a remarkable display

There are many amazingly beautiful and colorful birds in the world, but the one with the most remarkable and distinctive display (imho) is the South American Sunbittern. How many birds go from very cryptic to wildly flashy by just spreading their wings?

The vivid colors of the eyespots on the wings of the Sunbittern contrast with its otherwise cryptic black and white plumage. (Click on the image to enlarge and appreciate those colors!)

And having such an unusual plumage display isn’t the only thing that is distinctive about this bird.  It is the only member of its family, and its closest relative is the plain gray Kagu that lives in the mountainous regions of New Caledonia (east of Australia in the Pacific Ocean), almost 9000 miles away from Sunbitterns that range from Guatemala to southern Brazil.

How is that possible, you ask?  Because until about 180 million years ago South America was part of a huge southern continent called Gondwanaland that included Africa, Madagascar, India, Antarctica, and Australia, plus many islands in the South Pacific.  Close relatives were isolated from each other when the supercontinent split up into the land masses we recognize today.

In its usual swamp habitat, Sunbitterns consume a wide variety of aquatic prey — insects, dragonfly larvae, water beetles, moths, spider, crabs, shrimp, and earthworms. They may even hunt small fish, eels, and tadpoles.

Sunbittern stalking…using the slow stealthy approach.  But when they want to cover ground quickly, they thrust their head and long neck out, and trot to catch their body up to their head.  It’s a bit comical (see the video link below).

Sunbitterns are one of just 12 species of birds in 5 different families that have been observed to use baits or lures to attract prey.  Typically, birds drop the lure in the water in front of them and then wait to see what swims over to investigate, and then — zap, the prey is gobbled up.

The Sunbittern’s flashy display is meant to startle — which certainly works well on photographers with an itchy finger anxious to follow it in flight.

An award-winning photograph by Debbie Reynolds of a Sunbittern in flight shows off the colorful flight feathers.  (First place in the Birds of South America photo contest by Birds Eye App)

Flashing the eyespots on its wings on landing…photo by Debbie Reynolds.  The pattern almost looks like a Native American design.

But Sunbitterns also perform displays with the wings positioned straight out, or on either side of their head that are meant to attract mates, or as threats to potential competitors.  Check out the video below to see some Sunbittern displays…

7 thoughts on “a remarkable display

  1. Awesome blog Sue. The photos are terrific and your descriptions and information are wonderfully written. I also enjoyed the video you included. Brings back fond memories of a wonderful trip to the Pantanal.
    My best,
    Craig

    • Thanks for your kind comment. This was one of the birds that everyone wanted to be sure to photograph when we went on this trip. So, mission accomplished.

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