle sobbing as I pulled out of my driveway.

A few of the Neotropical Migrants that will eventually fill our fields and forests to the bursting point have arrived, but there are so many that are still on their way. I want unrestricted access to my backyard from dawn to 10:00 a.m. every single day so that I can detect the precise moment when each of these visitors arrives. Sadly, I won’t have that opportunity until late into the month of June.

But recently, back in April, I did have a wonderful experience with the birds of Bermuda. For three magical mornings, from the balcony of my cabin on Deck 11, I could sit and listen to the sounds of a brand new place as it woke up every morning. Roosters would crow, White-tailed Tropicbirds would fly over the old British fort, and then there was one other sound that was surprisingly loud. This was a song that I had never heard before, so it was of great interest to me. What was that?

The song was in three parts, each of which was a single, clear note. Sometimes the notes slurred upward in pitch and other times they slurred downward, but the repetition of three notes never changed. It was an easy song to hear, but the singing bird proved elusive until I ventured off the ship on my first shore excursion. Adjacent to the Royal Dockyard was a gorgeous old stone building with two clock towers (clearly another artifact from the British history on Bermuda) and it was on one of those lofty stone spires that I eventually caught sight of the mystery bird for the first time.

Looking at today’s photo, I am sure that you can imagine how readily recognizable the bird was the moment I actually set eyes on it. It was a Great Kiskadee (Pitangussulphuratus) and although I had never seen one in real life before, I had no doubts about what it was. As a responsible photographer I immediately took a photo of the bird and produced one of those pathetic shots in which the item of interest is a yellow dot on a huge stone tower. It was technically a photo of a kiskadee, but it wasn’t something that I could share with you.

As the days on Bermuda unfolded I quickly discovered that the Great Kiskadee was going to be my vacation nemesis on the island; the bird that was always there, but somehow uncooperative for photography. I have written about this phenomenon at length with regard to the Osprey whenever I visit Cape Cod, or Martha’s Vineyard, and the same aggravating relationship was blooming with a new species in a new place. But, just as my relationship with the Osprey finally “broke,” so did my relationship with the kiskadee.

It was my last day on Bermuda and my beautiful wife Susan and I were visiting the “fantasy beach” that we had been dreaming of for months. The “sand” on the beach was pulverized coral and it was as soft as flour. To our mutual delight it was also pink in color! Lounge chairs, palm trees and tropical drinks were all there to enjoy and we both melted into the scenery without a second thought. And then I heard that kiskadee song. Only later did I learn that the bird was named for this vocalization. Someone imagined the bird was saying ”kiss-kah-dee.”

I picked up my camera and walked toward the song. I approached a bend in the beach where an outcropping of large lava rocks rose from the shoreline and I noticed that there was an entrance to a small, hidden grotto right there. I carefully entered this hidden spot and almost immediately saw a flash of yellow emerge from the rocks in front of me. It was a Great Kiskadee and it was carrying nesting material! I waited patiently, took about 100 photos and the best of the bunch also turned out to be photo number 7,000 for the year.

Although it is one of the most prominent bird species on Bermuda, the Great Kiskadee wasn’t a Bermuda bird until it was introduced to the island in 1957. We have no kiskadees here in western Massachusetts, but we are expecting the arrival of the Great-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchuscrinitus), which is vaguely similar in appearance due to a brown back and a yellow breast. However, the Great Kiskadee has those extraordinary black-and-white stripes on the head and the yellow on the breast is much darker.

May is a busy month and it can go by so quickly if you don’t stop and pay attention. Mother’s Day weekend is coming up soon and I hope that anyone taking some time to celebrate that special day also has a little time to sit outside and enjoy the sights and sounds of the season. By that time the warblers and flycatchers might have started to appear and the breeding season will be in full swing. Get outside for just a little while and enjoy the energy and optimism that birds bring to spring.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 26 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.