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Heliornis fulica

Length: 11.5 to 12 inches Wingspan: 18-20 inches Seasonality: Non-resident in South Dakota
ID Keys: brown upperparts, white underparts, dark crown and nape with white stripes, white throat, long reddish bill.  Female has buffy cheek patch.

Sungrebe - Heliornis fulicaThe Sungrebe may look and sometimes act like grebe species, but they are actually more closely related to Rail species.  They are widespread in South America, Central America, and southeastern Mexico, but normally are found several hundred miles from the United States.  However, in November, 2008, a lone Sungrebe was found at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.  There was some discussion that the bird may have been an escapee from captivity, but based on it's shy retiring behavior and a lack of any obvious banding or other signs of former captivity, the American Orrnithological Union (AOU) accepted the sighting as a wild bird.  The species thus now occupies a spot on the AOU's official checklist of birds in the North American region (generally U.S. and Canada).

The Sungrebe is known for a unique anatomical adaptation in the males.  They have a unique fold of skin under their wings that allows them to carry young. The Sungrebe, the only member of the Heliornis genus, is the only bird known to have this adaptation.

Habitat: Found in slow moving streams and rivers, generally in and around heavy vegetative cover. They are sometime adaptable to more temporary water sources such as flooded fields and ditches.

Diet: The diet of a Sungrebe is not well understood, but they are known to feed on molluscs, insects, spiders, small crabs and other crustaceans, and small reptiles and amphibians.

Behavior: While not a grebe species, they do often move through the water like a grebe or Anhinga, with their bodies partially or mostly submerged.  They are capable of strong flight but will often simply slink away through the water rather than flush and fly away when threatened.  Foraging is primarily done at the surface of the water, picking up food items from the water's surface, just under the surface, or on nearby vegetation.

Nesting: The nest of a Sungrebe is constructed by both the male and female.  The nest is a platform of sticks and reeds, lined with leaves, mosses or other material.  The nest is placed in vegetation near a water body, generally quite near the water's surface.  The female lays 2 to 4 eggs, and both the male and female help to incubate them.  Both parents help to raise the young, although the male may care for them more than the female.

Song: Multiple vocalizations have been heard, from soft clucking of courting birds, to loud, multi-note calls with rising tones in the 2nd syllable of each 2-syllable note.

Migration: Considered a permanent resident throughout their normal range.

Interactive eBird map: Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Sungrebe sightings

Similar Species: Distinctive if seen well.

Conservation Status: The Sungrebe is considered a species of "least concern" by the IUCN.  They are found over a wide geographic range, and are common in parts of their range.

Further Information: 1) BirdLife International - Sungrebe

2) Cornell's NeoTropical Birds - Sungrebe

3) The Guardian - Mystery Bird-Sungrebe

Photo Information: Photo by Allan Hopkins - Taken in Guyana in South America - Photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial/NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License


Click below for a higher-resolution map
Sungrebe - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Non-resident in South Dakota

Additional Sungrebe Photos (coming soon!!)