The Oropéndolas


I realized some time ago that I was in a bit of a slump. I think that’s how they put it in baseball, anyway. Since we arrived the first of November until the end of February there has been seventy-six inches of rain here. We know because we bought a rain gauge this year. To put some perspective on it that is Alan’s height- 6′ 3″. I call that rain. I think almost every woman in Talamanca was going quietly crazy; cramped quarters, no sun, no dry clothes, mold, lots of spiders and their webs can all make a girl go mad. I, at least, have a big house and a dryer, so I guess there’s really no reason for me to be down. But, ninety-plus days of rain is a lot.

Alan’s brother, Pat, and his wife just left us after a week’s visit. Miraculously, the rains quit the day before their arrival. The sea turned flat, lap-lapping on the shore. It is that wonderful clear turquoise color with the dark purple reef showing you where nice snorkel spots are if you have the inclination. The kind of hot weather that people think of as tropical. Languid days, but cooling off in the evening with a nice breeze from the mountains. Truly delicious. And, a much needed break from the torrential rains we have had this year.

For those you who were creeped out by the bugs in my last letter I will change the subject to birds.

The Oropéndolas arrived just before Pat and Connie. The locals call them Yellow-Tails because of their striking yellow tail feathers. There are two species here in Costa Rica: The Montezuma and the Chestnut-Headed Oropéndola. We have been graced with the Chestnut-Headed variety. The girls are about 11″ and seem to be entirely black at a distance. One got hit by a car on the road, temporarily stunning her, and we could see that she is actually dark chestnut brown on the body and head, wings black. She has a crest of two long black feathers curled outward at the bottom, bright blue eyes, a long sharp beak that is a greenish- ivory color, and of course the bright yellow tail feathers. We gave her to José to recuperate, but she flew off back to work when he set her on a perch.

Their call is a deep resonant “chek” and a liquid burbling sound a little like a coffee percolator: “poik,” “ploop” proceeding crash and rustling noises. They also have a warning cry, sharp and machine gun like “cack-cack!” They all fly at once. When they fly, it is like being under a hovering helicopter when the blades make that steady whoosh-whoosh-whoosh sound.

There are probably fifty to seventy-five of them working on their nests right outside our back door. They have chosen a tree that we were planning to cut down last yeaOropendola nestr as it is beginning to make us nervous in its proximity to the house and Alan’s shop. This tree is exactly what they like, standing alone in a clearing, high and with branches without too many leaves. Alan thinks they have figured out that when they nest close to humans there are fewer predators; snakes and the like. And it is true we see their nests all up and down the Caribbean coast line close to houses and farm buildings.

So, all day we hear them; ploop, ploop, poik, chek, rustle-rustle and then they fly off into the Jungle to hunt more building material. They seem to coordinate their building, and all fly at once back into the Jungle their bright yellow tails shining as they go; whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. They look like jet fighters swooping through the trees. Then they all come back carrying long strands of building material trailing out behind them. They are an industrious bunch. We have probably fifty plus nests hanging in the tree, and they are still building.

Their nests are sack-like pouches about a yard long with an opening in the upper part of the nest, which are intricately woven from fibers, slender vines and mosses. We have watched them weaving the material in with those long sharp beaks, and they are very dexterous. They line the inside with soft leaves and moss.

The other day Alan noticed an all black Oropéndola flying up into the tree while most of the girls were gone. On closer inspection we discovered it to be a Giant Cow-Bird, a parasite who waits until the Oropéndolas leave the tree, and lay their eggs in the sacks, forcing the Oropéndolas to raise their young for them. When you begin to really see what goes on in nature the interdependence is a miraculous thing.

We also have bird-watchers.A unique species unto themselves. On any given day, there will be people standing at our front gate looking in with binoculars. It’s a bit unnerving, but we are pretty sure they are looking at birds, and probably not us.

So our days go. The house is almost finished now. We still have about three or four projects, but nothing that has any pressing deadline to it. We enjoyed a break from the work while Pat and Connie were here. Now we are back to getting a few of the items off the list. I think my desk is next. I have been using a work bench that was originally used to bend rebar for the first bodega back in 2000. Alan sanded it down for me, and it became my temporary kitchen counter before the real one went in, and now it’s my desk. The only draw back is that it is a little too high. It will be nice to have a real one.