Thick-Knee. What an odd name for a bird. I mean there aren’t any “Big-Ankles”, “Fat-toes”, or even a “Skinny-Wing” in the bird world. While there is a stint that is “Long-toed” it doesn’t cease to be a stint. The “thick-knee”, on the other hand, wasn’t even named after other members of the Burhinidae but since they tend to be erroneously branded as “curlews”, I suppose that’s a good thing. OK, so thick-knees do have somewhat knobby legs but I think actually and officially calling them “thick-knee” was really pushing it. It makes them sound like avian rugby players or someone ready to give you a nasty kick (which I suppose a rugby player could easily do by accident).
Thick-knees become even scarier when you take into account their somewhat nocturnal behavior. If you thought it was tough to avoid those powerful legs during the day, imagine being bowled over by a flock of thick-knees while they played their own version of avian rubgy on the hot grasslands of Guanacaste! When dawn breaks, the cattle quiver with fright as they crouch in the swales. The unlucky ones bellow from the pain of bruised ribs- they just couldn’t move fast enough to escape the fury of a pack of thick-knees. Crested Caracaras and Black Vultures keep their distance and stay off the ground until the thick-knees have gone back to their zombie-like daytime demeanor. If they are lucky, they come across some trampled frogs, snakes, and other unlucky animals that couldn’t flee from the pounding fury of bare feet powered by particularly thick knees.
Yes, some strange things happen on those hot, Guanacaste nights and the locals know that they better keep away from the grassy plains when the moon is full and the thick-knees are yammering. Better to spend the evening in a local bar accompanied by a fridge full of Imperial beer. Better to taunt bulls in a ring and run like hell to avoid serious injury than whistle at a thick-knee to see what might happen. They say that you hear a faint whispering of wings until Whammo!, you have been bowled over by steel-like, powerfully stomping legs! At least that’s what the rumor is. Never mind that I heard it from a local fellow whose personal sasquatch-like scent nearly knocked me over like the kick of a thick-knee. Like a head-hitting blend of fermented manure, sweat, half-digested alcohol, and something that may have been old shoes, it wasn’t what one would call “perfume”. I could handle it though, by breathing through the mouth, reminding myself that I was hearing unique and incredibly interesting information, and trying to figure out if the odd, dry thing in his beard was an old, forgotten piece of food or a rattlesnake tail.
After picking out the words of his story from an unhealthy dose of spittle and moonshine fueled guffaws, I heard about the dangerous games of thick-knee rugby that take place on moon-lit nights. I learned how to avoid the onslaught if caught in an open grassy field when the thick-knees are doing their thing (take cover and play dead). I discovered that as beautiful as their eyes appear during the day, they can hypnotize you in a basilisk-like manner when a full moon is added to the mix. With quivering lip, he said that it was the golden eyes that he actually feared the most. Cold and reptilian, he said that they remind you of a much earlier time in our evolutionary history some 30 million years ago when our ancestors scampered for their lives from big, hungry birds.
Gaze into my golden eye…
So, the moral of the story is, don’t go wandering around at night on the plains of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Keep to the roads and you will be fine but venture into the tall dry grass and you just might have a close, nocturnal encounter with a thick-knee. Or, you might also meet a Tropical Rattlesnake or get infested with a few thousand chiggers so better to keep to the road!
To safely see a thick-knee and peer into their wonderful, huge, golden orbs, take the mangrove boat tour at Carara, look for them on the lower parts of the Cerro Lodge road, and keep an eye out for them in wet swales of grasslands anywhere in Guanacaste.