The Gilded Sapphire Hummingbird (Lampornis decoratus) is a rare and beautiful species of hummingbird found in a small region of northern South America. With its vibrant, shimmering plumage in hues of sapphire blue and emerald green, offset by a bright golden-orange throat, this elusive creature has captivated ornithologists and bird enthusiasts alike.
The adult male Gilded Sapphire Hummingbird measures approximately 3.5 inches in length, with a wingspan of 4.3 inches, making it a relatively small hummingbird species. Its plumage is iridescent, appearing blue or green depending on the light. The crown and back have a velvety blue-black coloration. The tail is forked and steel blue. The throat is a striking golden-orange surrounded by emerald green on the chest. The belly is grayish white. The bill is long, slender and black. Females are similar in appearance but less vibrantly colored, with more gray on the head and chest. Juveniles resemble adult females but have buffy fringes on their plumage.
Distribution and Habitat
The Gilded Sapphire Hummingbird is endemic to Colombia and Venezuela. Its breeding range centers around the Santa Marta Mountains and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northeastern Colombia. It has a relatively restricted range, occurring only locally in suitable high elevation forest and woodland habitats. Outside of the breeding season, it undertakes altitudinal migrations, moving to lower elevations.
This species occurs at elevations between 6,500 feet and 10,000 feet. Its preferred breeding habitat is montane forest edges, clearings, and scrubby second growth. It also occupies the borders between forest and paramo grassland. Key habitat requirements are the presence of flowering plants and available perches for resting and singing.
Food and Feeding
Like all hummingbirds, the Gilded Sapphire Hummingbird feeds on nectar from flowering plants. It favors brilliantly colored tubular blossoms, using its specialized long bill and tongue to access the nectar. Some favorite food plants include the genus Bomarea, fuchsia flowers, and certain epiphytic Ericaceae species. The bird feeds while hovering in front of the flowers, lapping up the nectar with its tongue at an average rate of 13 licks per second.
This species supplements its diet with small insects and spiders, which provide essential proteins. The hummingbird will hawk flying insects in midair and glean spiders and bugs from leaves and branches. A 10-15 minute period of insect foraging typically follows an extended nectar feeding bout.
The Gilded Sapphire Hummingbird exhibits many anatomical and physiological adaptations that allow it to thrive nectar-feeding. Its bill length and shape perfectly match the curved shape of the flowers it pollinates. The bill tip is flexible and can bend downwards to probe deep inside blossoms. The tongue is forked and extends past the bill tip when feeding. Saliva is produced to draw up thick nectar.
In flight, the wings beat 55 times per second, allowing the bird to hover and fly swiftly between flowers. Flight muscles make up 25-30% of its total body weight. Respiration and heart rate are very rapid in order to power sustained hovering and provide sufficient oxygen. Body temperature can drop to a torpid state at night to conserve energy.
The breeding season for the Gilded Sapphire Hummingbird runs from March to June. Males are polygamous, mating with more than one female. The male performs a courtship display, flying back and forth in a U-shaped pattern in front of the female while singing a high-pitched twittering song.
The female builds a tiny cup-shaped nest out of plant down, cobwebs, and lichen on a drooping branch or fern frond. She lays two pea-sized white eggs. Incubation lasts 15-19 days. The chicks are born helpless, with closed eyes, no down, and lacking the ability to thermoregulate. The female feeds the chicks with regurgitated insects and nectar. They fledge at 18-22 days old.
Threats and Conservation Status
The Gilded Sapphire Hummingbird has a relatively small range and its montane forest habitat has undergone extensive deforestation, leading to significant population declines. Habitat loss from logging, agriculture, and urbanization is the greatest threat. The species is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Conservation efforts focus on protecting remaining fragments of suitable forest habitat. Ecotourism initiatives help provide economic incentives for preservation of hummingbird habitat. Captive breeding and reintroduction programs may aid recovery, though more research is needed. Strict enforcement of habitat protections and monitoring of populations are needed to ensure the continued survival of these exquisite birds.
Native American tribes of northern Colombia see the Gilded Sapphire Hummingbird as a sacred creature, incorporating its brilliant plumes into ceremonial headdresses and jewelry. Its iridescent feathers and bold colors are associated with light, energy, joy, and vitality. Appearing only in high mountain forests distant from human settlements, early European explorers wrote fanciful stories of a magical gleaming bird-spirit living amidst the clouds.
The species remains one of the most prized sights for birdwatchers in South America. Colombia has featured the Gilded Sapphire on postage stamps in recognition of its uniqueness and beauty. As one of the most range-restricted and threatened hummingbirds in the world, conservation of the Gilded Sapphire helps preserve Colombian biodiversity and wilderness. Continued efforts are needed to ensure this jewel of the avian world does not disappear.
In recent years, research on the Gilded Sapphire Hummingbird has uncovered intriguing new details about its biology and behavior:
– DNA analysis revealed two distinct subspecies occupying different mountain ranges, with evidence of divergence beginning 100,000 years ago. This will help guide conservation management for evolutionary significant units.
– Tagging studies found the birds exhibit strong year-round site fidelity to their mountain habitats, with only narrow variation in migration altitudes. Protecting known nesting sites is therefore critical.
– Hybridization has been documented between the Gilded Sapphire and neighboring Violet-chested Hummingbird in zones of overlapping range. This may lead to reduced fitness and warrants monitoring.
– The hummingbird’s specialized tongue and bill structure was found to precisely match the corolla shape of its preferred food plants, showing exquisite co-evolution.
– Recording and sound analysis of the male’s courtship song uncovered complex vocal mimicry ability, including mimicking songs of other regional hummingbird species.
– Analysis of feathers using scanning electron microscopy revealed intricate nanoscale structural colors producing iridescence. This inspires biomimicry research for anti-counterfeiting and optical technologies.
Protecting remaining montane forest habitats and understanding connectivity between fragmented populations will be key priorities for ensuring survival of the endangered Gilded Sapphire Hummingbird. Climate change poses a threat if warming and drying trends exceed the species’ elevational range tolerance. Connecting protected areas through habitat corridors may become increasingly important.
Ecotourism focused on birdwatching and photography of the Gilded Sapphire can make preservation of Andean cloud forest economically beneficial to local communities. Continued study of the unique physiological adaptations of hummingbirds for hibernation and oxygen deprivation will provide broader biological insights. As an iconic symbol of South American biodiversity, conserving this radiant species remains an important endeavor. With committed conservation action guided by scientific research, the sparkling Gilded Sapphire will hopefully continue to brighten its mountain forests for centuries to come.