Five different hummingbirds at the rabo de gato

Hummingbirds love this plant!

Porterweed, or rabo de gato. Hummingbirds love this plant!

Whenever I’m out walking in our area and I see the flowers of the rabo de gato, I pause for a while to see what hummingbirds are in attendance.  If you check the name online, the images that appear are not, however, of what the locals here call rabo de gato, (literally, cat’s tail)  Check the English name, porterweed, however, and you will see the plant faithfully reproduced on at least some of the sites.  In the Turrialba area, it comes in the blue colour shown above and also in red.

You will generally find that the owner is the highly territorial Rufous-tailed hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl), by far our commonest species here locally, but despite its constant and aggressive supervision other hummingbird species seem always to manage to steal a sip, as does the Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola), a small resident, warbler-like bird that is commonly found everywhere in the country up to around 1500 m.

A fifteen-minute walk from my house towards the cabins at San Diego, but before the steep downhill plunge to that forested area, leads you past many porterweed hedges.  Between a house called Villa Spoonki and the right-hand turn that brings you in a loop back to San Antonio is the most productive location for some hummingbird species that rarely venture into my garden in the centre of the village.

This week was again eventful.  On consecutive days, the Rufous-tails at that location had to contend with two and sometimes three other species of hummingbird.  First up was a big surprise, the tiny (3″) Violet-headed hummingbird (Klais guimeti).  Neighbour Wiet Wildeman in San Rafael, 2 km distant, has recorded the species, however. The big white spot behind the eye is the most distinctive marker but a closer look revealed blue/violet on the throat on what I surmise was a male bird.  I never did see the equally violet crown, which appeared simply dark.  It hovers with its tail cocked. Size alone would seem to exclude Green-crowned brilliant, the male of which has a violet-blue throat patch.

Here's a Violet-headed hummingbird female from Karel Straatman's files

Here’s a Violet-headed hummingbird female from Karel Straatman’s files

An even smaller bird on the first day presented some identification problems.  It  had a white rump band and thus should be either a coquette or a thorntail, but the latter must be excluded because my bird had neither a long tail (male) nor a white malar stripe (female).  Unfortunately, it did not have a crest either, which leaves females of Black-crested and White-crested coquette as the only possibilities, yet my impression was of a dark bird, with neither rufous (female White-crested) nor spots (female Black-crested) in sight.  This is, however, the same location that yielded my first ever Black-crested coquette some months back.   Here’s the picture that most looks like what I saw:

Female Black-crested coquette, rear view only

Female Black-crested coquette, rear view only

This bird did not reappear the next day, but female Crowned woodnymphs (Thalurania colombica), a medium-sized species, also appeared each time at the same rabo de gato hedge. The females are any easy identification with their U-shaped white above green pattern of throat and belly.  Note that the English name has now reverted to what it was in Stiles & Skutch (A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica).  I took this blurry photo of a female at, you guessed it, a rabo de gato,  in nearby San Rafael.

Now called the Crowned woodnymph

Now called the Crowned woodnymph

Best views of all were reserved, on the second day, for a female Scintillant hummingbird (Selasphorus scintilla), a bird that is as tiny as the Violet-headed.  Where are all the males?  Gorget colours would be most helpful.  This species appears in San Antonio fairly regularly but is hard to pin down because of its minuscule size and rapid flight.  The main field marks, for me, are the white collar and the rufous in the tail.  This colour is quite extensive and rules out the otherwise very similar female Volcano hummingbird (Selasphorus flammula) , which I’m sure also ventures down from the Turrialba Volcano with some regularity.  That bird will no doubt also join my San Antonio list if I plant even more rabo de gato here in the garden.  Until then, watch out for rabo de gato reports from just up the hill.  Every day is a birdie thrill here in Costa Rica!

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