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Need Sunbittern? Visit La Marta Reserve

We all have target birds whether we admit or not. You can be the most altruistic of Zen birders who insists that every bird is the same but when you open a field guide for the birds of Costa Rica, you have to admit a hidden, deep down desire to see certain species more than others. I mean, lets face it, someone who puts a House Wren into the same category as a Violet Sabrewing is probably a non-birding imposter.

House Wren- nice voice and friendly but....
just not the same as a big purple hummingbird.

Or, how about giving a super common Tropical Kingbird the same degree of importance as an Orange-collared Manakin?

The TK is alright but you will see a couple hundred.
You probably won't see as many of these!

Yeah right. Exactly. Some birdies just ain’t the same and that’s why we make statements about the bird of the day, trip, and year. It’s also why we have lists of target species. The Zen birder might say this with a steady calm voice that he or she doesn’t care which bird species they see on a birding trip to Costa Rica but they don’t tell you about that big, bold, booming inner voice that bellows, “I WANT TO SEE SOME COTINGAS DAMMIT. SUNBITTERN! UMBRELLABIRD, HOLY CRAP!”

The Sunbittern in particular is a much wanted species for anyone who hasn’t seen one. This is because the bird is unique, odd, and defies placement. It’s a genuine weirdo and that’s why we love it. Everything about it is different from everything you have ever seen, even if you are one of the lucky few to have watched its ancient closest cousin, the equally weird and awesome Kagu.

Despite its name, it’s not a bittern and doesn’t even come close to looking like one of those hefty, fat-necked, frog eating terrors of the marsh. The neck is sort of like a snake, the head is like a cross between a heron and a rail, the body is horizontal and sort of duck-like, and the legs are bright orange and like those of a heron. It also has a crazy sunburst pattern on each wing. Unlike the Kagu, the Sunbittern has a really big range (Central America to southern Amazonia), and loves to hang out along forested streams, rivers, and other wetlands. In Costa Rica, there are several places where they occur but they can still be tough to find because they blend in surprisingly well with their surroundings. If you can only check one section of a river, that also limits your chances of seeing one because it could be hanging out just around the next inaccessible bend.

Check out the snakey neck.

Last weekend, I visited La Marta Reserve with a friend of mine. I had heard that Sunbittern was pretty easy there but didn’t expect it to be foraging in the grass next to one of their camping areas!

A classic Sunbittern.

This Sunbittern was just doing its weird quick step walk around the grass as it foraged for grasshoppers and other choice insects. One of the guys who works there also told me that the bird is there just about every day so if you desperately need Sunbittern, make the trip to La Marta, and walk down to the camping spot that is closest to the river and next to a tiny pond with water hyacinth. A Sunbittern should show up sooner or later and then you can give the list a big fat target species check.

Sunbittern.
A frontal view.

Speaking of La Marta, this place also has a lot of potential for other species. During our short visit, we saw several tanagers (Tawny-crested is absurdly common), Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and a bunch of other foothill birds (elevation 800 meters).

A male Tawny-crested Tanager hides behind a leaf.

The main trails seemed to access old second growth but there could be quite a few species present because three sides of the reserve are adjacent to a huge area of beautiful primary forest.

Habitat at La Marta.
Checking out forest from an overlook.

The entrance fee was just $3, the trails were signed better than anywhere in Costa Rica, and basic, cheap lodging is also available. It looks like a place with a lot of potential and of course any day with a Sunbittern is a good one!

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