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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Hummingbirds of Ecuador - Small Wonders

Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera)

The hummingbird is a diminutive creature endemic to the Americas, the majority found in the neo-tropics. The English name is derived from the constant “hum” produced by the rapid beating of the wings. There are 339 known species with nearly 40% of those (132 species) found in Ecuador. Extraordinarily beautiful in color and intensely fascinating in flight, this miniature acrobat can mesmerize even the most apathetic individual.

Hummingbirds can flap their wings from 12-90 beats per second, depending on the species. They have the unusual ability to rotate their wings at the shoulder that enables them to not only fly forward but also hover and fly backward, the latter being exclusive to their family of avifauna. Hummingbirds can exceed speeds of 15 m/s or 54 km/h (34 mi/h), charging at intruders and stopping within inches of an interloper.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet (Boissonneaua matthewsii)
The hummingbird is among the smallest of birds ranging from the miniscule Bee Hummingbird of Cuba at 5 cm (2 in.) to the Giant Hummingbird measuring a whopping 16.5 cm (6 ½ in.). The Amethyst Woodstar and the Short-tailed Woodstar of Ecuador are in contention for the smallest at 6 cm (2.4 in.).
With a few exceptions, hummingbirds are some of the most brilliantly decorated and intensely colored of all avian species. They glimmer with an iridescence that is produced by microscopic feather structure rather than pigmentation. This can result in problems with identification as well as photography since the wrong light angle can render these areas as black. However, in the proper illumination, there is no comparison to their beauty.

While in flight, hummingbirds exhibit the highest metabolism of all animal species. Their heart rates can reach an astounding 1,260 beats per minute. To maintain this constant need for energy, these small birds consume more than their own weight in nectar each day. Constantly visiting hundreds of flowers daily, they are only hours from starvation at any time. They can store just enough food to survive the night, and this is only accomplished by going into a hibernation state or torpor. However, nectar does not provide the protein needed to sustain life so the consumption of insects is necessary to maintain a balance.

Velvet-purple Coronet (Boissonneaua jardini)
The bills of the hummingbird are long and narrow, varying in length depending on the species. Beaks can be as short as 11 mm (0.4 in) of the Blue-mantled Thornbill to the extraordinary length of the Sword-billed Hummingbird at 90 – 100 mm (3 ½ - 4 in.), almost exceeding its own body length. When feeding, the bill opens slightly as the tubular tongue slides into the flower to extract the nectar.

Hummingbirds are very territorial and can be very aggressive when protecting their feeding grounds. They will approach birds much larger than themselves and even confront humans who wander into their personal space. Looking eye to eye with an irate hummer can be a memorable experience.

With no hummingbirds native to Europe and only a few (16) inhabiting North America, this avian family can present a rewarding addition to any visit to the neo-tropics of the south. Most lodges and many restaurants place feeders on they premises to attract these diminutive creatures. This, in itself, draws many tourists to search for of these magnificent denizens of the tropics.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Toucan Barbet - Harlequin of the Andes

There are seven species of New World Barbets (Capitonidae) that inhabit the Ecuadorian foothills of the Andes. They are considered a distinct family apart from the Old World Barbets and the African Barbets and believed to be more closely associated with the Toucan.  They are stocky and colorful birds found in the canopy and humid mountain forest borders, often seen feeding on fruits and berries. Although males and females vary greatly in coloration, the Toucan Barbet is an exception. Barbets build their nests in tree holes and cavities.

Toucan Barbet (Semnornis ramphastinus)
The Toucan Barbet can be found on the western slopes of the Andes from northwest Ecuador to west Cotopaxi. They normal range is between 1,400 and 2,400 meters (4,400 and 8,000 feet). Although this species appears to be thriving quite well in Ecuador, it was placed on near-threatened status by Collar in 1994 due to its growing scarcity in Columbia.

The Toucan Barbet is a brilliantly colored and stout birds measuring 21.5 to 23 cm (8 ½ to 9 inches) in length. The bill is very hefty with a mixture of yellow and pale green tipped with black. Red eyes peer out from behind a black mask that ends at the collar. There is an obvious white stripe behind the eye. A mantle of golden brown descends the back, transforming to a yellow at the rump. The wings and tail are gray. The sides of the neck, throat and chest are a bluish gray, with the breast and mid-belly a vibrant red. The underbelly sports a greenish yellow hue. It is obvious that this little harlequin like bird cannot be mistaken for any other species.

The Toucan Barbet is most often seen in pairs or small groups, perching for extended periods on stout horizontal branches. They are sometimes found in groups with tanagers, feeding on fruit in the canopy of mountain forests. When in flight, they beat their wings rapidly making a boisterous racket. It communicates with loud, booming honks: the male and female having different pitches. It also regularly clacks its bill to attract the attention of the opposite sex. The Toucan Barbet can be readily observed at the Bellavista Forest Reserve, Milpe Bird Sanctuary, Mindo Valley, Paz de las Aves, Tinalandia and Tandayapa Valley.

The Toucan Barbet is a delightful and vibrantly colored bird that is a pleasure to observe when visiting the rainforests of Ecuador. It is one of the spectacular species that makes this an important destination for the avid and the casual birdwatcher.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Of the 240 traditionally known species of tanagers (Thraupidae) 143 inhabit the country of Ecuador. Within this heading are included the tanagers, honeycreepers, conebills, flowerpiercers, dacnis, euphonias, bananaquit and plushcap. These avian species are found only in the Americas, the vast majority located in the neo-tropics: Central and South America.

Blue-necked Tanager (Tangara cyanicollis)
Tanagers can vary greatly in length from the diminutive Short-billed Honeycreeper and White-vented Euphonia at 9.5 cm (3 ¾ inches) to the mammoth Magpie Tanager at 28 cm (11 in.). Although there are many species that are dull in color, most display a rainbow of hues and shades and are among some of the most radiant of the rainforest inhabitants. Bills can vary widely from the slender, decurved mandibles of the honeycreepers to the solidly built bills of the Silver-beaked and Lemon-rumped tanagers. Some species show significant difference in color between the sexes while others are barely discernible.

Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager
(Anisognathus igniventris)
The majority of the tanagers are arboreal, hiding amongst the trees and bushes in heavily wooded areas. However, there are a few species that occur in lower forest growth and in semi-open areas. While some tanagers can produce a beautiful and melodious sound most, unfortunately, do not. Tanagers are omnivorous in their diet eating everything from fruits and nectar to insects, depending on genus.

The normal breeding season for tanagers in Ecuador is September through October. There is not much information about whether they are monogamous or polygamous in their mating habits. The males will show off their colors and sometimes go through ritual dances to attract a mate.

Tanagers are the showboats of the Ecuadorian rainforest, flaunting their dazzling colors in an array of splendor. Be observant as you travel and you will experience an incredible diversity of brilliance and grandeur.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Crimson-rumped Toucanet

When people think about the birds of South America they automatically envisions the more tropical birds such as toucans and parrots. Ecuador has its share of these exotic birds in various sizes and colors. Though not the smallest, the Crimson-rumped Toucanet is definitely on the more diminutive end of the spectrum.

Toucans are spectacularly colored birds that inhabit the humid and mountain forests of South America. They make their nests in holes in trees and have the curious ability to fold their tails flat onto their backs when roosting. Toucans are an exceptionally vocal bird producing squawks, grunts, croaks and squeaks that give their presence away. Although primarily fruit-eaters, they will occasionally partake in a more protein rich diet of insects as well as the eggs or nestlings of other birds.

The Crimson-rumped Toucanet (Aulacorhynchus haematopygus) is quite common on the western slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes ranging from the Columbian border south to western Loja. It generally resides between 500m and 2,000m (1,600 ft. and 6,600 ft.) although it has been known to visit some lower areas. There were reports years ago of spotting the Crimson-rumped Toucanet on the eastern slopes but there have not been any sightings in recent years.

This compact toucan is 34.5 – 35.5 cm in length (13 ½ - 14 in.) and has a bill of 6.5 – 7.5 cm (2 ½ - 3 in.). The beak is a dark red in color mottled with black. Red eyes peer out from a predominantly green body. A bluish tint can be seen below the eyes and across the breast in the attached photo but this is generally not noticeable in the field. There is a narrow band of red across the rump that may not be seen when the bird is at rest. The tail feathers have a chestnut colored tip.

Although toucans can be rather shy, there are areas that you can visit where you can approach these birds for a closer look. The attached photo was taken at Paz de las Aves, a private reserve north of the town of Mindo. Angel Paz has erected some hides and feeders in the canopy of the forest to attract the Crimson-rumped Toucanet as well as other exotic species. Other areas where this tropical jewel can be observed are Bellavista Forest Reserve, Buenaventura Reserve, Milpe Bird Sanctuary, Mindo Valley, Rio Canande Reserve, Rio Palenque Reserve, Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary, Tinalandia and Tandayapa Valley.

The Crimson-rumped Tucanet is an adorable little bird that is a delight to observe and photograph. Look closely and you may be rewarded with a few moments with this precious gem of the rainforest. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sparkling Violetear

The most frequently encountered hummingbird for visitors to Quito, Ecuador and the inter-Andean valley is the Sparkling Violetear (Colibri coruscans). Widely distributed throughout the country from 1,000m to 3,500m (3,300 ft to 11,500 ft), its consistent "tik, tik, tik" calls attention to an ever-present guardian.

The Sparkling Violetear is a beautiful and conspicuous hummingbird frequenting feeders and flowering plants, even within the bustling city limits. It is very territorial and can be seen habitually warding off intruders. This little hummer has grown accustomed to the dense population of the metropolitan areas and can be easily approached for photos. 

With an average length of 12cm (4 3/4 in.), it has a slightly decurved bill of 25mm (1 in.). Its overall appearance is a glittering green with a brilliant violet-blue patch on the mid-belly. There is a post-occular spot and the tail feathers are a metallic blue. However, the most distinguishing feature of the Sparkling Violetear is the dazzling violet ear-patch that extends from the sides of the neck to the chin. When alerted to an interloper, it will extend the upper feathers of this patch to resemble ears. 

The Sparkling Violetear has been welcoming visitors to Ecuador for years. On your next visit to this inviting nation be alert to the zealous greeting from this entertaining resident.