Sunbittern

Out of the 225 species of birds I saw in Panama perhaps none was more unusual and more sought after than the bird that flushed up from the creek bed that paralleled Plantation Road.

Before going on any birding trip, before booking a flight, I order a field guide. Nothing builds anticipation and excitement than thumbing through a field guide and envisioning seeing the many species of birds. The field guide to Panama is thicker than the guild to Costa Rica, reflecting the higher number of species in Panama. In fact more species of birds are to be found on this small isthmus than in all of Central America.

The one bird that really piqued my interest from an early age, was the bird that seemed so odd and so exotic. It is the only member of its family, in its own genus . It’s very name seemed to conjure a mystical creature from the age of the Inca or the Maya. The God of the Sun, Dios del Sol, reincarnated in the form of a neotropic bird called sunbittern (Eurpyga helias). What a name! And what a bird!

My guide, Domi, told the story of some birders seeing a sunbittern for the first time. They exclaimed, “Its a heron, no, it’s a rail, no a crane!” The sunbittern is an odd duck. It’s not a bittern or a heron but a distant relation of the rails. It spreads its wings above its head to reveal large eye spot when it feels threatened, looking like a huge owl.

The sunbittern had been foraging among the pools of the mainly dry creek. The wet season does not begin until the end of April. Luckily for us, the sunbittern flushed up to a branch above the creek where we were able to get great scope views and take in the beauty of this splendid neotropic creature.

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