Last week I wrote about some of the latest in Costa Rica birding news. As happens, shortly after mentioning avocets, warblers, and chances at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos, another major birdworthy sighting cam to light.
As it turns out, on October 22, local birder and photographer Christian Bonilla found a mega of mega birds for Costa Rica. The American Bittern is not a colorful bird, nor is it endangered or a species difficult to see in its usual cold marsh range. But it most definitely is a major bird for Costa Rica!
You see, we just don’t see American Bitterns in Costa Rica. We see other hefty herons, especially the Bare-throated Tiger-Herons like the bird pictured above. But not American Bitterns.
Sort of like the White-faced Whistling-Duck and Short-eared Owl, the American Bittern is on the official Costa Rica bird list but it’s more of an historic species. It’s a bird from times when the Central Valley was a mosaic of wetlands, moist woodlands, and farmlands.
That was some 100 years ago. Since then, the wetlands have been mostly drained and whatever birds wintered in such places have likewise left for other, more suitable places. Given the destruction of wetlands in the Central Valley, I figured that the bittern was one of those species very unlikely to appear in these lands.
I mean, much of its former wintering sites in Costa Rica were destroyed long ago, and the species can just happily winter in other sites much closer to its breeding grounds. Why would any of these hefty herons bother flying all the way to Costa Rica?
At least that’s what I thought. It’s why I merely wrote “Hope to chance upon one in marsh habitat.” in the “How to see this bird” section of its description in the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. I suppose that advice for seeing an American Bittern in Costa Ricas still holds true but I would also add, “Watch for this rare wintering species in seasonal freshwater marshes, especially in the highlands.”
Not that birders visit Costa Rica to see American Bitterns but hey, you never know.
However, in 2023, one did fly all the way here. Actually, since there have been a couple other likely sightings during the past 20 years, other adventurous American Bitterns have probably also made the trip. Those birds just weren’t documented like this one was.
This sighting makes me wonder if a bittern or two has always wintered in Costa Rica. I mean, they aren’t exactly obvious, many wetland sites in Costa Rica aren’t very accessible, and we don’t have birders combing every corner of the country.
Although it was found in late October, local birders kept the sighting on the downlow because they were concerned that photographers could drive the bittern away. Fortunately, last week, they changed their minds, the American Bittern location was released and the twitch was on!
On Sunday morning, hoping to avoid any crowds and to have a better chance at seeing the bird, we visited the site bright and early. The spot is a small, seasonal marsh just outside of Paraiso de Cartago, right next to a puddled, dirt road that sees runners, cyclists, and plenty of other passersby.
As we discovered, it’s also a beautiful area of habitat. The small marsh is bordered by scrubby habitat that bounced with Morelet’s Seedeaters, Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, and beautiful little black-backed Lesser Goldfinches.
Scanning in the back, I saw a thrush-sized black bird with white shoulders flit through my field of view. White-lined Tanager! Off to the left, a suspicious dirt clump morphed into a hunched over Green Heron. White-throated Crakes sizzled from the grass, saltators, and other Northern Jacanas also chattered.
I tell you, it was one heck of a beautiful morning in that fresh Cartago air.
There were also nearby woodlands we did not explore. They could have held some rare warbler, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did but we had another bird to look for. There was that bittern somewhere out there, somehow hiding.
With such a small area, several birders looking for it, and no one seeing it, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were one day too late. Was it going to be like the failed pochard twitch? Could the bird have left? It certainly could have. I mean, it’s a migrant that doesn’t need to stick around, a bird that could just up and leave whenever the heck it wants.
And therein lies the multi-pronged challenge of the twitch. Not only do you need to find the bird, you also have to accept that you just might not see it. You gotta quell the roots of anxiety, go Zen and accept that your Ross’s Gull may have been eaten by a Great Horned Owl (that happened to me once). You don’t have to remove the anxiety but since living stress-free is healthier living, taking that Zen route really is best.
Going Zen birding might also help you see the bird. Forget that no one is seeing it. Instead, think about why no one is seeing the bittern. Let’s see, it hides extremely well, even in bits of habitat, and doesn’t need to move. Think about that as I scan the reeds again, carefully look and hope to see some bit of a bird, some brown piece that doesn’t quite fit.
I scanned and still no dice, not even after double and triple scanning. Hmm, maybe from another angle. For some reason, I walked up an embankment and scanned from a different angle. And there the bird was, obvious as can be!
At least as obvious as a bittern head partially obscured by reeds can be. But seriously, there it was, very much visible way back in that small marsh, at just one angle. Move a few steps to the right and there was only reeds and singing seedeaters. Check from the left and there wasn’t any bittern, a complete forget about it.
Fortunately, though, our American Bittern had not given up on Paraiso de Cartago. We could all see it from that one spot! It wasn’t a full, on stage view of a bird begging for attention but we could focus in on it. There was its pale eye, the coffee brown colors in its plumage, stretching its neck up to look way back at us. Photographers would have preferred different views but seeing it through the reeds somehow seemed more realistic, more in line with the classic bittern experience.
It reminded me of the bitterns I had seen pretending to be cattails in upstate New York, of chunky northern herons that shared space with calling Virginia Rails, Soras, and witchety yellowthroats. This one was sharing space with another yellowthroat species, was stalking frogs in a very different locale but there it was. An American Bittern in Costa Rica. Heerman’s Gull, American Bittern, Lesser Kiskadee, what’s will be next on the twitching list?
Thankfully, lots of local birders have been seeing the bittern these past few days. A good thing too because with its little marsh steadily trying out, who knows how long it will stay? This might be the only American Bittern they see, I hope it does us a favor and stays long enough for everyone to take in that bittern experience.