They may not all be super-rare, but these South American hummingbirds are among the most beautiful sights to see if you are on a bird tour anywhere in Central and South America. From Honduras through countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia and as far south as Chile, finding them can be an enjoyable challenge.
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1. White-necked Jacobin
This large South American hummingbird has quite a wide range, stretching as it does from southern Mexico through Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Colombia, northern and eastern Peru, Bolivia and northern Brazil.
They are also found in the Caribbean – in Trinidad and Tobago – although it is questionable if they are breeding there.
Photo credit: Costa Rica Birding, White-necked Jacobin
It is not only the male bird’s neck that is white, its belly is too, and these light patches strike a handsome contrast with its bright blue head and emerald green back.
Apart from taking nectar from plants and shrubs, this hummingbird is fond of flowering trees, so its range takes it from forest canopies to gardens. It can also often be found on plantations of coffee and cocoa.
Jacobins tend to fly alone and do not defend territories, but they become combative in the breeding season and will also compete aggressively if they find a good crop of flowers and there are others of also looking to feed, even chasing away smaller species of hummers.
2. Cinnamon Hummingbird
These are birds of dry forests and scrubland, sometimes reaching pine-oak plantations, stretching from southern United States, Mexico and the whole of Central America including Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama.
Unlike its showy green and blue cousins, this medium sized South American hummingbird is a subtle but beautiful bronze colour tinged with iridescent green on the upperparts.
Photo credit: Feathers Eco Birding Tours, Cinnamon Hummingbird
Their square-shaped tails are a bright rusty brown tipped with olive green.
When feeding Cinnamons favour the under- and mid-storey and tubular-shaped flowers that are red in colour as these tend to contain nectar with the highest sugar content.
In this respect, they are excellent pollinators as they can reach into deeper flowers that cannot be accessed by many insects.
They will aggressively defend their feeding territories, chasing away larger hummingbirds as well as many flying insects such as butterflies.
3. Violet Sabrewing
This is the largest of the Central America hummingbirds, at around 15cm, living from southern Mexico to Panama and including Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama.
Wildlife Specialist Tip
There are 43 different types of hummingbirds that inhabit Honduras’ forests, many of which make themselves very accessible to the birdwatcher by coming to feeders.
The wide range of forested areas in Honduras offers something for the beginners and experienced birders alike, with a variety of habitats and a wide array of species to encounter, and is home to over 778 bird species from more than 60 families.
Its preferred habitat is montane forest but it can also be found in coffee and banana plantations, the edges of forest and gardens, anywhere near running water, which is where they like to build their nests.
Photo credit: XUKPI Tours, Violet Sabrewing
Some of their favourite food plants include Heliconia, commonly known as Lobster-claws, and banana flowers, and they also feed from flowers that open at night and are therefore also visited by bats.
The Violet Sabrewing lives at elevations from 500m up to 2,500m, but it tends to be at the higher end of its range for its breeding period, which is in the rainy season between May/June and September/October.
The males are a deep metallic violet colour, as the name implies, although the rump is green. The sabre part of its name comes from the shape of the outer flight feathers that are flat and angled like a curved sword blade.
The female is light green on top and light grey below and she has a blue throat. Both sexes have a distinctive white band towards the end of their tails and black downwardly curved bills.
4. Rufous-crested Coquette
With a crest not so much red as orange, this hummingbird is found right down the west coast of southern Central and northern South America. Their preferred habitat is around tropical humid lowland forest and scrubland in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Panama and, to a lesser extent, Ecuador.
Photo credit: Kolibri Expeditions, Rufous-crested Coquette
Rather than inhabit the forests themselves, they prefer clearings and woodland edges where they can find small flowering plants such as myrtles and Inga bushes to feed on.
They can even be seen at the roadside, flitting among the flowers and catching insects on the wing.
Because they are not dependent on forests they have suffered less from deforestation, but they remain uncommon so they are a species to look out for on a tour of places such as St Martín province in Peru.
Males have the bright punky crest, black throat and a white band across the rump, whereas the females lack the crest but can still be distinguished by orange above the bill and the same white rump stripe.
5. Booted Racket-tail
This spectacular South American hummingbird combines an amazing tail with its prominent paddles with the fluffy adornments of the pufflegs.
The male’s two prominent tail feathers are much longer than most hummingbirds’ tails. In fact, they are as long as the bird’s body, and they end in spade-shaped disks.
The female lacks the ‘rackets’, but shares the white fluffy leg feathers with the male, although the latter’s can sometimes be orange.
Photo credit: Wilson Diaz, Green Tours, Booted Rackettail
These hummingbirds of South America are found in the Andes mountains in cloud forests at a height of between 1,000 and 2,000m.
Their range follows habitat corridors that radiate from Venezuela down through Colombia and Ecuador, right through the centre of Peru and into Bolivia.
Scientists have been disputing whether or not there exist three distinct species of racket-tail – the White-booted Racket-tail, the Rufous-booted Racket-tail and the Peruvian Racket-tail.
Some say the birds must be different species, while others maintain the differences are simply colour variations of the same species.
Whatever the case, they are amazing little birds!
6. Long-tailed Sylph
Although all the species of sylph hummingbirds have long tails, this one has one of the longest, which can reach more than its body length. Its bill, in contrast, is relatively short in hummingbird terms.
The male is a glorious combination of an iridescent blue and green head and body with soft purple wings and a shiny blue tail.
The female is a different coloration, with more green than blue, and with a peachy-coloured breast and much shorter tail. She also sports a short white moustache stripe.
Like many other species of South American hummingbird, the Long-tailed Sylph’s range extends from Venezuela through the centres of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and into Bolivia. It is, however, the only sylph to be found east of the Andes, and it is protected in reserves such as Abra Patricia in Peru and Tapichalaca in Ecuador.
This cloud forest dweller is not choosy with its feeding grounds, being equally happy to forage in the treetops in the middle of the forest as in the low-growing vegetation at the edges, or feeders on the reserves.
It uses its short bill to pierce the base of flowers rather than dipping into the middles of the petals.
7. Collared Inca
Like the White-necked Jacobin, this South American hummingbird species is larger than most and more monochrome in its colouring.
Despite its name of Inca, which tends to be more often identified as Peruvian, it inhabits a wide corridor of territory from Venezuela through Colombia, Ecuador, central Peru and northwestern Bolivia.
Photo credit: Favio Fernandez, Bellavista Cloud Forest, Collared Inca
It has an extensive white or red breast patch and white outer tail feathers. The breast patch colour varies depending on where the bird is found, with the white variation found in the northern part of the range and the rufous in the southern part.
The tail feathers that flash white are the aid to birdwatchers in identifying this species as it flits extremely quickly between flowers.
Also helpful is its habit of flying a predictable route to and from the understorey and the canopy to seek out different flower types.
It prefers dense vegetation for its foraging and heights above 2,000m. It vigorously defends its feeding territory from all comers, even though it is known to mix with other bird species in flocks, which is somewhat unusual behavior for hummingbirds.
8. Emerald-bellied Puffleg
This is the smallest of the group of hummingbirds that are known as pufflegs because of the bushy growth of feathers at the tops of their legs.
As its name implies, the Emerald-bellied does indeed have bright blue-green underparts and a green rump, while its pufflegs are white.
The female is similar, although of a slightly duller hue. Both can be distinguished from the Sapphire-vented Puffleg by the mottled white patch on the breast.
Photo credit: Green Tours, Emerald-bellied Puffleg
These hummingbirds of South America tend to live in dense undergrowth in the cloud forests of Colombia, Ecuador and northern Peru, majoring on the eastern slopes of the Andes. Locations such as St Martín and Amazonas in Peru are good sites to look for them, where they will often come to feeders on reserves.
9. Royal Sunangel
This very rare South American hummingbird was described for science as recently as 1979, having been observed by bird recorders in northern Peru and, even later, in southeastern Ecuador.
There are thought to be fewer than 10,000 of these birds in existence anywhere, so a sighting of one would be a huge tick on the birdlist.
In fact, the Abra Patricia Reserve in the cloud forests of the Northern Peru Birding Route was set up, in part, to conserve the habitat of this little deep blue hummingbird and so is a good starting point to finding one.
The males are a striking blue with a strongly forked tail, the females are dark green above with brown bellies spotted with green. Their tails are also forked, but not in such a pronounced way as the males’.
Feeding as they do on a combination of nectar and insects, like many of the hummingbird species, these birds live around the forest edges on ridge tops or in ravines, particularly where the soil is sandy and impoverished and the vegetation stunted.
Displaying males make wide circles or figures of eight in the sky during the breeding season from July to September. They are seen at their best when there is strong sunlight to catch their shiny plumage.
10. Marvelous Spatuletail
One of the world’s rarest species of hummingbird, it is found only in Peru’s Utcubamba River Valley, where it was first recorded for science in 1835, and at one site in the province of San Martín.
Its four wire-like tail feathers, like the Booted Racket-tail, consist of two central straight ones and two outer ones that cross over each other and end in a disk in the male and a droplet in the female.
Photo credit: Manu Birding Lodge, Marvelous Spatuletail
During courtship, the male makes a snapping noise as it hops at a furious speed on a twig or hovers in front of the female whilst waving his tail.
The snap was originally thought to come from the tail disks clapping together but we now know the sound comes from the bird’s throat.
The Marvelous Spatuletail became endangered through a combination of deforestation of its mountain home and capture for its tail feathers and its heart, which was said to be an aphrodisiac if roasted and eaten.
Peruvian conservation organisation ECOAN teamed up with the American Bird Conservancy in 2006 to recreate its habitat and preserve the bird on the 100-acre Huembo Reserve on the Northern Peru Birding Route.
Wildlife Specialist Tip
Peru is home to a third of all known species hummingbird species. Amongst these 14 species are only found in Peru, mostly having small ranges within the Andes.
On-going studies into hummingbird taxonomy and the acceptance of less conservative taxonomic treatments will likely result in the recognition of more endemic species for Peru such as the spectacular white-tailed albicaudata form of the Violet-throated Starfrontlet, which is already afforded species rank by some.
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- Taking the Northern Peru Birding Route
- Endemic Hummingbirds of Peru
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- Why is conserving nature important
11. White-bellied Hummingbird
This gold and green hummingbird with its bright white belly, chest and throat chooses areas along the edges of the forest and in ravines that contain cactus as the dominant plant species.
They are found year-round in a wide belt that runs down the centre of Peru, into Bolivia and on into the north of Argentina.
White-bellies can be confused with Green-and-white Hummingbirds, but they are separated by their choice of habitat. The White-bellied likes open areas, near, but not in, cloud forest, whereas the Green-and-white is found within the forests themselves.
The first part of the bird’s Latin name, Amazilia chionogaster, was taken from the name of the female protagonist in a novel about the Incas and the conquest of Peru written by French historian Jean Marmontel in 1777. The second part comes from the Greek for snow and belly.
12. Glittering-bellied Emerald
This southern species of hummingbird can be found in a broad band that stretches from eastern Brazil across to central Bolivia, down through Uruguay and into northern Argentina and Chile.
The bills of both males and females are orange at the base and black at the tip and both have black masks and iridescent blue tails, although the male’s is forked and the female’s more of a notch.
With a name that splendid you would expect the coloration of the male to be at least eye-catching, and it doesn’t disappoint, being completely shiny green with a blue throat and upper chest.
These South American hummingbirds live at heights varying from sea level to 3,500m, but most commonly between 500 and 2,500m.
They prefer open semi-arid habitats, forest edges, savannah and grassland, where they feed on the flowers of Trumpet trees and Blue Jacaranda and the fruit of Fig trees.
Like the Long-tailed Sylph they pierce the base of the flowers to extract the nectar. They will also come to garden sugar-water feeders.
13. Giant Hummingbird
The largest of the hummingbird family, at just over 20cm, this is also the one from this list that lives the furthest south.
Its range extends from Ecuador, through Peru and Bolivia, into northwestern Argentina and down the coast of Chile.
Photo credit: BirdsChile, Giant Hummingbird
In summer it can be found in scrubland at altitude, on the slopes of the Andes. In winter it descends and can even be found in relatively urban areas where there is suitable hedgerow vegetation.
Their preferred food plants are bromeliads, known as puya in Chile, which produce tall flower stems, and columnar cacti – the classic multi-armed plants beloved of Hollywood Westerns.
In coloration, this species can’t match the spectacular hues of some of the others in the hummingbird family, but they are still an attractive reddish-brown with a prominent white rump and base to the tail.
They are also relatively easy to spot as they have a habit of perching on wires and the tops of bushes and cacti.
Giants are notable in being able to glide due to the fact that their wing beats are slower than most. And they can be observed flying in a jerky, staccato fashion as they snap insects out of the air.
Are you interested in discovering South American hummingbird tours or bird watching holidays? Check out our complete list of local wildlife specialists offering birding tours worldwide here.
Originally Published: 22 Nov 2020