Featured Family: The Sunbittern (Eurypygidae)

Some weeks ago my friend, photographer and new contributor to Panama Birds & Wildlife Photos Julio Abdiel Gonzalez G posted a photo of a cryptic bird: The Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias).

Coincidentally some time ago I was talking to another friend about this species and where it could be found. So, I asked Julio and he was very kind to give me some indications of where to find it. Unfortunately, as usual I was busy and didn't have the time to go immediately or anytime soon. Weeks passed by and in the meantime I agreed with Julio to share his picture as contributor to our organization, and he will be providing more pictures of his findings.


Sunbittern as captured by Julio

The Sunbittern is the sole member of the family Eurypygidae and genus Eurypyga. It ranges from Guatemala to southern Peru, showing three extant subspecies. What are really amazing of this bird besides being the sole member of his family are the morphological and molecular similarities with the Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) of New Caledonia, specifically of the main island of Grande Terre, indicating an gondwanic origin. Molecular studies seem to confirm that the Kagu and Sunbittern are each other's closest living relatives.



 Kaju and New Caledonia location. Source: Wikipedia.


Sunbittern is find in humid forests, generally with and open understory and near rivers and streams. The sunbittern is a non-migrant bird that is normally found foraging on the ground and scratching for insects. They are cryptic birds that display their large wings, that exhibits a pattern that resemble eyes, when they feel threatened.

The bird has a generally subdued coloration, with fine linear patterns of black, grey and brown. Its remiges however have vividly colored middle webs, which with wings fully spread show bright eyespots in red, yellow, and black. These are shown to other sunbitterns in courtship and threat displays, or used to startle potential predators. The sunbittern has a long and pointed bill, a short hallux, orange-yellow feet present in the lowland individuals in the east of the Andes, while the Central America species (E. h. major) are much redder.

After several weeks, I had a feeling and went early in the morning to the place where Julio saw the sunbittern. Took me a while to find it, including getting wet walking through a river, and then I was able to make these shots over the course of two mornings. It was located at a place that  clearly coincided with the habitat described above. I was hoping to capture the open wings display but it was not possible. At least I saw a very short display when it was scared by a prey, and I was also able to see it flying. A really amazing bird that delighted me with its foraging skills. It hunted small fish, centipedes and spiders while I observed.


Early when sun rays have not reached the  understory yet

The sunbittern forages walking slowing along the stream

A spider gets trapped

In Panama this species is uncommon mainly on the Caribbean slope and in Darien; local on Pacific slope; occurring in lowlands along smaller streams in forest. I will keep searching for that perfect shot of this bird in display, someday I may get "lucky".

To be continued...