A male Long-tailed Sylph flaunts its glittering tail to females, but the long-distance flyer’s unorthodox lifestyle is equally intriguing to birdwatchers.
By Rex Graham
This sylph is not an interior-forest species that defends a small territory. Instead, it is a “trap liner” that repeatedly flies routes to feed on dispersed, but high-value nectar sources. The term was coined as a similarity to trappers that regularly check lines of traps.
The male’s relatively long wings are trademarks of trap-liners. It flies to gardens, clearings and scrubland on the eastern and western slopes of the Andes from Venezuela south to southern Peru and Bolivia. Females have shorter wings and short tails.
The species tactic of feeding on widely dispersed nectar-rich flowers lowers the chances that individuals will encounter more aggressive hummingbirds defending their territories. However, Long-tailed Sylph males have other males to contend with on their feeding routes, as well as bumblebees and hawk moths. Male sylphs defend their feeding stations from other males.
Long-tailed Sylph Taste for Sap Trees
Male Long-tailed Sylphs also are opportunists: they visit undefended “sap trees” of Acorn Woodpeckers. The birds drill a series of holes in high branches of certain trees and ingest the sap that flows out. Other hummingbirds also exploit sap trees.
If an aggressive Buff-tailed Coronet find a sap tree first, its chases away Long-tailed Sylphs.
The sylph, like several other hummingbirds, is a nectar robber. They pierce the base of long-pedaled flowers and ingest the nectar that leaks out. This tactic is called theft because it provides no pollination services in exchange.
One Andean tree that is prone to nectar thievery is Oreocallis grandiflora. When under such assault, the tree’s nectar volumes drop and become thicker or more viscous, and other territorial hummingbirds are less interested in the lower-quality nectar quality. However, one study found that with fewer territorial hummingbirds around, other pollinators visited the sub-par nectar sources.
The negative effects of nectar-robbing may be offset by alternative pollinators moving in. “These two consequences may have balanced each other out to yield a neutral net effect of nectar robbing on plant reproduction,” said Tulane University Evolutionary Biologists Jenny Hazlehurst and Jordan Karubian in a paper in the journal Oikos. They said more research will help unravel the indirect effects on plants of nectar-robbing and other avian behaviors.
Long-tailed Sylph males are prime targets of hummingbird photography tours and safaris in Ecuador, home of 130 hummingbird species. The males have emerald green backs, extra-long iridescent blue tails, and blue throat patches. The females are similarly colored but lack the flamboyant tail, which makes it easier to incubate eggs.
I believe that the more that people watching, photographing, studying and enjoying the Long-tailed Sylph, the better for the species, all birds, all wildlife and all humans.