Sungrebe – New for North America!

Stunning news from Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico: a female Sungrebe was photographed there on 13 November 2008, those photos here. It was correctly identified on 17 November from the photos, then refound and photographed more on 18 November. This is not only a new species for North America, but a whole new family.

A map of the species’ whole range can be seen here at InfoNatura (scroll down for the detailed map).
Of course, birders are already debating whether this is a wild, naturally-occcurring bird or an escape from captivity. On one hand, it’s a secretive species that is rarely seen flying, with no known history of vagrancy or even real seasonal movements, making the prospect of one appearing nearly 1000 miles northwest of the closest known population seem very unlikely. On the other hand, it’s not kept in any zoos, and doesn’t seem like the kind of species that would be illegally transported by an individual, which makes the escapee theory unlikely also.
Tipping the balance in favor of natural occurrence, in my opinion, is that in South America Sungrebes are apparently quick to occupy ephemeral wetlands, even when those are isolated many miles from any other suitable Sungrebe habitat. So clearly they are capable of long-distance flight, and wander enough to discover recently-created habitat. Perhaps, like rails, or Masked Ducks, they are capable of amazing feats of vagrancy.
Unless there is some clear evidence of captivity, I would consider this a wild bird. Incredible!
Update 19 November: Jerry Oldenettel has more details and will be updating the bird’s status on his website here; and apparently the original photos were taken 13 November, and identified on the 17th, so the bird has been present at least six days.

10 thoughts on “Sungrebe – New for North America!”

  1. OK, this may be a silly question, but I thought there had been sitings in Mexico? I’m new to birding – do birders consider Mexico to be part of South America when counting sitings on a continent? Or am I wrong and this bird has not been seen in Mexico?

  2. The San Diego Zoo (or Wild Animal Park, I can’t remember which) has some Sungrebes. Or at least they did in September 🙂

  3. I think that there has and will be a lot of confusion between Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias) and Sungrebe (Heliornis fulica). Sunbittern is commonly kept in zoos, whereas I know of no zoo that has Sungrebe in their collection, and the ISIS database of zoo collections shows no Sungrebes in any AZA accredited institution.

    While keeping the databse is not mandatory, most institutions are very good at keeping their ISIS entries and studbooks up to date.

    Seeing the commenter who said that he saw Sungrebes at San Diego Zoo, I called their bird department and asked. The answer is no…no Sungrebes, but they do have Sunbitterns.

    It is highly unlikely that this bird is escaped from a zoo.

    -greg neise
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    Greg Neise
    Staff Photographer
    Manager of Web and Graphics Technology
    Lincoln Park Zoo
    2001 N. Clark St.
    Chicago, IL 60614
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  4. I heard that some people came from across the country to see it only to find out that it moved into a restricted part of the park. They weren’t allowed to go in to look for it so they went home without seeing the bird they traveled thousands of miles for.

  5. Bert Prendergast

    The male Sungrebe has a pouch in each wing that it can use to transport its babies,even flying with them.

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