This dazzling creature, the Violet-crowned Woodnymph, is a hummingbird. I saw it in Costa Rica performing a most unusual avian ritual.
I’ve seen hummingbirds occasionally flutter into the sprinkler in my backyard, they like to get mists of water in which to bathe, but it’s not very often. So when the woman behind the counter at our lodge told us hummingbirds dipped into their river streams, I had my doubts. Then she looked at her wristwatch and told us to “go around 4:00.” Oh, I see, hummingbirds that have a punctual schedule.
This trip to Costa Rica involved four different locations, an itinerary we carefully designed for multiple habitats thereby increasing the variety of birds and mammals. We had planned accommodations for more remote locations in order to get deeper into the rainforests. Generally the closer you want to be to wildlife, the farther away you get from humans. We had just arrived at a lodge called Rancho Naturalista on the Caribbean slopes.
Hummingbirds, from the family Trochilidae, are unique to the Americas, they only live in the western hemisphere. Although we have 20 or so hummingbird species in the United States, Central and South America boast many more. They feed on nectar (and insects too) and live and breed primarily in tropical locations. Countries closer to the equator have over a hundred different species, Costa Rica has about 50. People love hummingbirds. They’re brilliantly colored, small and cute, fast and bold. If you have ever watched even one hummingbird, however, you know they are not demure. They’re fiercely territorial and if they were anything but petite, they might scare the pants off you. There is such a deep affinity for hummingbirds that over the centuries this bird has acquired affectionate scientific names like Coquette, Fairy, Brilliant, Sunangel, and of course Woodnymph.
We’d had a full day on the road and bags to unpack, but it was close to 4 and we had to see these punctual hummingbirds. Under a dark tree canopy, we followed the narrow trail down the side of the slope, closed in by woody vines and an earthy wall thick with leaves. The jungle sounds were mysteriously loud and slightly intimidating. The humidity was heavy. Before long we came to a viewing deck. A small ribbon of light filtered into this oasis and the river was quietly flowing through the dense mass of trees.
There was so much going on down here, my eyes didn’t know what to follow first. Thinking back on it, it was just birds; but to a birder that’s like a movie buff going to Hollywood to a red carpet event. Hummingbirds were rocketing in every direction. Anyone who has watched a hummingbird knows that just seeing one is like trying to follow a flying mosquito. Then we saw it, just a few feet away: a hummingbird dipped into the shallow stream, once, then again, then again. It zoomed off and then another zoomed in.
We watched as the woodnymph hovered closer to the water’s surface, then dipped its body repeatedly into the river, a flurry of neon colors and splashes. Once the bird felt sufficiently wet, it zipped over to a vine and perched, preening. While one freshly-showered hummingbird perched, another shot past us and into the bath.
At the end of their day they come here to get cleaned up. They wash off the day’s challenges, take in some refreshment, and relax into the night…hmmm, sounds familiar.