Hi, my name is Eric Dempsey and I am a hummingbird addict.
I confess that this addiction is not new. It started back in 1986…on 8th May 1986 to be precise. I was at the Tyler Arboretum, in Philadelphia when my life changed on that fateful day. Walking along the paths, I encountered a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. It was stunning. Glistening green upperparts were matched by a shimmering ruby-red throat. I was transfixed by it’s size and beauty. I was instantly addicted. By the end of May 1986, I had experienced nine species.
However, reflecting on my first hummingbird experiences, I now realise that my tendency towards being a hummingbird addict can be traced much further back than 1986. I recall as a small child visiting the Natural History Museum in
Dublin with my father. There, I saw lots of hummingbirds ‘collected’ and presented to the museum. Amongst them was the smallest bird in the world, the Bee Hummingbird. I remember seeing that specimen for the first time and being awestruck by the size of the bird. I didn’t think it was possible for a bird to be that tiny. Bee Hummingbirds weigh less than 2grams and have a body that is no more than 3cm (5cm when you add a beak and tail). It truly is no bigger than a bee!
There are about 325 species of hummingbirds and they are only found in the Americas (North, Central and South) as well as islands in the Caribbean. So it is the size of the birds that capture me? No, it’s so much more than that.
Hummingbirds have everything that a bird should have. They are beautiful to look at. Iridescent plumage renders drab-looking birds sheer glowing jewels when the sun catches them. Count to five and most small hummers will have flapped their wings over 400 times. They are the only birds that can truly hover. They wings are designed to fly in a figure of eight which allows them to fly forwards, backwards and upside down.
As if all that wasn’t impressive enough, their heart beats at an incredible 600 beats a minute at rest, rising to 1,000 beats when flying fast. They take 300 breaths a minute when relaxed and over 500 breaths a minute when flying. Many species such as the Volcano Hummingbird found in the Andes, are capable of going into a mini-hibernation each night (called torpor). The only way these birds can survive the high altitude, freezing conditions is to slow their metabolic rate down by as much as 80%.
Hummingbird beaks are usually long and are designed to sip nectar and pollen from a wide variety of flowers. In fact many species have symbiotic relationships with plant species (both have evolved together to their mutual respective benefit). One species, the Sword-billed Hummingbird has the longest bill in proportion to its body size, than any other bird species.
What's In A Name?
As if all this wasn’t enough to make me an addict…then there are the names of many of the hummingbird species. Those who named this wonderful group of birds were poets and creative souls who managed to use as many superlatives to describe these birds. Hence we have species such as Empress Brilliant, Royal Sun-Angel, Blossom Crown, Ruby Topaz, Shining Sunbeam and Glittering-bellied Emerald. Imagine calling a bird a Shining Sunbeam?
My 100th Species
So why am I revealing my addiction to the world? Well, on 21st Feb last, I encountered a Sapphire-spangled Emerald…my 100th species of hummingbird. It was bright green above, with a bright blue throat, a white belly and green flanks along with a long reddish bill.
I was on the edges of dense forest near Sao Paulo, Brazil. In one day we encountered ten different species, nine of which were new to me. We were on a days birding in Brazil with Carlos Henrique and encountering all sorts of new species from Aplomado Falcons to Streamer-tailed Tyrants. But, it was the hummingbirds that captured my imagination most.
We visited the home of artist and birder, Antonio Wou and spent over two hours watching over 80 hummingbirds consisting of eight species. It was mesmerising. As the afternoon came to an end, we packed our gear to leave but were halted with the words ‘Woodstar’! Carlos was excitedly pointing to the tinest bird I had ever seen fly…an Amethyst Woodstar…the second smallest bird in the world weighing just .5 gram heavier than a Bee Hummingbird and just .5cm longer.. It was a tiny version of my first hummer, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird and was my 108th species.
My Most Wanted Bird In The World
So, do I have any species that I really long to see? Yes, Bee Hummingbird. They are only found in the Zapata Swamp in Cuba. In 1989, I visited that swamp and spent two full days searching out this very rare species. On the afternoon of the second day, I saw a hummingbird fly down the track towards me. It flew right by me without ever stopping. It had to be a Bee Hummingbird!
However, to this very day, I still can’t be 100% sure that it was indeed a bird, never mind a Bee Hummingbird! So, to this very day, Bee Hummingbird is the one species of bird in the world that I most want to experience…for that’s what hummingbirds are…an experience!