Sunday, January 25, 2009

Colombia - Stunner Hummers

There are approximately 150 species of hummingbirds in Colombia and they bare superb witness to some of the most extraordinary evolutionary partnerships between birds and plants. Before you read on, I recommend you find a very stable and comfortable chair and put a well-padded cushion on the ground behind said chair (are you sick of my purple prose yet?).

We start with a link back to a previous email – this shot shows a female Blue-tailed Emerald feeding from a hole at the base of a flower made by a flowerpiercer

This Wedge-billed Hummingbird is using the same trick, You can see the beautiful tail better and the bill shape square on in the photo on the left.

This Andean Emerald shows the polite way to do it – feeding from the open end of the flower and getting a good dusting of pollen on the forehead. Also note how vertically compressed and “sword-like” the bill is one several of these hummers when seen head on.

This White-bellied Woodstar further demonstrates typical feeding behaviour while hovering (even in bright light it is hard to stop those wings)

and the Steely-vented Hummingbird provides an acrobatic twist to this theme.

Next, two species of violetears. North Americans may be familiar with the Green Violetear on the left but maybe less familiar with the Sparkling Violetear on the right. The latter is the more common in Colombia and occurs in urban areas and seems to be one of only a few birds that benefits from introduced eucalyptus trees. The two species may look quite different in these close-ups but they are surprisingly difficult to separate in the field under normal lighting conditions. The violet ear patches can actually be “raised” in aggressive interactions.

The Shining Green Hummingbird completely deserves their name, lighting up the dry forest with a spark of iridescence.

The Buff-tailed Coronet appears all dark most of the time, until you catch the iridescence.

The Fawn-breasted Brilliant is a subtly plumaged hummer with a strong bill. The gorget is interesting – small and teardrop shaped – the insert shows its colour at the right angle.

The Speckled Hummingbird also chose subtlety in their evolution. You’d be forgiven for not realizing the bird staring me down in the photo is a hummer at all – the straight bill is actually not as short as it appears in this photo.

Another hummer that appears all dark is the Tourmaline Sunangel. But when the light is right the iridescent purple gorget and green “ruff” are distinctive.

Speaking of distinctive, the Collared Inca is immediately identifiable – and what a gem. You can just see a hint of the blue crown on this male. The plumage appears all black and white but actually has very dark green highlights. This one seems to be licking his chops as sweet nectar flows down his bill.

In addition to the Tawny Antpitta in a previous post, the foggy páramo opened its misty veil to give me a glimpse of another highly sought after mountain dweller, the Bearded Helmetcrest. Unfortunately in this photo the long beard and lost crest don’t show very well. This species is found from 3000 – 5200m. Even near the equator it is very cold in the treeless páramo and so helemtcrests, like other high elevation hummers, conserve energy by perching to feed, as shown here, rather than hovering, whenever possible. They also walk across matted grass to feed on insects.

Lower down in the cloud forest, the male Long-tailed Sylph shows off his stunning tail. Like the gorget of some hummers, his tail appears to be different colours at different angles – now green now blue. The dazzling iridescent crown is not often viewed to full effect. Their showy tails seem to be a lot of work because I saw many that were shorter and/or frayed.

Last but not least, the Sword-billed Hummingbird showing off their extraordinary bill. Notice how they almost always point their bill skyward to minimize the strain on their neck from this weighty appendage (even when perched). The partnership between the Sword-billed Hummingbird and the LONG flowers they feed on is a remarkable road of co-evolution (adaptation and counter-adaptation). Both pollinator and pollinated have presumably influenced each other’s development - a glimpse into the real meaning of commitment! Interestingly, the well-armed Sword-bill is a gentle spirit and, at Rio Blanco where they hang feeders, was often intimidated and scared away from the free sugar by much smaller, more aggressive hummers. In the world of hummingbirds it seems, speed is the greatest weapon!

You can see larger versions of these photos at:

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