Despite a black mask, the Masked Flowerpiercer is not a nectar bandit, but a “nuclear” force providing cohesion to mixed-species flocks in South America.
It is the entertaining avian counterpart of Blue Man Group, a deep-blue species known for acrobatic antics in the trees and shrubbery of the Andean forests of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
By Rex Graham
The sharp, hooked tip of most other flowerpiercer’s upper mandible is used to slice the fluid-filled base of flowers and ingest nectar without providing pollination services in return.
However, Masked Flowerpiercers use their slightly hooked bills to pierce small, ripe fruit for juice. Masked Flowerpiercers in the eastern and western slopes of the Andes prefer pristine habitats above 2,000 m. “They only rarely puncture or visit flowers, then usually probing them directly,” according to the Handbook of the Birds of the World.
Birding tours in South America often encounter the Masked Flowerpiercer traveling in mixed flocks, often with nine or more other species. Detailed descriptions by many ornithologists have led to the consensus that the Masked Flowerpiercer is a “potential nuclear species” of mixed-species flocks at or slightly above 3,000 m. At this elevation they are followed much more than they follow other birds.
Masked Flowerpiercer – Cohesive Force
Despite its tiny size, the distinctiveness of Masked Flowerpiercers may contribute to the cohesion of mixed-species flocks: their conspicuous blue plumage and maneuvers, and their regular calls (thin zeet notes) keep communally foraging birds together for their mutual protection from predators. Masked Flowerpiercers’ foraging retinue of Golden-crowned Tanagers and Blue-backed Conebills may prompt other species to join in.
The Masked Flowerpiercer is found in the Andean paramo, or high tropical montane area above timberline. When such areas are burned, as they often are in subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture, the number of Masked Flowerpiercers appears to recover within a year of the burn.
Aside from its bill, another piercing feature of this tiny member of the tanager family is its red eyes. Birdwatchers who remain motionless in vegetation are most often rewarded with views of this active, entertaining bird and its colorful followers.