I watched a lady take a shower the other morning out on our front lawn.
It was a female ruby-throated hummingbird that had landed on the sedums out front just as the sprinklers were rotating toward her. I expected she’d flush when the water hit her, but she sat there and seemed to enjoy the coolness on a day headed for 90 degrees.
All this occurred four days after my return from a six-day birding trip to Ecuador.
While we see only the ruby-throated hummingbird regularly in Minnesota, the Andes in northwestern Ecuador are home to more than 50 species of hummingbirds. I was fortunate enough to see 34 of them, 20 of which were new life birds for my list.
In this country, we typically think of birds living in certain geographical ranges, north or south, depending on the season.
But hummingbirds in the Andes often live in ranges that are limited by altitude, up and down, and not so much north and south. They depend on the nectar in flowers, and these bloom only at certain altitudes and at certain times of the year.
Migration of birds in the tropics is therefore often a vertical migration, to an altitude where food is available.
One of the most impressive hummingbirds was one we saw on the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano in the Yanacocha Reserve at 11,500 feet. It was the sword-billed hummingbird with its five-inch body and a four-inch bill. When perched, the bird raises its bill nearly vertical, probably to help maintain balance so it doesn’t take a nose dive off the branch.
As my buddy Bill said, “There’s a bird that can’t groom itself.” Talk about not being able to scratch where you itch!
We stayed at a place called the Tandayapa Bird Lodge, near Mindo, west of Ecuador’s capital, Quito. Tandayapa is at 5,700 feet and features half a dozen hummingbird feeders around its balcony.
The booted racket-tail hummingbird is one of several exotic varieties that frequent northwestern Ecuador, home to more than 50 species of hummingbirds.
Here was where we saw the most hummingbirds. One superstar was the booted racket-tail. This little guy is just over four inches long, including a pair of tail feathers that have evolved as narrow “strings” that end in large, blue-black rackets, which the male proudly displays as it flits and feeds.
As the name suggests, this hummingbird also has some fabulous white puffy boots. So with the white boots and racket tails, it’s a gorgeous bird.
One of the most spectacular hummingbirds we saw was the rare and elusive empress brilliant, a five-inch beauty with a deeply forked tail and body feathers that reflect the sun in a brilliant green underneath a flickering gold sheen.
How rare is this bird? If you look on a birding map for its range, you won’t find a gray shaded area marking its habitat. Instead, you’ll see just two small black dots west of Quito (where we were) and one dot on the border with Columbia.
Most of the birds in the tropics have names consisting of two or more words strung together, and hummingbird names are no exception. They’re usually very descriptive.
For example, we saw the white-whiskered, tawny-bellied and stripe-throated hermits, small hummingbirds with decurved (downward curved) bills.
Then there were the brown, green and sparkling violetears, four-inch hummers with violet ear patches that flare out when they confront one another at the feeders. They looked like gill covers to me.
Some names evoke magical, fairy-like scenes: green-crowned woodnymph, shining sunbeam, gorgeted sunangel, Tyrian metaltail, rainbow-bearded thornbill, purple-throated woodstar and buff-tailed coronet. There’s even one called the purple-crowned fairy. I didn’t see it but others did.
As I mentioned, the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummer we see regularly in Minnesota. It nests in the metro area and farther north, with the northerly ones migrating through in the spring and fall.
But we do sometimes see other hummingbirds in Minnesota. There are usually a couple of vagrant, rare hummingbirds each year that hang out at someone’s feeder into the cold winter months.
I think of the calliope hummingbird that came to a feeder in south Minneapolis as winter arrived a few years ago and was captured and almost successfully flown to the southwestern United States on an airplane. Unfortunately, it died on its way to the airport.
We can also get an occasional rufous hummingbird, a northwestern United States bird. A few stragglers wander through Minnesota from time to time.
Personally, I’m still thrilled to see the ruby-throated humming-birds come through the yard. I look for the young males that don’t have the full ruby gorget at the throat yet. The females have distinctive white tips on their tail feathers.
Just watching them hover and feed in flight, reverse direction, challenge one another — and even larger birds — is pretty exciting for this Minnesota birder. And it all takes place just 980 feet above sea level!