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Sunbittern Morning

Thursday, March 13, 2014

That first morning at Selva Verde, Mario took us out to look for the sunbittern. It was not a long walk--you could hear it singing from the dining room at beautiful Selva Verde in the Caribbean lowlands. This is Mario Cordoba, bird guide extraordinaire, hunting for the sunbittern. I figured you'd need a visual by now.

 Now, who ever gets to see a sunbittern? But Fate smiled on us and soon enough Mario heard its haunting whistle from the river bank. It's a high, slurred, loud whistle, nothing like you'd expect from this grebey, herony looking character. We're used to croaks and grunts from grebes and herons, but this bird is clearly neither. And its song is a magic clarion call in the morning mist. 

Mario gathered us up and we crept quietly toward the sound. Here was this gorgeous little thing, neither bittern nor grebe, heron nor rail, but a sunbittern, in its own family no less, calling away. We peeked through the greenery and there he was, the sun coming through his bill. Singing. Ohhh. I'd never seen a bird anything like this. I'd always wanted to see a sunbittern.

I hunkered down and kept my telephoto lens on the bird. I wanted so badly to get a shot of it in flight, because this bird has unforgettable wings. When it finally took off, I was blocked by vegetation. But I saw a flash of orange, gray, black. Ohh I hated to miss that shot.

The sunbittern poked around in the shallows amidst the river rocks for the better part of two hours, catching little fish and invertebrates and gulping them down.

The snowy spangles on its wings gave just a hint of what splendor lay in their folded length. But we would never see it.

By chance, when I returned from Costa Rica, my Facebook friend Peter Jones had just returned from there, too. And he posted a photo he'd managed to get, of a sunbathing sunbittern. Which he has given me permission to share with you. Make sure you're sitting down...

photo by Peter Jones

It's got the wings of a painted lady. It's an avian butterfly. The sunbittern uses these amazing wings in mating displays and threat displays. The spots on the inner primaries might even represent eyes in a great colorful face when the bird tips forward and presents its wings frontally.  And looking at this incredible shot, I resolved to return, and follow the sunbittern until I saw this. And maybe even got a shot of it. I can dream, right?

Finally it was time for breakfast and we made our way back to the restaurant, an elevated, sort of open-air affair where you can sit on a balcony and watch birds and howler monkeys. 

I was listening for the insect-like, persistent chirping call of the blue jeans frog (another poison dart frog) and managed to zero in on this little fella under a leaf. Oh Oh Oh Oh. So tiny, so precious, so well attired. With his throat puffed in song. That's two beautiful creatures I've seen in song before breakfast. It was going to be a wonderful day. 

While dining, I felt around for my iPhone and realized I had dropped it. No mystery where it might be...I had contorted myself into a million shapes shooting the sunbittern from a high spot on the rocky river bank. I ran full-tilt back to find it, tripping on a conveniently placed root in the trail and flumping smack down on my right side. I twisted in space to land on that side, and let my body take the impact for my camera. 

Which flew up and hit me hard near my left knee, leaving a spectacular purple bruise that remains to this day. But the camera was OK. And so was I. I'm so glad I can still fall that hard and come up fine. I realize it will not always be thus. Must remember to slow down. My mom never got the hang of slowing down. Expect I won't either.

I got up, continued on to where I'd dropped my iPhone, and after a brief search found it nestled down amongst the rocks about eight feet below where I'd been perched. Woo. That's a bad fall onto boulders. Wonder if it still works? 

Ivan, (pronounced EE-vohn) who works at the lodge, saw me starting to scramble down the rolly tumbly rock bank and offered to go down there for me. The first boulder he stepped on got loose and bounced twice, right next to my phone. Um, let's not do that again. So he angled off to the side, scrambled down and picked up the (unharmed) phone. Whew! I was so happy.

I completely get why Costa Rica and its warm and lovely people lure so many Americans down to make it their forever home. It's all there, in Ivan's smile, in the morning song of the sunbittern.


Wow! What an amazing bird!

Posted by Anonymous March 13, 2014 at 5:31 AM

What glorious colours on the sunbittern. Nice bit of luck with the phone.

Good point about getting up from such a hard fall! I'm guessing that your hips/bones have gotten a lot stronger with all of the running you've done in the past few years. Congrats on successful iPhone recovery as well. Even in an Otter case, sometimes a small fall can be devastating for these fragile contraptions. Loved the handsome little frog!!

Oh, so lovely.

Posted by Gail Spratley March 13, 2014 at 11:37 AM

That frog is incredible. YOu are so lucky! And you say you're working?

What an amazing little travelogue! Beats Rick Steves any day!

I've never wanted to go to Costa Rica until now. Such a spectacular place. A world full of color.

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