Monday, April 7, 2014

The Sword-bearing Sword-bearer

One species I left out of my last post from the Owlet Lodge was this marvelous bird, the Sword-billed Hummingbird. It has always been a very scarce bird in this area, or at least very scarcely seen by birders, and even then only very briefly amongst the lush roadside cloud forest growth. But two days before my WINGS tour arrived, for the very first time in the five years that feeders have been maintained at this lodge, this individual began visiting the feeders. It came in off and on all day long during our five-day stay.

Many hummingbirds are very inquisitive and will find nectar wherever it can be found. They just stick their bill into anything and see what it contains. That is why you can see so many species of hummingbirds at feeders that look nothing like real flowers – very close to every species that occur in an area will eventually be found at the feeders you hang there.

But a few species of hummingbirds are specialists on whatever flower they feed from and are rarely, if ever seen at feeders. I can think of a few, such as the often common Violet-headed Hummingbird, that I have never heard of visiting feeders.

This leathery-leafed, tall-climbing Passiflora vine, when open, is presumably one of the primary natural food sources for the Sword-bill here. The length and angle of the flower tube is perfect.

With its amazing bill, it's pretty obvious that the Sword-billed Hummingbird is rather a specialist, so it took an enterprising and bold (and maybe very hungry) individual to discover that these feeders, looking nothing like a long-tubed flower, had food potential.

The scientific name, Ensifera ensifera, is Latin for "Sword-bearing sword-bearer." Think of "conifer" meaning "cone–bearer" and "crucifer" meaning "cross-bearer" and you can guess that "ensis" is a Latin word for sword. Incidentally, a binomial consisting of two identical words like this is a tautonym, not uncommon in zoology, but not allowed in botanical nomenclature. My botany professor explained this with "Tonella tenella is not a total tautonym."


  1. I was on a tour of north Peru just a few weeks ago, and we had single male and female Violet-headed Hummingbirds at the feeders of the Fruiteater Lodge

  2. And of course just after I posted this I read your prior post about also having them at Fruiteater Lodge :)
    In all the commotion, I have to say I don't recall if they were actually feeding from the feeders.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Grant. That's exactly where we saw one as well, but it was in and out of the Porterweed by the observation tower and never seemed to even notice the feeders. Even in Costa Rica, that species seems glued to Porterweed.