“Snap!” . . . . “snap!” . . . . “snap!”. It sounded as though someone was breaking twigs somewhere close by as I walked along the trail back towards our cabin. I stopped still and waited in the light drizzle. “Snap!” . . “snap!” . . “snap!”. What on Earth?
Slowly, I took the rucksack off my back, dropped it carefully on the trail, and made my way into the forest through a tangle of vines. The snapping sounds became louder. Suddenly, a snowy white shape flashed in front of me, then returned to where it had come from as though it was on an elastic string. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would have said in Wonderland.
It was a small bird – a White-collared Manakin to be precise – and I had stumbled into the display arena where several males perform to obtain mating rights with the drab but highly selective females. Each male has a small court distinguished by two or more upright sapling stems and a patch of ground cleared of leaf litter. Displaying males slide up and down the smooth stems, darting back and forth with throat feathers erect to form a puffy beard. Each rapid movement is accompanied by a snap of the specially modified wing feathers and this was the sound that had stopped me in my tracks. Several males perform these pole dances within sight (or at least earshot) of one another, dropping down to pick up any leaves than should fall onto their courts. This elaborate courtship dance is remarkably similar to that of the catbirds of Australia and New Guinea, although these larger birds are part of the bowerbird family.
I was at the La Selva Biological Station in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica – a small country in central America which has phenomenal biodiversity (think bromeliads, poison-dart frogs, tapirs and tarantulas as well as over 830 bird species) and is an amazing destination for naturalists and birders who want to get a taste of the Neotropics.
La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica, May 2003
Note: There are 51 species of manakin, occurring in tropical forests from south-east Mexico to Paraguay. All are similarly sized (about the size of a batis or finch) but among them are some of the most fascinating and dazzling of all birds. Related to the cotingas, these Neotropical manakins are not to be confused with the African mannikins (note the different spelling) which are small finches belonging to the waxbill family (estrildidae).