My San Antonio Sunbittern


Ever had one of those days in home territory when not just one, but several surprise birds suddenly turn up?  Well, today’s walk with my wife to see friends in San Rafael certainly produced some exciting birding from ‘out left field’, as Percy Sledge would say.  We had a beautifully clear and sunny morning, with the volcano in full view but sending up very little steam.  There was nothing new at the house, and the Montezuma oropendolas, together with an invading squirrel, made short work of the first bananas of the day.

The mid-morning walk to San Rafael brought only a Roadside hawk, and an hour or so spent at our friends’ new mirador (viewing platform) with its panoramic view at the back of the Juan Espino Blanco reserve, brought not a single species of note, beyond a smallish swift that I couldn’t identify.

The walk back, however, was a different matter.  Walking back down the hill, with the Espino Blanco reserve on our left, four suspiciously small parrots flew by, calling high but not very screechily.  They didn’t seem to be the local chucuyos (White-crowned parrot) with which I am pretty familiar.  I suspect, therefore, the Red-fronted parrotlet but hesitate to call the id because I’ve never safely identified this bird.  Size, especially at a distance, with nothing to use as a yardstick, is notoriously hard to be sure of.  And, apart from the call note, that’s all I had to go on.

Next, and almost immediately, a large falcon passed by overhead.  Falcon wings and a long tail was all I could get, so it too will remain unidentified, especially since the Peregrine seems highly unlikely here.  This is actually the first falcon of any kind that I have seen in the area, so a smirk was already beginning to appear on my face, even though we had no beer waiting for us back at the house.

Since clouds were moving in, we pushed on for home, hoping to avoid getting soaked in the usual afternoon downpour, but at the bottom of the hill that leads from the Turrialba-Pacayas road down to  San Antonio I decided to take a look at a couple of small ponds that are choked with water hyacinth.  Nothing has ever turned up there before, but a Green heron (Butorides striatus) suddenly rose from among the water hyacinth and flew into a nearby tree.  Green herons are no big deal here in Costa Rica, but they are for me in San Antonio.  This was just my third sighting in nearly two years, the others having been here at the house, where we are many hundreds of yards from the rivers.  The mountain rivers here never seem to have any herons of any kind; I’m told that this is due to a scarcity of fish, some local species, such as the tepemechín, having almost died out, it seems.

Green heron, not very green in Costa Rica

My day was already well and truly made, but even better stuff was in store.  We paused at the bridge over the small river before heading up the slope to our house and, looking downstream, we were treated to a flurry of activity.  This is highly unusual.  I have passed over this bridge several times a week for almost two years and never seen anything of note.  This time the Social flycatchers, dipping into the stream for a bath, flushed a White-tipped dove from the edge, plus three Variable seed-eaters.  At the same moment,  a large hummingbird appeared, feeding from the red flowers of an overhanging poró.  At the sight of the long decurved bill, I assumed a Violet sabrewing, our second most common species in San Antonio, but, lo and behold, it was a male Green hermit, species number 111 for my San Antonio house list.

A fantastic day, as any lister worth his salt will tell you.  The icing on the cake was only one minute away, however.  Just above the bridge, and only a couple of hundred yards from home, there is a small viewpoint from where the stream can be seen for the last time.  I ducked in, and the Sunbittern flew up immediately and then sat on a rock in full view for a good ten minutes.  I could hear its mate piping in the distance, a little lower down, probably just about where we had just come from.

Our rocky mid-elevation streams seem ideal for the Sunbittern

I had seen this stunning bird twice before (at La Marta near Pejibaye, and on the Río Barranca outside San Ramón), but had given up on it in our immediate area.  I should have known better, because Jorge Fernández Aguilar, who is one of the best Costa Rican nature tour guides and lives here in San Antonio (see Aventours on the internet for a photo of him) had told me that he had once seen the glorious Sunbittern here at the bridge.  His house is, quite literally, just a few yards away.  See my next blog for a detailed account of this wonderful man.

The Sunbittern is a bird that I had searched for in vain over many years, mostly in Mexico, but also here in Costa Rica.  The similarly named but less spectacular Sungrebe still remains elusive, despite its classification as ‘fairly common’ in the Caribbean lowlands.

Anyway, my San Antonio list now stands proudly at 112 species with many more possibilities still to come.  My wife, Ches, insists on taking credit for making me walk up to San Rafael instead of taking the truck.  Thank you, my love.

2 thoughts on “My San Antonio Sunbittern

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