Call of the common potoo—described as one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs in the rainforest

Despite its austere accommodations and a parent that appears a bit… wooden, the developing embryo inside this egg is not without its advantages. Once hatched, it will be cared for by two doting adults eager to share warmth, cover, and regurgitated insects with their single growing offspring. And without squabbling siblings or a conspicuous nest to attract unwanted attention, the baby bird might simply go unnoticed by would-be predators as it grows up. Granted, its parents have placed the only egg they’ll incubate this year into one very shallow basket, but such is life for an animal that seems to value camouflage above all else.

The common potoo (Nyctibius griseus) is a true master of disguise. One of seven closely related nocturnal species native to Central and South America, the bird not only wears the perfect outfit—a mottled coat of grays and browns that matches the bare tree branches and trunks it calls home—but it knows instinctively how to play the part of a plant. This individual, for example, responding to the presence of wildlife photographer Chien C. Lee or some other minor disturbance in the rainforest, has taken a break from incubating its egg and risen slowly to a vertical position, pointing its beak skyward in a consummate portrayal of a broken tree branch.

While the bird might appear inanimate—or asleep if you’re lucky enough to spot it—this stance means high alert in potoo body language. Those sleepy-looking eyes are anything but. Narrow folds in the upper eyelids enable the bird to peek out from its apparent slumber, monitoring its surroundings and tracking the movements of perceived threats with imperceptibly slow turns of its head. Only when the danger has passed will the bird resume a somewhat more relaxed and slightly less camouflaged posture.

For a bird that sleeps during the day, when many of its predators—including hawks, snakes, and monkeys—are active, camouflage is an important survival strategy. But few birds are as committed to hiding in plain sight as the common potoo. Early naturalists described approaching the birds within inches before they finally flushed. Waiting until the last possible moment to move may actually increase their odds of escape, since seeing a tree branch suddenly spring to life at close range would be enough to fluster even the most seasoned predator. Perhaps that’s why striking—and holding—a statuesque pose is one of the life lessons this potoo will teach its chick before the youngster ventures out on its own.

Utría National Park, Colombia

Chien C. Lee

With a background in ecology and environmental education, wildlife photographer Chien C. Lee has been based on the island of Borneo since 1996. He specializes in documenting the flora and fauna of rainforests, with a particular emphasis on species that exhibit extraordinary adaptations such as camouflage, mimicry, and interspecific mutualism.

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