One of the more unusual birds of the Neotropics, the Great Potoo is a desired species on anyone’s list! The largest of the potoos, the Great Potoo is nearly half a meter long, with a large, round head, large brown eyes that reflect yellow-orange at night, and a short but very broad beak. It is pale gray to brownish overall – larger and paler than the Common Potoo, also found in Panama. It is best known for its unusual habits and even more unusual call – a loud roar bWAARRRR! that can be heard after dark.
Great Potoos are residents of the lowland rainforests of Central and South America. Primarily a lowlands species, they have been recorded up to 1000 meters, but are more commonly found below 500 meters in elevation. They live in the upper levels of the forest, and can also be found in adjacent clearings with large trees and along rivers. Related to nightjars, Great Potoos are nocturnal. By day, they roost motionless on a large limb, blending in very well to resemble a broken-off branch. They are truly masters of camouflage! When relaxed, they hold their head in a normal position, beak pointing forward. But if detected or threatened while roosting, they stretch their head and body upward, pointing their bill up toward the sky, to camouflage even more as a dead branch. They close their eyes, but their upper eyelids have slits so that they can still detect movement nearby. At night, they perch on exposed snags in the canopy of the forest, where they sally out and catch large flying insects such as beetles and katydids in their wide mouths, and will even catch bats on occasion! At night, they are easily located by their bright eyeshine and loud call.
There is not much in-depth information known about the breeding ecology of Great Potoos. In Panama, they are known to breed from February to August, primarily during the dry season. The nest is no more than a mere depression on a large branch, where the female lays one egg. The egg is whitish with faint spotting. One adult remains with the chick at the nest site until fledging, approximately 2 months after hatching. It is unclear if the chick is cared for by one or both parents, only one is seen at the nest at a time, and sexes are indistinguishable. Chicks are vulnerable to predation by monkeys, tayras and forest-falcons. Great Potoos are solitary and monogamous.
A very widespread species throughout the Neotropics, Great Potoos can be found from southeastern Mexico to northern Bolivia and southern Brazil. In Panama, they can be found along the entire Caribbean slope and on both slopes throughout eastern Panama province and Darien. Great Potoos can be seen regularly around the Canopy Tower and are common at the Canopy Camp, where they are frequently heard at night.
Small family, big bird: The family of potoos, Nyctibiidae, contains only 7 species, and are only found in the Neotropics. The Great Potoo is not only the largest of the potoo species, but also the largest member of the order Caprimulgiformes, including all nightjars and nighthawks.