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Sungrebe on the Sarapiqui!!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

We're still floating down the Rio Sarapiqui on a dreamy warm morning.

 Floating through La Selva Biological Reserve, taking in this male Amazon kingfisher, with bonus Tillandsia.

This crested guan, looking down at us.

And this young emerald basilisk, like an extra from the Star Wars bar scene. What a helmet he's got! It's a new basilisk for me.

They're called Jesus Christ Lizards because young ones run bipedally right across the water's surface! Later they get too heavy to pull that off, but it's killer to watch them light out, little pipestem arms flung out to the side, long toes ticking on the water's surface, skittering across the stream like tiny crazy monkeys. Imagine being light and fast enough to run on water.

We can only stand on the edge, fishing.

Gray-necked wood-rail is such a crowd-pleaser--fearless and smooth, its plumage like watercolor satin. Keeping with the theme set by the Amazon kingfisher who showed up in south Texas, this is a close relative of the bird (rufous necked wood-rail) that  turned up in an amateur video at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico. Matt Daw was just minding his own business,  making a video of a fishing least bittern, when...You have to see this video for the funniest bird photobomb ever

Birding's like that. It's a box of chocolates, with an occasional jack-in-the-box.

Speaking of weird, this green iguana met with misfortune, lost its tail, and grew two new ones. Oops. 

Mangrove swallows watched our every move, accompanying the boat and even sitting on the bow.

some rather large spectacled caimans were hauled out here and there.

They just appear. You don't so much see them as sense them.

Believe it or not, the bird species below has shown up at Bosque del Apache, too. Who knows how it got there. Likely flew...but why? The sungrebe is a usually secretive denizen of rivers and backwaters. We were incredibly lucky to happen upon a female (males have white cheeks, so she's the prize!) just doodling along the bank. Despite their name, sungrebes don't dive. All their foraging is done on the surface of the water, picking at floating insects and foraging along the shore.

There ensued a photo frenzy between Mario and me. We couldn't stop clicking at this rare, often sought, seldom seen but cooperative little bird.

She was so beautiful, steaming along against the current.

One challenge of photographing her turned out to be the fact that her head moved ceaselessly, like that of a city pigeon. With every stroke of her tiger-striped lobed feet, her head jerked forward. So I got hundreds of photos in which her body is razor-sharp, but her head's a blur.

In the low light, I had to click at the precise moment that her head was still to get a sharp photo. 

I loved the ever-changing compositions offered by snags and leaves, shore and shadows.

It was then that the group collectively realized they were in the grip of an obsessive bird photographer.

But it's a SUNGREBE!!  Not just any bird. The only New World member of the finfoot family, Heliornithidiae. There are only two others. Not only that, but in researching this post I stumbled across grllscientists's excellent blog, in which she cites The Handbook of Birds of the World in an utterly bizarre observation. Get THIS.

M. Alvarez del Toro, who observed a nesting pair in Mexico, discovered that the male has a shallow pocket under each wing into which the two young can fit. The pocket is formed by a pleat of skin, and made more secure by the feathers on the side of the body just below. The heads of the chicks could be seen from below as the bird flew. Alvarez del Toro collected the bird in order to examine it and confirm the unlikely discovery. Subsequently, he found it confirmed also by a report published by Prince Maximilian of Wied 138 years earlier but apparently ignored, forgotten or not believed.
This adaptation is unique among birds: in no other species is there any mechanism whereby altricial young can be transported. Of course, the precocial young of some swans and grebes may hitch rides on their swimming parents' backs, and a male jaçana can transport his chicks about holding them between his wings and body, but neither of these cases applies when the adults are in flight....
The transport system of the Sungrebe raises numerous further questions. How do the chicks get into the pocket? Are they put in by the male? Does he feed them in there? Do they stay inside, or get in and out? Why does the female not have similar pockets?
(Bertrand, B. C. R. (1996). "Family Heliornithidae (Finfoots)" in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World: Hoatzin to Auks. Vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, ISBN 84-87334-20-2 [Amazon UK;Amazon US]).
Another question inspired by the citation: What did he do with the poor orphaned sungrebe chicks once he collected their dad? OK, that was a cheap shot. He had to collect it to confirm what would otherwise be an apocryphal observation. I'm glad to live in the digital age, where I can collect birds, bats, insects and butterflies with a harmless click of the shutter. And store them on a hard drive instead of big mothbally cabinets. And they can go on raising their young and picking insects off the water surface.

I kept collecting images. Here is her outstretched wing. Looking for a pocket under it... I could easily have done this all day, but eventually we chugged along past her.

A couple of residents, enjoying some fresh river air. It was time to leave the beautiful Rio Sarapiqui. On to another adventure.


Julie, I am VERY much enjoying your photos and stories from Costa Rica! With each post, you have transported me for a short while right to that amazing place. Thank you for clicking away at the sungrebe... what an incredible bird! I'm imagining those babies in the mama's wing pouches. :-)

Also, when we were in Costa Rica a few years back, we were told (humorously) that the Jesus Christ lizards can't actually WALK on water, they have to run, otherwise they'd sink. Still pretty amazing! ;-)

Happy 1st day of Spring to you!

Wow! That is incredible. I got pretty excited reading this piece. What an amazing bird. I can dream that someday I might get to see the Sungrebe but reading this was the next best thing. Thanks Julie.

This is too weird. You know how you learn a new word, and then suddenly you see it everywhere? I just read about the sungrebe YESTERDAY. And am busy sticking him in my book. I read about him in a book called Bird Sense (I think) but your excerpt is even more detailed. I'd been wondering what that pouch looked like. Dang.

I would have FLIPPED out at seeing that Sungrebe, and might even have pushed you out of my way so I could take a thousand pictures! What an awesome bird. I'm glad you clicked away on her.

And I think I could fall in love with one of those lizards too, especially if I saw it run across the water. Too cool.

What an amazing post, filled with the most wonderful photos! And that Sungrebe...thank you for teaching me about a new bird with the most amazing adaptations!

Ohio is lovely of course, but I can so relate to some of that scenery.
Really enjoyed this float.

Such a wonderful ride down this waterway. The sights are absolutely beautiful.

I loved that bird photo bomb video! Wow! What a lucky encounter that was.

Posted by Anonymous March 21, 2014 at 3:24 PM

Fascinating stuff, Julie. Thanks so much for sharing your adventure! And for the grrlscientist link and excerpt.

Posted by Gail Spratley March 25, 2014 at 8:47 AM

it is jogging my memory reading your Costa Rica stories- we went to a "known spot" for sungrebes, but no bird :( I did actually swim in that river and my bathing suit had a slightly odd scent, which it took awhile to get out. I saw a sungrebe (m) at the National Zoo- it is in a whole building habitat, but the day we were there it was picking fights with another bird- I now forget which one. I did get to see the tail display.

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