I think the best way to approach identification of hummingbirds in our area is to determine firstly if it is a large, a medium-sized or a small species. The standard for measurement is the ubiquitous Rufous-tailed hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl) with which you will very quickly become familiar. Here are a couple of photos of this medium-sized species, found throughout Costa Rica, with the exception of the very highest mountain areas.
Richard Garrigues’ photo on the left shows a bird feeding from a rabo de gato plant, a favorite with many hummers. Karel Straatman’s photo on the right is of a perched female. Males have a red bill. Plumage varies fairly considerably, to my mind, perhaps depending on the light, but the rufous tail is definitive.
Until today, I had managed to identify 9 species here at home in San Antonio, but I had also frequently seen tiny, light-coloured hummingbirds with a white neck-band and a definite trace of rufous somewhere lower down. I know, not a very scientific description to say the least! However, that is the general first impression, although I’m sure I have dismissed many as simply insects. I could usually discount the Coquettes (p. 137 in Garrigues & Dean) because even with a quick look you see the white band on the rump, and so the teenie-weenies had to be either the Scintillant hummingbird (Selasphorus scintilla) or the Volcano hummingbird (Selasphorus flammula), Turrialba variety. Distribution says that the Scintillant is much the more likely here in San Antonio, but the Volcano hummingbird does descend to our altitude after nesting.
Next door to our house is the pulpería of Mario and Yorleni, which I visit almost daily for minor groceries or to chat with neighbours. Mario recently planted a small rabo de gato fence between the pulpería and the road and it already has its first visitors, hummingbirds and Bananaquits (Coereba flaviola). This pretty little bird with its yellow breast, black-and-white head and a white spot on the wing is one of the easiest birds to find in gardens. It sips nectar and so is often found together with hummers.
Today, the Bananaquits and the Rufous-taileds were absent when I visited Mario to borrow a wrench. I didn’t have my binoculars but the tiny hummingbird at the rabo de gato was so busy feeding and so unafraid that I was finally able to make the identification of a female Scintilllant. I must confess to not noting the black band on the rufous tail, but I did notice considerable rufous on the flanks. I shall return tomorrow morning, camera in hand just in case it returns. I have no photographs of the female Scintillant hummingbird. Many thanks again to Karel Straatman and to Richard Garrigues for the use of their beautiful photographs.