Well, talk about a complete surprise.
There we were just outside Panama City at the Ammo Dump Ponds, looking for the White-throated Crake. We easily saw the usual suspects earlier, but now we were looking for the illusive needle-in-a-haystake crake. Like most rallidae (that’s fancy for “of the rail family”), they skulk around marshy areas and are tough to find. I mean really tough. They don’t like to make themselves visible and frustrate birders to no end. They weave in and out through the blades of grass and if you’re lucky enough to see them you can see why the expression, “skinny as a rail” makes sense.
We could hear it call. Ch u u u u u u uuuuurrrrrr. Steady at first and then crescendoing and growing rapidly at the end. But where was it? Three pairs of eyes were looking for it—me, Steve and our guide, Beny, but we couldn’t get eyes on it.
It was on the move. The call was getting closer to us and then it stopped. A minute later it started up again and it seemed like it was more to the left and further away now. Beny leaned down and looked through his scope, pointing it in a different direction, looking through the lens and then moving the scope again. Then back to his binoculars for a scan. No luck.
I thought I heard it call more to the left, so I pointed my camera lens to a little section of reeds and tall grass way out across the marsh and Steve turned the same direction with his binoculars up against his eyes and we saw it and said simultaneously, “There!”
“Beny! Come here!” we called. Steve pointed and I started snapping photos as the crake wove in and out of the reeds. Now you see it. Now you don’t. Oh, there it is again. Oops, gone. Oh hey, there he is. Snap, snap, snap. Got it.
Beny rushes over to us and throws his binoculars up to his eyes “Oh my gosh, guys!” he exclaimed as he looked through his binoculars. “That…that’s not the White-throated. That’s…oh my gosh…you’re not going to believe this…that’s the Yellow-breasted Crake! So rare to find! We are so lucky!”
“Wait, what? That’s not what we were looking for?” I asked as I kept my eye focused through my camera’s viewfinder in hopes that it would pop out again.
“No, but this is a very good bird” Beny assured me and then he asked, “Did you get pictures of it?”
Why, yes. Yes I did.
High-fives all around. Feelings of relief that we got a special bird as though we did something particularly awesome to claim the moment when, really, all we were doing was looking in the right direction at the right time. Sure, I’m little bit sorry we didn’t see the White-throated Crake that morning. We heard it yet didn’t see it, but it’s call led us to something even better—the elusive tiny, seldom-seen Yellow-breasted Crake. Chase one thing and then stumble upon something even better.
Isn’t that how life is sometimes?