Hummingbirds are known for their glittering, jewel-like plumage, ad feisty, sprite-like behavior. I’m not sure if they had anything to do with being part of the inspiration for Disney’s Tinkerbell character but she sure acts like one of the Trochilidae. On a near constant sugar high, more than 50 species of hummingbirds zip around Costa Rica in search of that next nectar fix. Given the high hummingbird diversity, their restless behavior, and their minute size, hummingbirds also come with their own set of identification issues. Get a good look and you can identify most without too much of a problem but there are a few that cause ID headaches and be harbingers of frustration.
Birders familiar with the hummingbird ID challenge in western North America have first-hand knowledge of the difficulties that hummingbirds can bring to the ID table and may even be cringing at the thought of 50 plus species to sort through. Ironically, though, despite the greater variety of hummingbird species in Costa Rica compared to northern hotspots like Arizona and New Mexico, it’s a lot more difficult to identify hummingbirds in those places than Tiquicia. Nevertheless, there are still a few species that can throw monkey wrenches into the works and four that have a tendency to confuse are females of Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Magenta-throated Woodstar, Volcano Hummingbird, and Scintillant Hummingbird. In my opinion, even those aren’t as tough as the likes of the Calliope/Anna’s/Costa’s, etc conundrum but it’s still nice to have some help in identifying them so without further ado, here are some tips:
Ruby-throated Hummingbird: With their dark, forked tails, white spot behind the eye, and dark red gorget, males are pretty straightforward. Duller plumaged females, though, are always throwing visiting birders for a loop until they realize that Ruby-throateds are a common wintering species in many areas of the Pacific slope and that there is almost nothing else in the country that looks like them. The closest things are the much larger Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (also has a more decurved bill, is duller, and has larger white spots in the tail), female Canivet’s Emerald (white stripe behind the eye and more white in tail), and the female Mangrove Hummingbird (plainer, lacks white spot behind the eye). Although it’s worth it to check every, small hummingbird on the Pacific slope with whitish underparts, most are going to be female Ruby-throated Hummmingbirds.
Note the white spot behind the eye, whitish underparts, slightly decurved bill, a hint of a “semi-collar”, and a bit of white in the tail.
Magenta-throated Woodstar: While the male is pretty easy to identify with his longish tail and white spots on the lower back, the female can be a source of confusion for visiting birders. Like the male, she hangs out at flowerbeds and flowering trees in middle elevations in many parts of the country but tends to be uncommon. The best places to study this species are at feeders in the Monteverde area and at El Toucanet Lodge in the Talamancas. Like the male, the female Magenta-throated Woodstar also cocks up the tail when feeding but the best way to identify this species is by noting the two white spot on the flanks/lower back and the orangish belly.
Female Magenta-throated Woodstars
Note the long tail on this young male Magenta-throated Woodstar.
Volcano and Scintillant Hummingbirds: Keeping with the Selasphorous tradition, this and the following species probably present the most consistent challenge to hummingbird identification in the country. Tiny and very similar, you have to get a good look at the tail to be sure of their identification. They actually tend not to be found together but can certainly overlap at sites with an elevation of 2,000 meters. The Volcano isn’t restricted to volcanoes but since so many mountains in Costa Rica are actually sleeping, fiery-breathing geological giants, the name kind of rings true at many sites. The Scintillant isn’t any more shiny than most of its Trochilid brethren but what the heck, it’s a cool sounding name anyways! The orangeish gorget of male Scintillants separates them from Volcanoes in most areas (although male Volcano Hummingbirds on Poas have slightly similar pinkish gorgets) but a close look at the tail is the best way to identify females. Volcano Hummingbirds have green central rectrices while those of Scintillants are rufous. Both species also have dark subterminal bands but this characteristic is broader in Volcanoes. Volcano hummingbirds also have less rufous on the underparts and tend to show a thin, rufous eyebrow that extends to the chin (although that field mark may vary by subspecies). Get a good look at the tail, though, and the bird’s identification will be obvious.
The green on the tail is evident in this Volcano Hummingbird even at a distance.
Here’s a closer look at a Volcano- note the rather greenish flanks and green on the tail.
And here’s a female Volcano Hummingbird that was nice enough to spread its tail and show that prominent subterminal band.
Note the rufous on the flanks of this female Scintillant Hummingbird from El Toucant Lodge and the mostly rufous tail with a small subterminal band.
Snowcap: The male is a stunning little piece of work but the female is about as colorless as they come. Whitish below and greenish above, female Snowcaps are pretty darn basic. However, since almost nothing else fist that description in their foothill distribution, if you see a small hummingbird with white underparts in a place like Quebrada Gonzalez, you will have to admit that you latched your eyes onto a female Snowcap. About the only other hummingbird species that she could be confused with in her range might be a female Coppery-headed Emerald that decided to wander downslope (not unheard of at the upper limits of Snowcap distribution). Both have white in the tail but the Snowcap still shows a straight bill (decurved in the case of the emerald) and none of the green on the sides of the upper breast that female emeralds exhibit.
Female Coppery-headed Emerald
To sum things up, identification of some of the small hummingbirds in Costa Rica isn’t as difficult as one might think but you might want to hire a guide anyways because finding them could be another story.
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Pat O’Donnell started watching birds at the age of seven in Niagara Falls, New York. The birding was good in western New York but no amount of gulls could distract him from the siren song of neotropical birds. Ever since a first, fateful trip to Costa Rica in 1992, he has focused on the incredible wealth of birds found in the American Tropics. A biologist by training, Pat has participated in ornithological studies in North America and Peru, and has birded in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. A freelance writer and bird guide, he resides in Costa Rica with his wife and daughter. Pat also blogs about birds and birding in Costa Rica at http://birdingcraft.com/wordpress