Long-tailed Hermit

Long-tailed Hermit (Phaethornis superciliosus) Spanish name: Ermitano Colilargo, Gorrion

In wet lowland forests this hummingbird is active in the understory, light gaps, forest edge, and old second growth. It commonly lives at elevations as high as 1,000 m, but above this elevation the Long-tailed is replaced by the Green Hermit, which is similar in biology and habitat choice.

The Long-tailed Hermit can be found between southern Mexico and central Brazil.

Physical Description
A curious, assertive little bird with an extraordinarily long, curved bill may materialize before visitors in tropical forests; it hovers until it feels threatened, then squeaks and darts off as abruptly as it appeared.

Other hermits share the distinct bill and some also have the extended tail feathers. The bill of this species is 3.5 to 4 cm, which is almost one-third its body length, and its long tail feathers are half as long as the rest of its body. The medium-sized Long-tailed Hermit has dull plumage compared to other hummingbirds, but this is no eyesore. With bronzy green feathers on its back, from a darker brown head to a more tawny lower body and a brownish grey belly and breast, the Long-tailed wears many colors. It has clear white stripes above and below the eye. The upper mandible is black, and the lower is a dull orange-when this bird opens its mouth, the shocking orange lining may intimidate an attacker or competitor. Females are colored the same as males, but are smaller.

Interesting Biology
Hermit hummingbirds are solitary wanderers, traveling far through the understory searching for nectar. The Long-tailed Hermit is adapted to follow and adjust to the changing rhythms of flower availability. They also feed at flowers from which they exclusively can access the nectar with their specially-shaped bills. At other flowers the hermit may be thwarted by smaller, more aggressive hummingbirds. These smaller species do not try to feed at the hermit's favorite flowers. To find enough nectar in a day, the hermit follows traplines, or routes that cover multiple potential food sources; the hermit's traplines may be 1 km long (although routes of 300 to 500 m are more common). The flowers which the hermit favors tend to grow along stream edges in tall second growth or the forest understory, so this bird is often seen in such places.

Males of this species court females using a lek system: approximately 12 males (as few as 3 to as many as 25) gather in a dense thicket, often near a stream; each male stakes out a territory and sings from his different perches within it. The males vocalize single-note songs, challenge each other, and track the others according to their songs. Long-tailed Hermits begin lekking when heliconia flowers are abundantly bursting into bloom (the most intense period is May and June). Females come to the lek to breed, then perform all subsequent parent duties alone, which frees males to invest so much energy in lekking.

For a nest, the mother will construct a tightly woven cup bound with spider web to the underside of a leaf tip on a palm, banana plant, or heliconia. This keeps the nest safe from rain. To protect the young from predators, she intentionally attaches a "tail' of dead leaves to disguise the nest as understory debris. Even with such an effort, very few offspring survive to adulthood: 75 to 80% nests of this species fail due to predation. With such a mortality rate, the Long-tailed Hermit needs a longer breeding season of 9 months, during which it nests 2 to 3 times.

The favored species of flower for this bird are Heliconia, Passiflora vitifolia, Costus, and Aphelandra. They may also pick spiders or insects from webs or vegetation.

Adults of this species are generally 15 cm long and weigh 6 g; the males tend to be larger.

Brief Taxonomy
Order: Apodiformes
Family: Trochilidae

Skutch, Alexander F. and F. Gary Stiles. A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. Utica: Cornell University Press,1989.

Stiles, F. G. in: Janzen, Daniel H. Costa Rican Natural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

-Amy Strieter, Wildlife Writer