For the Birds Radio Program: Costa Rican Hummingbirds

Original Air Date: Feb. 14, 2001

Laura enjoyed lots of hummingbirds in Costa Rica last month.

Audio missing


When I was in Costa Rica this January, some of the most splendid sights of all were the hummingbirds. I saw 34 species out of the country’s 52 species. Some are even tinier than our Ruby-throated Hummingbird while others were bigger than a chickadee. My favorite tiny one was a microscopic creature called a Green Thorntail. Imagine a hummer whose tail is fully a third or more of the bird’s length, but who is still smaller than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Its size and shape were pretty enough, but the graceful way it held that streaming tail, raising and lowering it like a magical, miniature ballerina almost made me cry from sheer loveliness.

Another tiny one was the snowcap-one with a gleaming white, flattened forehead and a brown­ to-purplish iridescent body. For some reason this one reminded me of my dog Photon, I think because of the way it kept trying to get in to the feeder as the bigger hummers chased it away. It was determined, not losing hope even as the bullies crowded it out. Something in me cheered every time a Snowcap finally found a feeder port, though it was usually just for a few seconds before being chased off again.

My favorite big hummingbirds were the Violet Sabrewing and the White-necked Jacobin. The Sabrewings are a rich and brilliant purple, glowing with iridescence, their long bill, strongly curved down. They have big white patches on their tails which they accentuate by flaring out the tail as they hover. The Jacobin has a blue head, green back, white belly, and white on its tail, its colors more like a songbird than a hummer.

We stayed in one lodge called Rancho Naturalista where there was a hummingbird feeding station in the forest with over a hundred hummers of a dozen species zipping in and out. I wanted to record them, so I set up my microphone and minidisk recorder, stringing the wire to a tree among all the hummingbird feeders. As soon as I was done setting it up, I retreated to a bench several feet away to observe. A pair of Violet-crowned Woodnymphs instantly flew in to check out the strange new thing in their familiar feeding area. They chatted to each other constantly as if discussing the whole matter as they hovered three or four inches from the microphone, examining it minutely, and then hover-flew the entire winding length of the four­ foot cord. When they reached the minidisk player, which has a small red record button, they discussed that even more, then went back to the microphone as if they were still not-quite­ satisfied that they weren’t dealing with a snake. Only after they’d examined it from every angle were they ready to take a sip at a feeder.

Tropical hummingbirds are far more vocal than our Ruby-throat, and the hum of so many wings along with their chatter electrified the air. On a day when our birding tour group sort of split up and did different things, I spent hours just sitting by the hummingbird feeders watching and listening and treasuring the experience with my whole heart.