By: Ilán Greenfield
Photos by: Murray Cooper
Hummingbirds rank among the natural world’s most amazing creatures. Next to the platypus or the axolotl (that mystifying fish with arms), the hummingbird is not only a beautiful bird, it’s a prodigy of nature.
Its flight is more versatile than a drone could ever be, its beak as thin as a needle, its feathers change colors like the prism of a crystal. One of the first people to take notice of these fascinating creatures and write about them, Ecuadorian Jesuit Juan de Velasco in the 1770s, even believed they were not completely alive: he regarded them as a hybrid between a precious stone and a bird.
A living stone?
Believe it or not, the conclusion was not the product of a madman’s whim but, rather, the product of shrewd observation. He figured out that every night the cardiac rhythm of these little birds drops to almost nothing and the body cools down completely and hardens… like a stone. A sparkling precious one, that when the sun rises, suddenly opens its beady eyes, flutters its wings, and like magic, disappears on the fly. Now we know that this process – known as torpor – is natural, necessary for the bird’s survival.
Some have bills like sabers; or curved bills; or bills as small as a splinter… some tails have miniscule wire-like plumes, others end in rackets. Their variety seems the result of an artist’s psychedelic trip rather than anything as mundane as natural selection.
A tour de force
Nothing like the life of the hummingbird compares to it. No animal on Earth spends so much energy during its waking hours. Flitting from flower to flower like a gigantic insect, zooming like a miniature torpedo, fluttering its wings faster than a fan (more than 80 wingbeats per second enables it to pirouette like a ballerina). Its body enters its extreme state of torpor at night so as to awake as the most spectacular, versatile and amazing flyer our planet has ever produced.
– The Giant Hummingbird, the world’s largest hummingbird –
They fly forwards, they fly backwards, they fly upside-down (yes, with their heads to the ground), they can suspend themselves in the air or fly from one end of the forest to another in the same amount of time. And diversity, of course, makes some fly better than others.
Some species are large, their wings almost visible, their wingbeats much slower than the fastest hummingbirds whose wings move so fast they are imperceptible to our eyes. But, even so, the larger species are still capable of performing many of the same pirouettes in the air.
Tiny woodstars, on the other hand, fly like bees. They are the smallest species of all, no bigger than your thumb!
This hummingbird fiesta takes place every day of year. We’re all invited to witness it. We can sit and watch them fly for hours, we can gaze at them from one angle and then from another to see how their colors change on glistening throats, tails, crests and in some, even wings… We can get close enough to see their eyelashes… without binoculars! This is thanks to the hundreds of places across Ecuador that place hummingbird feeders in their gardens.
There are from 130 to 140 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador
Stop in front of these feeders to realize that some hummers look alike and others do not. Spot the racket tails, the cotton-like puffs on some of their feet; notice that one has a snow-white chest and another, orange shoulder pads. Some have very long beaks and others very long tails, some turquoise… some purple… It all depends on the forest. On the elevation. On the ecosystem. On the habitat. They are one-hundred-thirty-and-some species to behold. At some feeders, you can spot more than twenty species, at others less than five… but with a Birds of Ecuador book or the new Hummingbirds of Ecuador photographic guide in hand, your eyes will be able to decipher the buzzing madness and begin to understand it. See how many species you can find and identify! It’s quite fun once you get down to it.
– Batalla campal entre dos Colicerdas Verdes (machos, por supuesto) –
Hummer feeder tour
These are some of the most talked-about nectar feeders in the Ecuadorian birding world, where you can begin your hummer list (with the number of species that regularly visit them; remember that different species are found depending on the ecosystem).
Páramo and montane/elfin forest
Antisana: Tambo Cóndor (6 species)
“El Quinde” Eco-route: Reserva Yanacocha (10 species)
Papallacta: Guango Lodge (12 species)
Cosanga: Cabañas San Isidro (34 total list, expect 12 species)
Vilcabamba: Tapichalaca (18 total list, expect 29 species)
Macará: Reserva Utuana (7 species)
“El Quinde” Eco-route: Bellavista Cloud Forest (14 species)
Subtropics and foothills
Sumaco: Wildsumaco Lodge (45 total list, expect 25 species)
Zamora: Copalinga Lodge (31 total list, expect 20 species)
Nanegalito: Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge (15 species)
Calacalí – Nanegalito Road: Los Armadillos Café (12-15 species)
Near Mindo: San Tadeo Birding and Sachatamia (14 species)
Milpe: Milpe Bird Sanctuary (24 especies)
Los Bancos: Mirador Río Blanco (8 species)
Mashpi: Reserva Amagusa (10 species)
Most lodges, restaurants, cafés and inns in the Mindo area set up feeders, so anywhere is good to experience the “fiesta”.
Bird photography courtesy of Murray Cooper