From time to time during the filming of our TV series we come across something totally unexpected. Mostly the unexpected event is caused by Aderman, my trusty videographer. Like the time he dropped his 12-inch knife at the door of an Australian nightclub in full view of the biggest bouncer I’ve ever seen. Or the time in Suriname that we drove 3 hours to film Capuchinbirds only to learn that he left our video camera back at the lodge (next to an empty vodka bottle!). But I digress. Our recent trip to Selva Verde Lodge in Costa Rica was one such trip that held an unexpected surprise.

We anticipated filming a show on the Great Green Macaws around Selva Verde Lodge and, having secured pretty good footage of the macaws, we decided to take a white-water rafting trip to search for Sunbitterns. These birds are regarded by many as the Holy Grail of birding in the Neotropics, not necessarily because of their rarity (Sunbitterns are actually fairly widespread) but because of their other unique attributes. Firstly, these birds are stunningly beautiful when they display their open wings. The remiges have brightly-colored webs which, when the wings are fully opened, form striking eye-spots almost reminiscent of bright red and orange sunsets on each wing.

A displaying Sunbittern close to Selva Verde Lodge, Costa Rica

Secondly, Sunbitterns belong to a monotypic family, Eurypygidae. There is no other bird even remotely like them but they are classed in the order Gruiformes, along with rails and cranes.*  However, morphologically and behaviorally they are perhaps closer to the Kagu of New Caledonia and the Painted Snipes of Africa. A real misfit basically. Kind of like what I was like when I attended school. And lastly, Sunbitterns can be very tough to locate. They are not very social and are wary of a close approach so spotting one requires patience and a knowledge of their habits. Sunbitterns prefer hunting along the edges of fast-flowing, clear streams and tend to immediately retreat to the shade when approached, making a prolonged sighting difficult. I’ve had the same difficulty getting a good sighting of Elvis.

Sunbitterns like to hunt in clear, fast-flowing streams

But probably the least known aspect of the Sunbittern’s life history is its breeding and nesting. Already a shy bird, the Sunbittern takes secrecy to the next level when it comes to its family life. Few nests of this species have been located, with the majority in overgrown and inaccessible locations. Sunbitterns build an open nest in a tree, generally overhanging a stream or river. The nest is typically constructed with sticks, moss and decaying plant matter. The buffy pink eggs are tended by both parents and when the young birds emerge from the eggs they are almost never left unattended.

A Sunbittern nest with eggs

And so it was with little expectation that we headed out onto the river for our rafting expedition. The rivers around Selva Verde lodge in Costa Rica are some of the most productive for this elusive species and it was not long before our guide hooked up with a local who knew the location of not one, but two Sunbitterns. What we didn’t know was that we were about to witness a natural drama unfold before our very eyes…

For more information on this beautiful part of the world, please visit

This post originally ran on 14 December 2010 but fit the theme of Baby Bird Week so well that we had to rerun it.

*Many now place the Kagu and Sunbittern together in the new order Eurypygiforms.  For more info, see #3 on Dave Ringer’s recent post.


Baby Bird Week is our celebration of the young, the cute, the adorable, the twee. We certainly spend enough time on adult birds here on 10,000 Birds so we figured it would only make sense to fawn over the fuzzy bundles of fluff that grow up to become the objects of our fascination. Whether you seek out waterfowl, songbirds, or seabirds we will have baby birds to match your obsession.

Baby Bird Week will run from 15-21 July, Sunday until Saturday. Make sure to check back every day or even multiple times a day to keep up with all the baby bird goodness!


Written by James
A life-long birder and native of South Africa, James Currie has many years experience in the birding and wildlife tourism arenas. James has led professional wildlife and birding tours for 15 years and his passion for birding and remote cultures has taken him to far corners of the earth from the Amazon and Australia to Africa and Madagascar. He is also an expert in the field of sustainable development and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in African Languages and a Masters degree in Sustainable Environmental Management. From 2004-2007 James worked as the Managing Director of Africa Foundation, a non-profit organization that directs its efforts towards the uplifting of communities surrounding wildlife areas in Africa. James is currently the host and producer of A WILD Connection and he resides in West Palm Beach, Florida.