The Golden-bellied Starfrontlet (Coeligena bonapartei) is a small hummingbird found exclusively in a few isolated mountain forests of Colombia and Ecuador. Measuring only about 8-9 cm in length and weighing 4-5 grams, it is one of the smallest hummingbird species in the world. This diminutive bird is named for its bright golden-yellow underside, with metallic green upperparts and a white tip to the tail. The male has an iridescent violet-blue crown and throat, while the female has a gray head and whitish throat bordered by faint gray streaks.
The golden-bellied starfrontlet inhabits montane cloud forests and elfin forests at elevations of 2500-3400 meters in the Andes mountains. It prefers areas with an abundance of flowering plants and thick vegetation where it can hide its tiny nest. It is a highland species that does not migrate or travel far. Its extremely limited range and specific habitat requirements make it vulnerable to habitat loss and climate change.
Like all hummingbirds, the golden-bellied starfrontlet feeds on nectar from flowers using its specialized long bill and extensible tongue. It prefers to feed at flowers of the genus Bomarea in the Alstroemeriaceae family, as well as other mountain flowers such as fuchsias and composites. It also feeds on small insects for protein. The starfrontlet uses its hovering flight capability to access nectar from flowers while precisely maintaining position in place. Its high metabolism requires frequent feeding, visiting hundreds of flowers each day.
Males establish breeding territories during the dry months between December and April. Courtship displays involve the male flying in repeated U-shaped patterns in front of the female. Once paired, the female constructs a tiny cup-shaped nest out of mosses, lichens and plant fibers, attached to a vertical surface. She incubates the two small white eggs for about 16-19 days until they hatch. The chicks are fed regurgitated food by both parents and fledge in 20-26 days. Not much else is known about the breeding habits of this rare and elusive species.
The golden-bellied starfrontlet is classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List with an estimated population of only 1000-2500 mature individuals. Its numbers continue to decline due to ongoing habitat loss. Andean cloud forests are being cleared for timber, agriculture and livestock grazing. Climate change is pushing the bird’s high elevation habitat even higher up mountains. This diminishing fragmented habitat makes small populations vulnerable to extinction. Additional threats include pollution and competition from more aggressive hummingbird species invading higher elevations.
Colombia has taken steps to protect critical reserves for the starfrontlet such as Santa Ines and Nevados National Parks. Ecuador has established protected areas like the Antisana Ecological Reserve and Llanganates National Park. Further habitat protection and ecological restoration of degraded areas are needed. Some captive breeding and reintroduction programs have been initiated but recovery is challenging for such a specialized species. Research, monitoring, and enforcement of protected areas continue to be necessary to conserve this unique high-altitude hummingbird into the future.
With its glittering violet crown, golden belly and tiny stature, the endangered golden-bellied starfrontlet is truly a jewel of the Andean cloud forests. As one of Earth’s smallest avian species, it persists in isolated mountaintop havens threatened by human encroachment and climate change. This delicate hummingbird serves as an important flagship species for the fragile yet biodiverse high-elevation ecosystems it inhabits. Focusing conservation efforts on the starfrontlet aims to protect not just a single bird, but entire landscapes and communities. With intensive management efforts, hopeful this radiant creature will continue to brighten the paramo and forests of the northern Andes.