The gorgeted puffleg (Eriocnemis isabellae) is a species of hummingbird found only in Colombia and Ecuador. It is medium-sized for a hummingbird, measuring around 11-12 cm long. The male gorgeted puffleg has distinctive white puffy pantaloons on its legs and a brilliant turquoise-blue gorget (throat patch). The female lacks the colorful gorget and has more white spotting on the undertail.
Range and Habitat
The gorgeted puffleg inhabits montane forest and elfin forest at elevations between 2500-3600 m in the Andes Mountains of Colombia and Ecuador. Its range is highly localized and fragmented due to its dependence on specific high elevation habitats. In Colombia, it is restricted to a few isolated sites in the Central and Western Andes. In Ecuador, it occurs in scattered locations in the inter-Andean valleys and on the western slopes of the Andes.
The elfin forests favored by the gorgeted puffleg are characterized by trees and vegetation that are stunted in growth due to the cold, wet, windy conditions at high elevations. These forests often occur just below the treeline. Other habitats used include mountain rainforest edges and clearings with abundant flowers. Due to widespread deforestation, remaining habitat is patchy and degraded.
Like all hummingbirds, the gorgeted puffleg feeds on nectar taken from colorful, tubular flowers using its specialized long bill and tongue. It prefers to feed from the flowers of ericaceous shrubs, small trees, and epiphytes that occur in its high elevation habitat. Some favorite food plants include passionflowers (Passiflora spp.), firecracker flowers (Bomarea spp.), and the genus Brachyotum.
The gorgeted puffleg supplements its diet with small insects like flies and spiders. It captures these prey items by aerial hawking – catching them in flight. It may also glean insects from foliage.
Behavior and Reproduction
The gorgeted puffleg, like most hummingbirds, is solitary and territorial. Males defend feeding territories against intrusion by other males or even females through aggressive displays. Their courtship display consists of aerial flights and dives to impress the females.
Breeding occurs from April to June. The tiny cup-shaped nest is constructed by the female from mosses, lichens and plant down. It is attached to a thin branch or vine, camouflaged to blend in with the surroundings. The female lays just two tiny white eggs. She alone incubates the eggs and cares for the hatchlings. The chicks fledge in about 6 weeks.
Threats and Conservation
With its limited range and specific habitat needs, the gorgeted puffleg is vulnerable to population decline. The major threat it faces is habitat destruction from logging, cattle ranching and agriculture. Climate change may also pose a long-term threat by shifting the elevation ranges where its habitat occurs.
The gorgeted puffleg is considered Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Most of its remaining range occurs within protected areas. Conservation efforts focus on preserving montane forest habitats, studying its ecology, and monitoring populations. Eco-tourism projects aim to make local people aware of this rare species and incentivize habitat protection. Captive breeding has not been successful for this species to date. Ongoing protection of its elevation-specific habitat will be crucial for the survival of the gorgeted puffleg into the future.
In summary, the gorgeted puffleg is a range-restricted hummingbird species that inhabits high elevation forests in Colombia and Ecuador. Its colorful breeding plumage and puffy leg feathers make this species visually distinctive. Conservation of its remaining montane forest habitat will be key to protecting this unique hummingbird in the long-term.