Birders marvel at the Violet-tailed Sylph and biologists are mystified with their evolutionary relationships to other sylphs, thorntails, trainbearers and other long-tailed hummingbirds.
By Rex Graham
The Violet-tailed male is 18 centimeters (7 in) of iridescent, shining green and violet-blue nervousness. The beautiful female is half the male’s length without that incredible tail, which must make egg incubation much easier.
Inexpensive genome sequencing technology has become an evolutionary biologist’s best technological friend. It enables them to explore genetic similarities and differences among sylphs (Violet-tailed, Venezuelan and Long-tailed), and South America’s many other glamour hummers, including the angelic Marvelous Spatuletail.
A spaghetti strand of medium-height Andes cloudforest from southern Colombia to northern Ecuador has supercharged the evolutionary radiation of hummingbirds. It is the total range of the Violet-tailed Sylph. This lush, wet botanical carnival bisected by the Equator is, despite its relatively small size, one of the world’s most primal hotspots of biodiversity. This continually dripping forest is why Colombia (1,871 bird species) and Ecuador (1,663 bird species) can lay claim as worldwide avian leaders (even if they could do a better job protecting the goose that lays golden ecotourism eggs).
Habitat of Violet-tailed Sylph
This type of evergreen, moss-covered forest represents about 1 percent of the world’s woodlands. Cloudforests dot mid-altitudes near the equator in Central and South America, Africa and Oceania. They support high biomass with per-hectare diversities of insects, moths, amphibians and reptiles, mammals, plants and birds unequalled elsewhere on the planet.
The vulnerable Cloudforest Pygmy-owl is found only here, and at some of the same elevations as those occupied by the Violet-tailed Sylph.
Many birding tour companies lead trips into these humid temples of epiphytes, orchids and endangered primates. First-time birdwatching visitors wearing glistening raincoats are profoundly awed by the sounds and sights. The Violet-tailed Sylph is just one of thousands of species that lure birders and bird photographers to the plenty.
There are several outstanding eco-Lodges and botanical reserves within two hours of Quito, Ecuador, where the Violet-tailed Sylph can be seen.