The Empress Brilliant Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens) is a large, stunning hummingbird found in the mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama. With its vibrant plumage and impressive size, this species lives up to its regal name.
The Empress brilliant is one of over 300 species of hummingbirds found in the New World. It belongs to the mountain gem family, known for their bright, iridescent plumage. At 8.5 inches long, the Empress brilliant is one of the largest hummingbirds in the world. Its scientific name Eugenes fulgens comes from Greek words meaning “well-born” and “shining,” aptly describing this bird’s noble beauty.
The Empress brilliant inhabits mountain forests at elevations between 2500-10000 feet. Its range is limited to the Talamancan montane forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. Though widespread, its specialized highland habitat makes this species vulnerable to climate change and habitat loss. Protecting its delicate mountain ecosystem is crucial to the Empress brilliant’s survival.
The Empress brilliant is unmistakable thanks to the male’s extravagant plumage. The crown and throat are a shimmering emerald green. The lower throat boasts iridescent purple tips. A vibrant blue-green gorget decorates the upper chest. The belly and flanks display glowing coppery-orange feathers. The tail is primarily black, with a bold white tip. Females lack the more colorful gorget and orange flanks, with white-tipped outer tail feathers.
The long bill of the Empress brilliant is perfect for accessing nectar from the flowers of their specialized high elevation habitat. Unlike many hummingbirds, the Empress brilliant’s bill is straight rather than curved. Their tongues are about 2/3 the length of the bill, allowing them to efficiently lap up nectar.
The Empress brilliant feeds mainly on nectar from tall mountain flowers such as camellias and fuchsias. To fuel its high metabolism, it also grabs small insects like flies, gnats, and spiders.
Displaying territorial behavior, males perform dramatic dive displays to defend flower patches. They fly as high as 100 feet before diving precipitously while making a buzzing “chup” sound with their tail feathers. The male’s energetic display advertises his vigor and commands respect.
Empress brilliants are solitary and intolerant of other individuals. Both males and females will aggressively chase intruders from their territory. Clashes sometimes turn physical with stabbing bills and grasping feet. Their pugnacity earned them the nickname “king of the mountain.”
The breeding season for Empress brilliants coincides with the rainy season from May to August. Males perform courtship displays, flying in u-shaped or figure-8 patterns to impress females. If receptive, the female will perch and allow copulation.
The female alone builds the nest out of plant down, spider webs, and lichens. She chooses alocation along a high slope with an unobstructed view. The nest is ingeniously camouflaged on top of a large leaf, secured by filaments stretched across the underside.
The female lays 2 pea-sized white eggs. She incubates them alone for 15-19 days. The chicks hatch with eyes closed and almost no down. Both parents work together to feed the chicks with regurgitated insects. After about 20-26 days, the young leave the nest.
Deforestation poses the biggest threat to the Empress brilliant’s limited habitat. Logging and land clearing eliminates old growth forest and flowering plants needed for food. Climate change may push the bird even higher up mountains in search of cooler temperatures. With shrinking habitat, Empress brilliant populations are declining.
Luckily, Costa Rica and Panama have made conservation a priority. The brilliant’s core range falls within Chirripó National Park and La Amistad International Park. Ecotourism also brings attention to its precarious plight. Birdwatchers travel from across the globe for a chance to see this dazzling highland species.
The brilliant’s small geographic range means it will always remain at risk. Continued reforestation and habitat protection are vital for securing its long-term survival. This jewel of the mountains deserves the utmost conservation effort.
With its radiant colors, the male Empress brilliant truly earns its regal moniker. The crown and throat glow an iridescent emerald green in certain lights. When seen from other angles, these feathers shift to a fiery golden-green.
The plumage of the lower throat is dark green topped with distinctive purple tips. This patch contrasts sharply with the bright blue-green gorget spreading across the upper chest. When excited, the gorget feathers lift to form a ruffled collar.
The belly and flanks display a coppery burnt-orange coloration. In flight, these warm hues light up like embers. The brilliant’s namesake comes from the strikingly iridescent quality of its plumage. The interplay of structurally colored feathers creates a dazzling, kaleidoscopic effect.
The tail feathers are mostly blackish-blue. The outer three pairs have white tips that flash during the male’s diving displays. From below, the white-tipped tail has a unique harp-shaped appearance. The outer tail feathers also produce the buzzing “chup” sound when vibrated at speed.
Females lack the male’s flashy gorget and orange flanks. Their lower throat is dotted white and the tail has white edges. But the elegant emerald crown is shared by both sexes. Juveniles resemble adult females but with buffy edges to the back feathers.
With a total body length of 8.5 inches, the Empress brilliant is noticeably larger than other hummingbird species. As typical for hummingbirds, females are slightly bigger than males. Weight ranges from 0.2-0.4 oz, with the male averaging 0.3 oz.
The Empress brilliant’s bill is also unusually long and straight for a hummingbird. It extends 0.9-1.3 inches long, allowing the bird to delve deep into flowers. Their 2-inch long tongues are specially adapted to lap up nectar. Pencil-thin legs and weak feet are typical for a species that rarely walks or perches.
Habitat and Range
The Empress brilliant inhabits Lower and Upper montane wet forests on the Talamancan and Tilarán mountain ranges. Its elevational range extends from around 2500 feet to the tree line at 10000 feet. The highest densities occur between 6000-8000 ft where flowers and feeding opportunities are most abundant.
This range is largely limited to Costa Rica’s Cordillera de Tilarán and the Sierra de Talamanca of Panama. A small isolated population exists in the Chiriquí highlands of western Panama. But the core habitat spans the mid-elevations of Chirripó National Park in Costa Rica into La Amistad International Park shared by both countries.
Within this specialized mountain habitat, the Empress brilliant requires relatively undisturbed primary forest. Most sightings occur near streams or in areas with natural flowering meadows. The brilliant’s dependence on pristine, old growth ecosystems makes it highly vulnerable to deforestation.
Food and Feeding
Like all hummingbirds, the Empress brilliant subsists primarily on sugary nectar and small insects for protein. Its favorite nectar sources are tubular highland flowers like fuchsias, camellias, and mints. The brilliant’s straight bill and extendable tongue are ideal for probing these blooms.
Empress brilliants use their keen vision to track down flowers and trap insects. They can see wavelengths into the near ultraviolet spectrum, allowing them to cue into patterns like nectar guides visible only to pollinators. The brilliant also perceives higher frame rates which helps it navigate and respond faster than human eyes can detect.
Nectar from mountain flowers provides quick carbohydrates. But the Empress brilliant needs protein from insects to meet its high metabolic demands. Small insects like flies, leafhoppers, bees, and spiders supplement its sugary diet. The brilliant gleans creeping and flying insects from foliage using its sticky tongue as a catcher.
Throughout the day, Empress brilliants feed in frequent cycles. They consume half their weight in nectar daily and make hundreds of feeding visits. A torpor-like state called noctivation reduces their metabolism by 10-15% overnight. The Empress brilliant must continuously refuel to power its whirring wings. Even at rest, its heart beats up to 250 times per minute.
Behavior and Displays
The Empress brilliant is highly territorial and guards its flower patches aggressively. Both males and females will boldly chase away intruders including larger birds. They have even been observed attacking humans that get too close.
Males defend feeding grounds using dramatic display dives. With buzzing tail feathers, the male climbs up to 100 feet before plummeting at breakneck speeds. He will make multiple diving passes, with wings folded back and the iridescent gorget puffed out. The visuals and sound advertise the male’s dominance.
Though hostile to its own kind, the solitary Empress brilliant may tolerate other hummingbird species. At lower elevations, it coexists alongside sparkling violetears and fiery-throated hummingbirds. Higher up, only the volcano hummingbird shares its lofty mountain heights.
During the breeding season, males perform elaborate courtship displays. They fly in looping u-shapes, dive from great heights, and flash their colorful gorgets. Receptive females respond by perching and allowing the male to approach her.
Reproduction and Nesting
The breeding season for Empress brilliants corresponds with the onset of the summer rainy season from May to August. Though solitary for most of the year, breeding pairs will form a temporary bond.
Interested males court prospective females through aerobatic flight displays. If she is receptive, the female will adopt a breeding posture, pointing her bill up with tail feathers fanned. This signals her willingness to mate.
The female alone builds the delicate nest out of plant down, spider silk, lichens and moss. She chooses a high sloped location with a wide view and conceals the nest at the tip of a down-drooping branch. The exterior perfectly matches the surrounding vegetation.
The nest’s woven cup attaches securely underneath a single leaf with filaments stretched from the rim to the leaf edges. The leaf provides overhead protection while allowing easy access for the parents. The entrance hole faces outward away from the leaf base.
The female lays just two tiny white eggs, occasionally only one. She incubates them for 15-19 days, providing warmth with featherless belly patches called brood spots. The helpless hatchlings emerge bald with eyes fused shut. Only a hint of down covers their pink skin.
Both parents feed the chicks regurgitated nectar and insects. The female also broods them while the male guards his expanded territory. After 20-26 days, the young fledge from the nest. The parents continue occasional feedings as the juveniles learn to forage on their own.
Status and Conservation
Due to habitat destruction and climate threats, the Empress brilliant is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Its small range makes the entire population more vulnerable to extinction. Current declines are estimated at 20-49% over ten years.
The major threat facing this species is deforestation which eliminates feeding habitat and nest sites. Expanding agriculture and logging have caused significant range reductions. Climate change poses a future risk, as warming trends may squeeze the brilliant’s range upslope.
Protected areas provide a critical refuge for imperiled Empress brilliant populations. Chirripó National Park and La Amistad International Park cover much of its Costa Rican and Panamanian range. Ecotourism and birdwatching also incentivize continued conservation.
More research is needed to precisely monitor Empress brilliant numbers. Banding programs and surveys can provide population data to better inform management plans. Captive breeding may serve as a last resort to bolster declining wild stocks.
The radiant Empress brilliant remains a beacon of the mountain cloud forests of Central America. Safeguarding these fragile ecosystems will give this jewel of the highlands the protections it needs to continue gracing its mountain realm.