Violet Sabrewing

Violet Sabrewing (Campylopterus hemileucurus)Spanish name: Ala de Sable Violaceo

About The Violet Sabrewing

Habitat
This hummingbird is frequently found in montane forest understory and edge, ravines, areas around streams, as well as disturbed wooded areas and old second growth. It also often forages in banana plantations.

Range

From southern Mexico to western Panama, the Violet Sabrewing can be found at higher elevations, between 1,500 to 2,200 m, but it may descend to lower elevations after the breeding season. In Costa Rica it is common in the mountains along the entirety of both coasts.

National Parks

Carara National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

Physical Description
The Violet Sabrewing is one of the largest hummingbirds in the world, matched in size only by a few other species, and surpassed only by the Giant Hummingbird. This abundant but distinct species resembles no other in Costa Rica. Although the male and female have divergent plumage, they share the wide, long tail with bright white corner feathers, wide wing feathers, conspicuous size, and the long, curved bill reminiscent of a hermit, such as the Long-tailed Hermit. The female's bill is especially curved; she is dark green with a gray underside and a violet throat. The male's plumage grants the species its name: his head and most of his body is a deep, solid violet, with dark green on some wing feathers and the lower back, a blackish tail, and the aforementioned white tail corners.

Interesting Biology
One reason this species is so easy to spot in the forest is that it flies relatively low and loudly, traplining many of the same flower species as hermits, since they have similar beak shapes. The Violet Sabrewing most prefers heliconia and banana flowers. It may also habitually visit certain flowers that open during the night for bats, such as those of Vriesia nephrolepis. The Sabrewing may come at dusk to rob the nectar of buds that have not yet opened, or at dawn to drink any residual nectar left by the bats.

One might think that such a large hummingbird would use size to its advantage and act highly territorially towards other hummingbirds. However, compared to smaller hummingbirds, the Sabrewing is not very aggressive, and is rarely protective or defensive at flowers. It still dominates at hummingbird feeders, and often other species vacate when they see the Sabrewing coming, before there is any bill sword-fighting. While solitarily feeding, both sexes use sharp vocalizations that may not be as loud as a larger bird's song, but are clearly audible twitter or "chip' sounds. Sabrewings can also be heard approaching because their vibrating wings are comparatively large for a hummingbird but still move incredibly fast.

Males may sing individually sometimes, but more often sing during the breeding season, when groups of up to 10 males (more often 4 to 6) join in a single area to sing and attract females. Such a formation is called a lek; males of this species gather in leks 2 to 4 m off the ground and sing from perches in the understory or edge habitats. After a female approaches the lek, chooses a male and copulates, she leaves to build a tiny nest. She will construct an awkward-looking but sturdy cup out of green moss, line it with other soft plant fibers, and bind the work with spider webbing. She usually does this on a low, skinny tree or bamboo branch over the edge of a ravine or water.

Diet
Like other hummingbirds, the Violet Sabrewing survives almost entirely on nectar. This species most favors heliconia and banana flowers, but also visits ginger plants (Costus), the bromeliad Vriesia nephrolepis, Gesneriads (such as Columnea, Drymonia), and several Acanthaceae flowers.

Height/Weight
This large hummingbird is generally 15 cm long. Adult males weigh 11.5 g, and females 9.5 g.

Brief Taxonomy
Order: Apodiformes
Family: Trochilidae

Sources
Fogden, Michael and Fodgen, Patricia. Hummingbirds of Costa Rica. Zona Tropical, S. A., Miami, 2005.
Skutch, Alexander F. and F. Gary Stiles. A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. Utica: Cornell University Press,1989.

-Amy Strieter, Wildlife Writer