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STOP… Hummer Time!

September 28, 2014

Perhaps our favorite activity during our time at Las Tangaras Reserve has been the appreciation and enjoyment of the bouquet of hummingbirds that frequent the flowers and sugar-water feeders placed around the cabin. I use the term “bouquet” as a fitting collective noun to describe a group of hummingbirds, as the harlequin beauty of their iridescent plumage when seen as a group can be likened to an exquisitely arranged bunch of brightly colored flowers. In the literature, a gathering of these feathered gems can also be referred to as a “glittering”, “hover”, “shimmer”, and even a “tune” of hummingbirds.

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Test your knowledge! Can you name all 8 birds?

Over the past six weeks, we have been mesmerized and enchanted by these diminutive birds. The use of feeders and the strategic planting of their favorite flowers not only makes the hummingbirds easy to see but they can be seen really really well — to the point where it has become an obsession to marvel endlessly at their elegance and charm. Ritually observing the hummers and collecting detailed data on their diversity, numbers, and behavior is actually part of our official daily duties while managing the reserve. So… we don’t have to feel guilty about lounging on the rustic and cozy Las Tangaras porch, sipping a cup of Mindo-roasted coffee with binoculars in hand. Hey, it’s part of our job!

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Hummingbirds are nectar feeders in the taxonomic family Trochilidae, which contains approximately 340 species exclusive to the New World (North, Central, and South America). Most of these are tropical, although 16 species occur in North America (even as far north as Alaska). In our regular home of Miami, we have only 1 to 2 hummingbird species that migrate south from their northern breeding grounds and spend the winters in South Florida (not unlike the human “snowbirds” from New York). In comparison, 130 hummingbird species occur in Ecuador, and over 20 different species make appearances right off the front porch of the Las Tangaras cabin (and there are around 30 species documented thus far on the reserve property in total). There is no evidence that hummingbirds need the extra food supplied in the form of sugar water at artificial feeding stations — or that they develop a reliance on it. In fact, most studies have shown that hummingbirds that use artificial feeders continue to forage the vast majority of time away from feeders, coming to them for only brief periods and then resuming their normal feeding behavior — typically a diet of 75% flower nectar and 25% insects. What the feeders have done to benefit hummingbirds is through their impact on people — by bringing humans closer to nature. Through feeders, we are better able to appreciate, love, and understand hummingbirds, and this in turn fosters a human connection to the natural world that for most people is lacking.

We have come to learn and delight in the unique personalities, vocalizations, and the identifying features of the many characters in the Las Tangaras hummingbird extravaganza.

Here are a few of our favorites.

Purple-bibbed Whitetip (Urosticte benjamini)

This small hummingbird is one of the bravest and dare we say, cutest, at Las Tangaras.

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It shows little fear of humans and will often land on our hands and fly right in front of our faces when we are putting out the feeders. Believe it or not, it has even attempted to probe its tiny bill into our ears and nostrils looking for nectar.

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Marc is greeted by a trio of curious whitetips.

Several of the hummingbirds at Las Tangaras have been leg-banded through LifeNet Nature’s mist-netting research projects, and sometimes we can view this species from such a close distance that we can actually read the tiny numbers on its metal bands.

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A close look at this female whitetip’s right leg reveals a tiny metal leg band with a unique numerical code. We affectionately call this individual “fifty-seven” as 5 and 7 are the last two numbers on her band. Can you make out the upside-down 7?

The unmistakable male has a large patch of glittering purple on its mid-chest, a glittering green gorget (throat patch), and unique broad white tips on the central feathers of its deeply forked tail. A short but bold white post ocular stripe is also prominent.

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Interestingly, the iridescent feather colors in hummingbirds are largely caused not by pigmentation — but by microscopic feather structure — and thus are dependent on the angle of the sunlight for the colors to be properly reflected. At the “wrong” angle, a hummingbird might look completely black, but then the bird turns and suddenly an incredible flash of color appears.

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Male purple-bibbed whitetip, in the “wrong” light, where the glittering purple bib and green gorget cannot be appreciated. Look at those white tail tips, though!

The female, who looks quite different, also has a bold white post ocular stripe as well as a thin white malar stripe, and is white below thickly spangled with glittering green. Her tail has narrow white tipping only on its outer feathers.

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Female purple-bibbed whitetip.

A distinctive behavior of these birds is that often after landing, they will stretch their wings out in a “ta-da!” like motion.

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On left, a male purple-bibbed whitetip raises its wings in the typical “ta-da!” fashion immediately upon landing. Interestingly, an immature male on the right looks similar to the female, though he has a buff tinge to the fore neck area. This confused us a bit at first, until we consulted Las Tangaras’s library of bird books!

They often sing their way to their feeders with a high-pitched mouse-like squeak.

To the untrained eye, a female purple-bibbed whitetip could be mistaken for other female hummingbirds such as this female green-crowned brilliant, below. However, note the marked size difference and subtle differences in plumage and bill shape. Making these distinctions becomes second nature given the amount of time we spend watching these birds!

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Left, female purple-bibbed whitetip. Right, female green-crowned brilliant.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl)

A medium-sized noisy hummingbird and also one of the more numerous in Western Ecuador. Its color is mostly green but its entire tail is contrastingly rufous. Additionally, it has a distinctive reddish-pink bill, brighter towards the base and blacker at the tip.

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“Señor Grumpy-pants”

Males and females look alike with only very minor differences. Here, it is affectionately known as our “machine gun chatterbox”, owing to the loud sputtering noise it makes that gives away its presence. However, this noise is not a vocalization; rather, it is actually a “wing whir”, or buzzing sound it makes with its wings.

They defend food sources quite aggressively and can often be found starting a war at the feeders.

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Empress Brilliant (Heliodoxa imperatrix)

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Male empress brilliant, albeit with a scruffy tail.

A large and truly regal species of hummingbird that has a commanding presence at the feeding stations is the Empress Brilliant. The spectacular male is mostly green, with glittering golden green on its belly and a violet-lavender gorget. Its tail is very long and extremely deeply forked. Additionally, its head is relatively large with a protracted bill.

The female also has a long forked tail and a glimmering golden green belly, but she also has a white malar streak and her throat and breast are spangled with green discs.

Immatures of both sexes show rufous on the chin and malar area (as do young of all the brilliants)

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Immature empress brilliant showing rufous chin and malar area.

In comparison, the similar Green-crowned Brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula) is smaller, has a shorter tail lacking a deep fork, and in neither sex does it show the golden cast to the belly. The female Green-crowned Brilliant also has a white tip to the tail, which the Empress does not.

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Examine the two birds with their backs toward you. Left, empress brilliant male, showing long deeply forked black tail. Right, male green-crowned brilliant, showing smaller notched blue-black tail.

Green-crowned Wood-nymph (Thalurania fannyi)

Undeservingly, we sometimes refer to this small bird as our “default” hummingbird. New visitors to the reserve trying to sort out the many species of hummingbirds seem to get caught up on this one. As they are quite numerous at the feeders and can often look nondescript in poor lighting, if you don’t know what it is, chances are it’s a green-crowned wood-nymph!

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Green-crowned wood-nymph, male, in exquisite iridescent showiness.

They land on the feeders and when not feeding, can often be found perched in groups of 3 or 4 on the branches placed off the porch. The male can often look quite dark, but in the right light it’s actually one of the most beautiful iridescent birds seen here. He has much glittering green, including the crown, throat, and chest, the latter contrasting with its glittering violet-blue underparts. Its tail is rather long and deeply forked (more noticeable in flight).

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Green-crowned wood-nymph, male

The female is smaller and much drabber, with distinctive two-toned underparts. Its rather pale gray throat and chest contrast with much darker mixed green and dark gray breast and belly.

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Green-crowned wood-nymph, female.

White-necked Jacobin (Florisuga mellivora)

Some of the interesting trivia surrounding hummingbirds revolves around the elaborate descriptive names that they’ve been given over the centuries. The different hummingbird groups, or genera, have been given ornamented fantasy-like names that conjure up make-believe worlds akin to Lord of the Rings. Among the different kinds you’ll find pufflegs, trainbearers, sylphs, coquettes, coronets, wood-stars, sapphires, hillstars, firecrowns, sabrewings, sunangels, violetears, topazes, racket-tails, star-throats, metaltails, fairies, and mangos, to name a few. Someone must have had a grand old time sitting in a dark basement with a set of Dungeons & Dragons dice, a bag of Funions, and a Rush tape pounding in the background, inventing these extraordinary fantastical names. So it occurred to us, how did the White-necked Jacobin get its name, and what the heck is a Jacobin anyway? The answer was not so simple…

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A trio of flashy male white-necked jacobins

11893915133_618ae9204eThe White-necked Jacobins were not always called jacobins. In fact, the father of British ornithology in the 1700’s, George Edwards, whose plates and descriptions provided basis for the scientific name given the species by Linnaeus fifteen years later, simply called it the “white belly’d hummingbird”. That common name was used through the early 1800’s, when another prominent English zoologist, George Shaw, took nomenclatural cues from the French ornithologists’s name for this bird, “oiseau-mouche á collier”, and translated this into English as “White-collared Hummingbird”. This dull name stuck for many years, but what the Brits didn’t know at the time was that the French had given this bird TWO names. In the 1800’s French text, Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, the bird is depicted as “oiseau-mouche á collier — dit la Jacobine”. French ornithologist Buffon wrote, “It is, obviously, the distribution of white in the bird’s plumage that gave rise to the idea of calling it Jacobine.”

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However, look closely — the French name is originally feminine, referring not to the Dominican (Roman Catholic order founded by St. Dominic) monks of St. Jacques but to their female counterparts. Hence, this brightly colored male hummingbird is named for the resemblance of its plumage to the garments of a French Dominican nun. For reasons unknown, when jacobine was subsequently translated back into English, the terminal “e” in the word was dropped, hence transforming the feminine “jacobine” into the masculine “jacobin”. So, you can add both the White-necked Jacobin and the Empress Brilliant to the list of extraordinary Las Tangaras male hummingbirds with a gender identity crisis!

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White-necked jacobin, male

On a closing note, whoever sold us these “hummingbird” feeders clearly wasn’t painting the complete picture. After the sun sets over the Andes, while hummingbirds are quietly dreaming of endless fields of nectar-rich flowers, their winged counterparts of the night emerge from their roosts…

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Text by Marc H. Kramer; Photos by Eliana Ardila

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. BARRY KRAMER permalink
    September 28, 2014 7:54 pm

    BRILLIANT SIMPLY PUT…….PHOTOS AND TEXT…….BWK MD.

  2. September 29, 2014 9:00 am

    Great article
    Tim Bonney

  3. Marcia Goodrich permalink
    September 30, 2014 5:44 am

    Thank you so much for telling this beautiful story so well.

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