Over 50 species of Hummingbirds live in Costa Rica
The world's 330 species of hummingbirds live exclusively in the Americas, predominantly in the tropics. Over 50 species have been recorded in Costa Rica, and their beauty is matched by extravagant names. For many visitors these birds are the most delightful to observe.
Hummingbirds can beat their wings up to 80 times a second, thus producing the typical hum for which they are named. This exceptionally rapid beat, combined with the ability to rotate the whole wing, enables them to hover in place when feeding on nectar (their preferred food), or even to fly backward - unique traits in birds.
The energy needed to keep these tiny birds flying is high, and species living in the mountains have evolved an amazing strategy to survive a cold night: They go into a state of torpor, like a nightly hibernation, by lowering their body temperature between 17°C and 28°C depending on the species, thus lowering their metabolism drastically.
Apart from nectar, hummingbirds eat small insects for protein. They are generally quite pugnacious, and many will defend individual feeding territories, driving off any other bird that tries to feed. The males of some species gather together in a lek, a communal displaying area, where they attract females. After mating, however, males play little or no part in nesting or chick rearing.
The often dazzling iridescent colors of hummingbirds are caused by microscopic structures on the end of the feathers. These appear black in certain angles of light but, at other angles, refraction and interference cause the plumage to flash brilliantly. A shining green is the normal color of most hummingbirds, further decorated by brief fiery splashes of red, yellow, purple, or blue, usually in the head and upper breast area. Some have specially modified gorgets, or feathers sticking out from the throat. Normally, the males are the brightest.
Their small size (many under 10cm), speedy flight, tendency to be metallic green (or black in some lights), and lack of conspicuous coloration in the females make it difficult to tell the hummingbirds apart. With a little practice, however, some species become quickly recognizable. The long-tailed hermit (ermitaño colilargo; Phaethornis superciliosus) is common in forests of the Caribbean and south Pacific slopes below 1000m.
Hikers often notice a sud den 'Zzzip!' as a 15cm-long hummer comes very elose and inspects them before zipping off again. This inquisitive bird is probably the long-tailed hermit, identified by its brownish plumage, very long white central tail feathers extending about 3cm beyond the rest of the tail, and a long downcurved bill.
If the bird is smaller (9cm) and has short white central tail feathers, it's the little hermit (ermitaño enano; Phaethornis longuemares). In mid-elevation forests, 600 to 2000m on both slopes, the long-tailed hermit is replaced by the similar-sized green hermit (ermitaño verde; Phaethornis guy), which is mainly green but has the distinctive elongated white central tail feathers of the hermits.
Other commonly seen lowland hummers inelude the white-necked jacobin (jacobino nuquiblanco; Florisuga mellivora), which breeds in the Caribbean and south Pacific lowlands from January to June. From September to December they are rarely seen, but nobody is sure where they disappear to! Their range is Mexico to the Amazon. The male has a blue head and throat with a white collar on the back of its neck and a white belly and outer tail feathers. The females sometimes look like the males but are quite variable; some lose their blue head and white collar and have instead a scaled blue breast. Females, when discovered on the nest, will often flutter off gently like moths, in an attempt to hoodwink predators.
The violet sabrewing (ala de sable violáceo; Campylopterus hemileucurus) is the largest Costa Rican hummingbird (15cm long) and has a striking violet body and head, with dark green wings and back and white feathers on the outside of the tail. It is found in mid-elevations and is commonly seen at Monteverde. In fact, Monteverde is the single best place in the country to see hummingbirds, though many are attracted to feeders.
Also abundant here is the green violet-ear (colibrí orejivioláceo verde; Colibri thalassínus), a 10cm-long, almost all-green hummer with a violet eye patch and a blackish band near the end of the tail. A highland species found only in the eloud forests of Costa Rica (ineluding Monteverde) and into northern Pan ama is the fiery-throated hummingbird (colibrí garganta de fuego; Panterpe insignis). This very pugnacious shimmering green hummer with a blue tail has an amazingly brilliant blue cap and orange-and-yellow throat when viewed in good light.