With over 300 species, hummingbirds are some of the most diverse and spectacular birds on Earth. Among the most dazzling is the sapphire-bellied hummingbird (Lepidopyga lilliae), a tiny but vibrantly colored species found in the northern Andes Mountains of South America. Measuring just 8-9 centimeters in length and weighing 4-5 grams, this hummingbird is one of the smaller members of an already diminutive family of birds. However, its gleaming sapphire-blue belly and emerald-green back more than make up for its petite stature.
The sapphire-bellied hummingbird is named for the brilliant, metallic sapphire blue feathers on the male’s underside, which shimmer and shine in the sunlight. Females lack this vibrant coloration and instead have grayish undersides with white spotting on the throat. Both sexes have golden-green upperparts and a short black forked tail. Their slender downcurved bills and nimble wings, which beat up to 70 times per second, are adapted for hovering in place while feeding on nectar from flowers.
This species is found along the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains from western Venezuela to central Bolivia, generally between elevations of 500 to 2500 meters. It inhabits humid montane forests, forest borders, second growth, and gardens. The sapphire-bellied hummingbird often prefers valleys and gorges with plenty of flowering plants, where it uses its specialized bill to drink nectar while hovering in front of blooms. It also feeds on small insects, catching them in flight or gleaning them from leaves and branches.
While feeding, these hummingbirds exhibit territorial behavior, with the males aggressively defending nectar-rich flowers and small feeding territories. Their high-pitched squeaky vocalizations and aerial dogfights are characteristic sights and sounds in their preferred mountain forests. Despite their pugnaciousness around food sources, sapphire-bellied hummingbirds are social during the non-breeding season and gather in small flocks while roosting at night.
During the breeding season, which coincides with the rainy season from April to August, males perform elaborate courtship displays for females. They fly in looping U-shaped patterns up to 100 feet in the air, before diving steeply while producing a loud chirping sound with their tail feathers. If a female approves, she will allow the male to mate with her. The female then builds a delicate cup-shaped nest out of plant down and spider webs on a low branch or tree fern. She incubates the two tiny white eggs for about 16-19 days before they hatch. The chicks fledge in roughly 20-26 days.
While not considered threatened, the sapphire-bellied hummingbird has a relatively small range and some populations are declining due to habitat loss from deforestation. However, it remains fairly common throughout most of its Andean range. Birdwatchers and nature tourists treasure sightings of this radiant bird as it flashes its sapphire belly and emerald back while visiting mountain flowers. For its exquisite coloration and energetic spirit, the sapphire-bellied hummingbird will always be one of the most brilliant jewels among Andean hummingbirds.