Ian’s Bird of the Moment – Sunbittern

Ian’s Bird of the Moment – Sunbittern

by Ian Montgomery

I’ve recently returned from a three week trip to South America with Trish, a close, birding friend of mine from Townsville. Our main destination was the Pantanal in western Brazil, a wetland famous for birds and jaguars, where we spent two weeks. On the way back to Australia we had a five day stopover in Santiago, Chile, fortunately before the recent unrest started. The red marker on the map below indicates the city of Cuiabá in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. This is the usual gateway to the Pantanal and is serviced by regular, direct flights from São Paulo on the east coast.
The Pantanal floods an area of perhaps 150,000 square kilometres southwest of Cuiabá during the wet season, November to March, and then gradually drains south during the dry season via the Paraguay River. As it does so, the wildlife becomes increasingly concentrated in the remaining water, providing the best opportunities for viewing wildlife from about July until October. Road access is provided by the Transpantaneira, a 150 km gravel road which runs through the northern Pantanal from Poconé, 100km south of Cuiabá, to Porto Jofre as on the map below.
The Transpantaneira was planned as an overland route to Bolivia, but only got as far as the rather wide Rio São Laurenço at Porto Jofre. The road has about 150 bridges of variable quality. These are steadily being upgraded to cater for the tourist traffic but some of the remaining wooden bridges – the one below is one of the worst – aren’t for the faint-hearted. Rather than take an expensive guided tour, we made our own arrangements, renting an SUV in Cuiabá, booking accommodation at three wildlife lodges via the internet and acquiring a working knowledge of Brazilian Portuguese.
Two of these lodges, or Pousadas in Portuguese, were in the northern part south of Poconé and were primarily birding lodges, while the third, the Jaguar Lodge, about 40 km north of Porto Jofre, provided opportunities for boat trips from Porto Jofre to view Jaguars in the area named the Parque Estadual Encontro das Aguas on the second map (“Meeting of the Waters State Park”).
Trish and I had overlapping priorities: top of her list was perhaps the Jaguar as some years ago she had done field work on Lions and Leopards in Africa; my list had about twelve species of birds selected on various criteria including beauty, strangeness and taxonomic uniqueness. Right at the top of my list was the Sunbittern which qualified on all criteria. I’ll say a bit more about its taxonomy later but it first attracted my attention in 2015 when I found out that the only (and rather distant) relative of the Kagu of New Caledonia is the Central and South American Sunbittern.
Our first lodge was the Pousada Rio Claro, named after the river on which it was situated. The lodge offered two-hour boat trips on the river and for a relatively modest extra fee, private boat trips were available so we did two of those. We had the same boatman on both but it wasn’t until the second one that we managed to convince him that our main target was the Sunbittern. After one and a half hours of diligent searching in riverside vegetation, sharp-eyed Trish spotted one (first photo) hunting for food in a dense and gloomy swamp beside the river and our skilful boatman managed to approach it silently so that I could get photos. Missão comprida, as they say in Portuguese.
Later that day, we went for a drive along the Pantaneira and stopped at a muddy pond beside the road to see what was around. To our great surprise, a Sunbittern wandered out of the surrounding vegetation in full sunlight (second photo), proving once again that difficult to find birds have a habit of appearing readily once the spell has been broken by seeing the first.  In size, 43-48 cm/17-19 in long, they were smaller and more delicate-looking than I’d expected. Their intricately patterned plumage is very beautiful and wonderfully cryptic. The vertical bars on the body and the horizontal lines on the head break up its outline in a remarkable way both in the shade of the forest and in bright sunlight.
They feed on a variety of aquatic prey, both vertebrate and invertebrate. Their technique is stealth (third photo) followed by a lighting strike (fourth photo) which is wonderful to watch.
The Sunbittern normally appears cryptic but when it spreads its wings, in flight or in display, it reveals the spectacular pattern on the flight feathers that gives it its name. These are like huge eyes – similar to the wings of some butterflies – and are used both as threat display and in courtship. We found that Sunbitterns are reluctant to fly and when disturbed tend to walk away and hide in dense vegetation. The fifth photo shows one in flight and provides a glimpse of the wings, but it wasn’t until towards the end of our stay in the Pantanal that I managed to get a photo of one spreading its wing in preparation for flight (sixth photo).
The classification of the Sunbittern has historically been a headache for taxonomists. Morphologically, it bears some resemblance to herons and rails (which aren’t related to each other) and has traditionally been placed in the order Gruiformes which includes the Cranes, Rails and Bustards. Recent studies (e.g. Hackett et al. 2008) which combine the fields of evolution and genomics (the study of  genes) have found that the Sunbittern and the Kagu (below) belong to the same ancient lineage which arose during the same epoch as the other major groups of birds. Consequently, a new order has been created, the Eurypygiformes, containing two families each with a single species, the Eurypgidae (Sunbittern) and the Rhynochetidae (the Kagu). The two species don’t look very similar, but the Kagu also has a banded pattern on the wings used in display.
Unlike the flightless, endangered Kagu, endemic to New Caledonia, the Sunbittern is widespread through Central and South America from Guatemala to Bolivia and Brazil in suitable habitats combining forest and water. The Pantanal, incidentally, is near the southern end of its distribution. How one species ended up in New Caledonia and the other in the Americas is an interesting problem for biogeographers.

Ian’s Birds of the “Moment” always surprise me. When he wrote all the Birds of the Week posts, he was very regular. Now?? Whenever the “moment” arrives, I am delighted. So, here is his latest. The Sunbittern is also a favorite of ours. Especially, when the one at Lowry Park Zoo (Zoo Tampa now) opened its wings up for a good view.

Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias) by Lee at Lowry Park Zoo

Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias) by Lee at Lowry Park Zoo

Splendor and majesty are before Him, Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.| (Psalms 96:6 NASB)

“How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!” (Romans 10:15 NASB)

More of Ian’s Birds of the Week, Moment

Good News

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Long-tailed and White-winged Trillers

White-winged Triller (Lalage tricolor) Breeding Male by Ian

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Long-tailed and White-winged Trillers ~ by Ian Montgomery

Newsletter – 9/5/16

Here is a comparison of a New Caledonian species with a related Australian one in order to unsubtly bring to your attention a talk I’m giving on New Caledonian birds to Birding NSW this coming Tuesday 6th September at 7:30pm in Sydney. It’s in the Mitchell Theatre of the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts, Level 1, 280 Pitt Street between Park and Bathurst. The talk is entitled “Birds of New Caledonia: from strangely familiar to very strange” and arises from a visit to New Caledonia last year.

Many of the very strange birds featured as Birds of the Week in the second half of 2015, so here is a species familiar to Australian birders, the White-winged Triller and a rather similar one that occurs in New Caledonia, the Long-tailed Triller. Trillers are small relatives of the Cuckooshrikes and both groups are members of the Oriental-Australasian family the Campephagidae (“caterpillar gluttons”).

The White-winged is the more widespread of the two Australian Trillers, occurring throughout Australia. It is a summer breeding visitor to southern Australia and Tasmania, but present all year in northern Australia. Some of the migrants end up in southern New Guinea in the southern winter and vagrants have turned up in Lord Howe Island and New Zealand. Breeding males are black, grey and white (first photo) with black heads down as far as just below the eye, while females are brown and white with a buff supercilium (eyebrow) as in the second photo.

White-winged Triller (Lalage tricolor) Female by Ian

Non-breeding adult males (third photo) have an ‘eclipse’ plumage which looks more like the brown female including the pale supercilium but retaining the black flight feathers on the wings. Juveniles look fairly like the brown females but young males are intermediate between the juveniles and the eclipse males. This variability is a challenge for taxonomists, particular as there are close related populations in Indonesia and the Philippines which differ mainly in the amount of white on the wings in adult males and may or not be different species (White-shouldered and Pied Trillers respectively).

White-winged Triller (Lalage tricolor) Eclipse Male by Ian

In New Caledonia, there is one resident and quite common species, the Long-tailed Triller, which also occurs in Vanuatu and the southern Solomons. This species is about the same size as the White-winged Triller (17cm/7in) and the males differ from it in the amount of white on the wings, though individuals are variable. Females are similar, but have slightly brownish upperparts and buff on the white wing patches. I identified the one on the main island (Grande Terre) in the fourth photo as a male and the one on Ouvea in the fifth as a female, but now I’m not sure, particularly as these are of two different races and the field guides and handbooks are not very enlightening.

Long-tailed Triller (Lalage leucopyga) by Ian

Incidentally, the Long-tailed Triller was first described from Norfolk Island where it, the nominate race, is now extinct. Does that make it an Australian Triller?

Long-tailed Triller (Lalage leucopyga) Female by Ian

This all got a bit more involved than I’d intended. I had just wanted to illustrate similarities between Australian and New Caledonian birds, something I found very interesting. In case it leaves you cold and I’ve put you off coming to the talk, here is a reminded of the legendary Kagu which was our main target and should be on every birder’s bucket list. This is at the opposite end of the scale of taxonomic divergence, is the sole member of its family and shares its order with only one other species from South and Central America, the Sunbittern. Now that’s a challenge for evolutionary taxonomists and biogeographers!

Kagu by Ian

If you are at the meeting in Sydney next Tuesday, I’ll look forward to meeting you.


Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 ian@birdway.com.au
Bird Photos http://www.birdway.com.au/
Where to Find Birds in Northern Queensland: iTunes; Google Play Kobo Books
Recorder Society http://www.nqrs.org.au

Lee’s Addition:

Wow! Some more neat birds from their creator for you to show us. Thanks, Ian.

Ian’s Birds of the Week

Campephagidae Family Photos by Ian

Campephagidae – Cuckooshrikes Here


Ian’s Bird of the Week – Kagu, Episode 2

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Kagu, Episode 2 ~ by Ian Montgomery

Newsletter – 7/13/15

Before, I forget again, here is the email of our Jean-Marc our guide at Rivière Bleue that I meant to include last week: jean-marc.meriot@province-sud.nc. He works as a ranger in the park, is very knowledgeable, speaks good English and worked very hard to get us the birds we wanted. The fee was 2000 CFP per hour for both of us (about 24 AUD). We had great fun with him.

Another terrific national park that we visited was Les Grandes Fougères a huge national park that was established as recently as 2008. Les Grandes Fougéres means the Great Ferns and refers to the Giant Tree Fern, endemic to New Caledonia which can reach a height of 30m. It’s claimed to be the tallest tree fern in the world, despite its scientific name (above), though it may have a rival in the shape of another very tall one in Vanuatu, but I haven’t been able to track that one down.

Parc des Grandes Fougères is inland from La Foa, which is on the east coast highway about 70km north of the International Airport, which is itself about 45km north of the capital Nouméa. The road is good and the park is easy to find. There are well-signed walking tracks and you can get a map from the ticket office at the entrance. We saw a juvenile Kagu making a fast getaway on our first visit there and we returned for a second visit on our last full day in New Caledonia.

On that second visit, at lunchtime we got chatting to a local family who shared the only picnic table in the vicinity. They were showing the park to the grandparents visiting from France, and excitedly recounted their encounter with a pair of Kagus at the next spot on our itinerary, a Banyan tree were there was a T-junction on the walking track near a stream.

We knew by then that Kagus are territorial and that their territories are usually about 20 hectares. So we searched in the region of the Banyan along the three tracks. We were on the one not on our original itinerary approaching a cut-out log that had fallen across the track when a family of kagus going in the opposite direction jumped up onto the log and, seeing us, froze. The first kagu photo shows Ma on the cut out part, Pa on the left of the photo and Junior barely visible under Ma’s tail.

The second kagu photo shows, Pa and Ma still like statues and Junior, still unaware, leaping onto the log without a care in the world. I said ‘Oh my God!’, they looked as if they said “Oh mon Dieu!’ and we all just looked at each other. These photos are full frame using only 180mm of the 100-400mm zoom so you can imagine how close we were.

The next photo shows Ma, still otherwise motionless, turning to Pa and saying ‘Alors????!!!!”. The kagu consensus seemed to be to stick to plan A, more or less, and they eventually headed down the hill to the stream. We followed them there and both we and the kagus met up with some other hikers – be warned, the park is quite popular on Sundays.

Here is Pa, fourth kagu photo, contemplating crossing the stream while the fifth photo shows Junior (note the barring on the wings) crossing back across the stream and having a drink in the general confusion. I got the impression that while cats lick their fur to avoid looking indecisive, kagus drink.

More confusion was to follow, this time caused by another kagu. Pa tried to lead Junior past us to a quieter spot further down the stream away from the tracks, when he (Pa) got distracted by an intruder, abandoned Junior and confronted the other male. I just happened to be taking an iPhone video of Pa when this happened and I’ve posted it on Youtube. The last kagu photo shows Pa and the intruder doing their threat display which consists of the two birds circling each other at close quarters with their wings hanging loose and their crests erected.

After that, we decided it was time to leave them in peace. The whole encounter lasted about 40 minutes and it was a fitting climax to our visit to New Caledonia. The photo of the displaying kagus was one of the last photos that I took on the trip.

Kagus aren’t just great birds in their own right, they are also of great taxonomic and bio-geographical interest. The Kagu is the single member of its family, the Rhynochetidae. It’s only rather distant living relative appears to be the Sun Bittern of South America, also the member of a single-species family the Eurypigidae. These two families used to be included in a heterogenous collection of birds in the Crane order (Gruiformes), but recent DNA studies (Hackett et al 2008) have led to their elevation to their own two-species order the Eurypigiformes. This makes them very distinguished – the other 39 or so orders of birds contain about 10,000 species.

The traditional bio-geographical explanation for this is that both species had a Gondwana ancestor that existed on New Caledonia when it separated from Gondwana. Recent studies (see Grandcolas et al 2008) indicate that New Caledonia has probably been completely submerged since then and all terrestrial plants and animals have colonised since then. If this is correct, then either the simple Sun Bittern – Kagu relationship is incorrect or their ancestors found some other way to get to where they are now, such as island hopping with extinctions obliterating their tracks. The mystery remains…


Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 ian@birdway.com.au
Bird Photos http://www.birdway.com.au/
Where to Find Birds in Northern Queensland: iTunesGoogle Play Kobo Books
Recorder Society http://www.nqrs.org.au

Lee’s Addition:

My heart is troubled and does not rest; days of affliction come to meet me. (Job 30:27 AMP)

I think the daddy Kagu went to afflict the other Kagu. :)

Thanks Ian, for another episode to your Kagu adventure. They are really pretty and amazed that they let you get so close. We enjoyed your first episode also: Ian’s Bird of the Week – Kagu



Ian’s Bird of the Week – Kagu

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Kagu ~ by Ian Montgomery

Newsletter ~ 7/5/15

Well mission accomplie thanks to your moral and spiritual support, so here is the iconic Kagu of New Caledonia after a great trip there. We went to Rivière Bleue national park about 90min drive west of the capital Noumea, meeting our excellent guide Jean-Marc Meriot at the park entrance at 7:00am. He took us straight to a Kagu territory where we had a wonderful time with these strange and fascinating birds. They were bigger than I’d expected being 50-55cm/20-22in long.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by Ian
The first one we saw was a very shy juvenile running away through the forest so Joy and I were a bit afraid that we might have difficulty getting decent photos. We needn’t have worried as we soon encountered a family party only too willing to join in the fun, though poor light in the rainforest was a bit of a problem. It had been very wet on the previous couple of days so it was very wet underfoot, or around beak and face perhaps if you’re a Kagu and probe in the earth for your food.

Adult Kagus have very long crests that droop down their back or over their wings. There’s some disagreement about differences between the sexes in the literature, but Guy Dutson in his Birds of Melanesia says that the females have fine barring on the upper wing. If that’s the case, the bird in the first photo would be a male and the one in the female in the second. Juveniles have barring too, but much more, which confuses the situation slightly.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by IanKagus are flightless but still have fairly long wings used for balance when rushing around and in threat displays when they show the striking black, grey and white barring on the flight feathers. The best we could get out of them was a throaty hiss when we startled them and brief views of the wings when flapped in motion, but can you see the barring just showing in the bird in the second and third photos (same individual). The one in the third photo has just grabbed an earth worm. These form an important part of the diet when the soil is damp, but they also eat lots of other invertebrates and small vertebrates such as lizards and mice. Apparently they can consume the millipedes without ill effects that other birds avoid because of the noxious substances they exude.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by Ian

Kagus form strong pair bonds that can last for years and vigorously defend territories of about 20 hectares or 50 acres in extent. They lay a single large egg in a rough nest on the ground and the young birds can stay in the parental territory for a year or two. Both adults share incubation and feeding of the young bird.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by Ian

This family was so tame that eventually we gave up using our expensive Canon gear – the birds were often too close to focus with a telephoto lens – and resorted to our phones. Joy took the fourth photo of me taking the fifth photo with my iPhone and I was startled to discover that the quality was nearly as good as with the Canon and the iPhone performed better in poor light. Smart phones have come a long way. I even took some videos and I’ll share one with you in due course.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by Ian

Kagus are rated as endangered, though recent conservation efforts have improved the situation. They suffer from predation by dogs, pigs and rats and Captain Cook started the rot in 1774 when he introduced dogs. They’ve also suffered from logging of rainforest and fragmentation of their habitat by clearing. The population reached a low of perhaps 600-700 birds in 1991 but has increased since and is thought to be about 1500 now as a result of predator control and captive breeding and reintroduction.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by Ian

Conservation is helped by its iconic status and it is widely used as symbol of New Caledonia. Here it is on the 1000 French Pacific Franc note (about 12 AUD), which of course we called the Kagu. This image shows the threat display that we failed to see properly or photograph.

The bird to its left on the note is one of the Horned Parakeets and I’ll have more to say about them in the near future. In fact one of these nearly upstaged the Kagu as photographic bird of the trip and it was only a very delightful encounter with a Kagu family in a different national park on our last full day that restored the Kagu to #1 status. So I’m going to break with tradition and have the same species as bird of the week twice running so that I can give that final chance meeting due space. The Kagu was, after all, the main reason for our visit and I haven’t had time yet to touch on its very interesting taxonomy.


Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 ian@birdway.com.au
Bird Photos http://www.birdway.com.au/
Where to Find Birds in Northern Queensland: iTunesGoogle Play Kobo Books
Recorder Society http://www.nqrs.org.au

Lee’s Addition:

Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings, (Psalms 17:8 KJV)

Great photos as usual, Ian. We’re glad our prayers are helping you see more of the Lord’s great birds.

I had hoped to see a Kagu at either the Houston or San Diego Zoo on this last trip. Both places had their Kagus “off exhibit.” One of them was ill, but not sure why the other one was not being shown. At least Ian was able to find them, in the wild, which is actually better.



Kagu – The High Profile Endemic Emblem

The Kagu – The High Profile Endemic Emblem – by a j mithra

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) Wikipedia

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) Wikipedia

Kagus (Rhynochetos jubatus) are rather oddballs among birds because they are a mixed bag of physical characteristics, some of which are unique to Rhynochetidae, but most of which are shared with other bird families.

The name “Rhynochetos” refers to the unique rolled corns or nasal flaps that cover its nostrils.

Kagus look like rails (Rallidae) and occupy a niche similar to Rallidae; however, Kagus also exhibit light coloration and abundant, widely distributed powder-downs, much like herons (Ardeidae).

Kagus have a unique blood composition compared to other bird species, consisting of one-third the number of red blood cells and three times the hemoglobin content…

Our life is unique compared to the others, for we are not only brought by the blood of Jesus, but also protected by His precious blood..

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)

Although flightless, Kagus have large wings. They are medium-sized quite compact and agile birds that move surprisingly fast. Their dark-red eyes and orange-red, long legs and large bill contrast with their ash-gray and white plumage. A striking feature of the Kagu’s appearance, and usually concealed, is the patterning on the wings, which somewhat resembles that on the Sunbittern‘s wings. The patterning consists of a dominant design of black-and-white cross-bands with a smaller area of brown “overlay” also running across the primaries. Their long crest feathers extend to the lower back and are difficult to spot unless raised. The pattern on the wings of these birds resembles that of the Sunbittern’s wings…

Do we have the life pattern of The Sun of Righteousness in our lives? God has created us in His image; do we carry His image wherever we go?

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; (Genesis 1:27)

The Kagu is exclusively carnivorous, feeding on a variety of animals with annelid worms, snails and lizards being amongst the most important prey items…

Also taken are larvae, spiders, centipedes and insects such as grasshoppers, bugs, and beetles. The majority of the diet is obtained from the leaf litter or soil, with other prey items found in vegetation, old logs and rocks.

It possesses bright red legs and a similarly coloured bill, and has large eyes, positioned so that they give good binocular which is helpful in finding prey in the leaf litter and seeing in the gloom of the forest.

Their hunting technique is to stand still on the ground or from an elevated perch, and silently watch for moving prey. they must also use other means, like vibration and/or sound, to pinpoint out-of-sight prey in soil that they capture.

Sometimes Kagus will hunt small animals in shallow water. They may stand on one foot and move the leaf litter with the other foot in order to flush prey. Victory is not a guarantee, no matter how technically qualified we are.

Like the Kagu, our battle technique ought to stand still and watch God win the battle for us…

And all this assembly shall know that the LORD saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hands. (1 Samuel 17:47)

In addition to their song, Kagus are best known for their distinctive displays. For defense, the wings are opened to reveal their patterning and positioned forward-facing in an attention-grabbing display that might have acted to confuse past predators. This display is remarkably similar in form and function to the “frontal display” of the Sunbittern..

Kagus use a “strutting” display in courtship and in disputes with other birds. They take an upright pose with the crest raised and fanned and the wings held down and forward in the form of a cape. They then slowly circle around each other in a ballet-like dance.

A captured bird held by the feet will also instinctively open its wings to reveal the patterning and bring them together as “shields” to cover its head….

The Kagu played a part in some indigenous Kanak cultures; for example, Kagu feathers were worn by the chiefs and their song was used in war dances.

Kagus are considered very important in New Caledonia, it is a high profile endemic emblem for the Territory.

Its distinctive song used to be played to the nation every night as the island’s TV station signed off the air.

Kagus make a range of different sounds, most commonly duetting in the morning, each duet lasting about 15 minutes. Its survival is considered important for the nation’s economy and image…

Kagus seem to know the importance of corporate worship, is that why they sing duets every morning?

We may not be able to have corporate worship every morning, but, how many of us realize the importance of corporate worship at least on a Sunday morning?

Jesus said,

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Mathew 18:20)

This is what the Bible says about corporate worship…

Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. (Hebrew 10:25)

Our survival is important for the extension of God’s kingdom,so, let us live like JESUS and for JESUS…

Have a blessed day!

Your’s in YESHUA,
a j mithra

Please visit us at: Crosstree