The great sapphirewing hummingbird (Pterophanes cyanopterus) is a stunningly beautiful species of hummingbird found in the northern Andes mountains of South America. With its brilliant blue plumage and impressive size, this hummingbird is aptly named for its regal appearance.
Native Habitat and Range
The great sapphirewing inhabits the humid montane forests on the slopes of the Andes in Colombia and Ecuador between elevations of 1800 to 3300 meters. Its range extends from the Cordillera Central in Colombia to the Cordillera Oriental in Ecuador.
Within this range, it prefers areas with plenty of flowering plants and thick vegetation that provide ample food sources and cover. Primary habitats include cloud forests, elfin forests, and the edges of mountain woodlands. The great sapphirewing may descend to lower elevations when following the blooming cycles of favored food plants.
Description and Identification
Reaching lengths of up to 15 centimeters from bill tip to tail tip, the great sapphirewing is one of the largest hummingbird species in existence. It exhibits pronounced sexual dimorphism, with males significantly larger and more colorful than females.
The male’s plumage is iridescent turquoise overall, appearing bright blue or purple depending on the lighting. The crown and throat are particularly vivid, shining like sapphires. The tail is strongly forked and an even deeper blue. Females are smaller, with greenish upperparts, whitish underparts, and rufous on the tail edges. Both sexes have a long, straight black bill and white postocular spots behind the eyes.
Juveniles resemble adult females but have buffy edges to their plumage feathers. The great sapphirewing’s combination of large size, forked tail, and brilliant blue plumage make it nearly unmistakable within its range.
Diet and Feeding
Like all hummingbirds, the great sapphirewing feeds on flower nectar and tiny insects. Its long bill allows it to access nectar from longer, tubular flowers. Some favorites include flowers from the genera Datura, Brugmansia, Drymonia, and Bomarea.
The great sapphirewing uses a technique called trap-lining, revisiting favorite flower clusters in a repeated circuit. This helps ensure a reliable nectar supply. It also hawks small insects including flies, mosquitoes, and spiders to obtain proteins and fat.
Several unique anatomical adaptations allow the great sapphirewing to thrive at high altitudes. Its wings beat up to 70 times per second, generating the lift required for hovering flight in thin mountain air. Scale-like fringes on its primary wing feathers help reduce turbulence and improve aerodynamics.
A high metabolism and rapid heart rate provide the energy needed to power sustained flight. Countercurrent blood flow in the wing veins helps retain body heat. The great sapphirewing enters torpor at night to conserve energy, lowering its body temperature and heart rate significantly.
Reproduction and Lifespan
The breeding season for great sapphirewings corresponds to the rainy season between April and August. Males perform elaborate courtship displays, flying in U-shaped patterns to impress females.
Nests are constructed from plant down and spider webs on top of low, horizontal branches. The female lays just two tiny white eggs. She incubates them for 16-19 days until they hatch. Chicks fledge in approximately 3 weeks.
Lifespans are not well documented but are likely 5 years or less, as with most small hummingbirds. Hazards include predation, starvation during food shortages, and extreme weather events. Loss of habitat due to deforestation also threatens some populations.
Behavior and Ecology
The great sapphirewing is territorial and solitary, with males defending nectar-rich feeding areas from intrusion by other males. disputes are resolved through aggressive chasing and vocalizations.
This species spends the majority of its time flying from flower to flower or perching briefly to feed. It utilizes a variety of forest strata, from the high canopy to lower vegetation and even rocks and the ground.
The great sapphirewing may associate with mixed flocks containing other hummingbird species. It migrates seasonally, moving to lower elevations in the winter when food becomes scarce at higher altitudes.
Status and Conservation
Currently, the great sapphirewing is classified as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. Its population appears stable and totals between 10,000-100,000 individuals. However, its specialized habitat requirements make it vulnerable to climate change and habitat loss.
Protecting existing reserves and shade-grown coffee plantations can help provide refuge. Ecotourism and birdwatching may also incentivize continued conservation of this unique Andean hummingbird and its fragile mountain ecosystems.
The spectacular great sapphirewing is a true jewel among South America’s incredible hummingbird diversity. As an inhabitant of endangered cloud forest habitats, continued protection efforts for this rare species and its mountain home are essential. Maintaining intact forests through sustainable practices will allow birders and nature enthusiasts to continue admiring these shining sapphire-feathered creatures.