Field observations from a lazy birdwatcher

Since we arrived at the new house, we have been observing a number of hummingbirds that feed on and buzz around the mango tree and heliconias beside our home. There are two or three Long-billed Hermits (Phaethornis longirostris) and two or three Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl). There is an interesting and funny story to tell about these birds. Well about the Long-billed Hermits in any case, the Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds play a side role.

The supporting actor

But let’s start with that one anyway. It is your average-looking hummingbird with its 10 centimeter in size, mostly blueish-green appearance and a rufous tail. I had never heard of the word ‘rufous’ until I browsed the Birds of Costa Rica field guide, so maybe it is a birdwatchers’ word. It means reddish brown or brownish red.

The field guide remarks that this hummingbird is ‘very aggressive and often engages in chases’. That is an accurate description of what we see happening here. Not only do they chase and scare other rufous-tailed humminbirds away from “their” flowers, they also are aggressive to the Long-billed Hermits.

The lead actress

The Long-billed Hermit, is a hummingbird in spite of being called Hermit, but it is completely different from the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, both in appearance and behaviour. It is 15 cm long, including a long one or two long white tail feathers. It has a bit of rufous above the tail, and a tiny bit of green in the grey, but it is mostly grey and beige. It has two white stripes on its head, one beginning at the top of the eye and one at the root of the bill. The bill, as the name suggests, is very long and curved downwards.

Contrary to many other hummingbirds it does not have its favorite patch of flowers, but does something called traplining (according to the Merlin bird app) : it has a whole string of widely scattered flowers that it patrols. And, also according to the app, it likes heliconias a lot. You can see the basic plot-line of our story already. The birds that we are seeing have a contest over the heliconias. When the Long-billed Hermit shows up to drink nectar from the heliconia flowers, it does not take long, like three seconds, for the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird to show up and chase it away. Not just give the other one a heads up to leave, but actually chasing it all the way across the garden into the forest. The Hermit would simply show up later and try again. Sometimes it is lucky and left alone.

The feeder story

Now, I need to make a detour in the story, because otherwise it makes no sense. The same chasing away happens over the hummingbird feeder that Cristina has installed in the Mango tree. She had been looking for a feeder ever since we arrived to Guanacaste, but found one only at the pet shop/veterinary/gardening shop besides the Osa Conservation office. The same place where I saw the machetes. Hummingbird feeders are remarkably simple and effective. They are plastic bottles which you hang upside down, filled with boiled sugar water. At the opening of the bottle, there is a bright red plastic dish or doughnut with three yellow plastic flowers. The flowers have a little hole through which the hummingbirds drink. We read somewhere that hummingbirds do not see very well, hence the effectiveness of the bright red and yellow combination. It took Cristina a couple of attempts to get the mixture of sugar and water right, but now it works.

Long-billed Hermit at the hummingbird feeder

The first to show an interest in the feeder was a Long-billed Hermit. She (I am not sure she is in fact a female, but since it is a smart bird, as you will find out, it most likely is a female.) didn’t like the first batch of sugar water, but was not so offended that she did not try again a couple of days later. This is no surprise. ‘The Wildlife of Costa Rica’ describes the bird as highly inquisitive to the point that it watches the birdwatchers from a couple of feet away!

A curious type

This particular hermit has been inspecting us indeed. In our living room to be precise, when we are sitting behind our laptops with the doors open. It is a surreal experience. We hear a slight prrrrrrr sound of the wings, and suddenly there is the Hermit hovering half a meter before us, staring us in the face. It looks at one of us, turns its body in the air, looks at the other, and prrrr. It is gone. She reminds me a bit of how how Gonzo enters the stage in the Muppet show. The entire appearance takes just a couple of seconds. The only thing we can do is stare back and enjoy the show. Cristina has tried to have her phone ready, but never managed to make a recording with it.

Enter the camera trap. The Long-billed Hermit also showed an interest in Cristina’s water bottle which has a bright red and aluminum-yellow clip attached to the top. So we set it up in front of us, pointed the camera trap to it, put it in video mode and waited. The camera trap has a five second delay, which made me think it would miss the event, but, tadaaa, we were lucky. At one point, the bird hung out a little longer.

Training the human

Did you notice that after inspecting the bottle, the Hermit flew further into the living room before she left? Well, she has been doing that more often. In fact, she even dared to fly all the way into the building, inspecting the kitchen and the staircase. The staircase has a big window with one half of it slid open but with a mosquito maze.

It’s hard to see but at the second second, the bird flies in just after I leave the image (not my best performance),.

The first time the hermit ended up there, she continued hovering in front of it, seemingly not knowing where else to go. When I went up the stairs to slide away the mosquito maze she fled further up the staircase, then flew into our bedroom which is completely shaded, and then into the bathroom that is attached to the bedroom. There, there is another big window with a mosquito maze but that one cannot be opened, so she got trapped there hovering high up against the roof. I got her out of there without having to catch her. Basically the trick is that she was looking for light, so I just needed to make an opening with light that has no mosquito maze, i.e. open the balcony door in the bedroom and cover the window in the bathroom with a towel. (By the way, with bats, it is the other way around. They search for darkness in our home.)

The next time she entered our home and went to the staircase, the story did not repeat itself like that. I again went to open the staircase mosquito maze, but the bird did not fly away into the bedroom. She just went up the staircase and stayed hovering in the air, seemingly waiting to see what happened. I opened the maze, went down the staircase and the bird flew out.

She was clearly learning. The third time I had to go after her, she just stayed hovering close to the window, waiting for me to open it and then flying out. Now, you might point out that she apparently is not that smart to simply fly back out the way she came in. Maybe you are right and maybe she will learn, but I could also argue that she is even smarter than we think because she trained me to open a window for her.

Winning the fight

End of the detour. Back to the story of the chasing hummingbirds. After the hermit had learned about the inside of our house, she occasionally went there when she was being chased by the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. That one however is less inquisitive and probably scared of going inside because he breaks off the chase and disappears, after which the hermit flies out of the living room again. All this also goes at breakneck speed, so one second of prrrrr prrr prrr and the thing is over. We now have the distinct impression that the hermit is flying into our home on purpose when she is being chased. So she learned another thing about her stalker and used it against him. Go Long-billed Hermit !!

The end

Because you kept with the story all the way until the end, you get a little camera trap bonus.


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