Features

The Stars of Our Woods

The Bahama woodstar is TCI’s only regular resident hummingbird.
By B Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist ~ Photos by Marta Morton

Some years ago, while drilling drift seeds for a craft project, a bay bean Cannavalia rosea seed escaped and rolled across the floor, at some point getting swept out the front door. Seed coat compromised and sitting in an enriched flower bed, it took in the rain and did its best to out-show Jack’s beanstalk. It wound up a shrub, then up a string to the eaves, where it scrambled eastward and dropped numerous runners, eventually cloaking the entire front of my house, eaves to ground, in a thick tangle of leafy vines. Following a heavy rain, it bloomed with such ferocity—its purple blooms like succulent sweet-pea blossoms—that it became something of a buffet line for nectar feeders.

During the day, butterflies and carpenter bees visited; at night sphynx moths and beetles came for their shifts. Such a productive viny tangle is irresistible to wildlife, but there was one creature that filled the role of the supreme diva of the bay bean façade, to which all others —even members of her own species—gave deference. The prima donna who chose to sup at the vines ruled them heartily, but never so much as when she decided that the bank of lianas was a suitable place to nest. It was then that a Bahama woodstar showed her specific nature to me and my visitors.

The Bahama Woodstar is the only hummingbird regularly resident in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

The Bahama woodstar Nesophlox evelynae is the only hummingbird regularly resident in the Turks & Caicos Islands and given its pugnacious nature, that’s not surprising. Its species name honours the daughter, Evelyn, of Conrad Loddiges (1738–1826), a German-born British botanist. (Noteworthy here is that the generic epithet was changed from Caliphlox to Nesophlox in 2014; and the woodstar populations on Great and Little Inagua in the Bahamas were named as the separate, endemic species Nesophlox lyrura in 2015.) One wonders about the general social comportment of namesake little Evelyn, as the feisty Bahama woodstars hardly tolerate one another; much less chance they would countenance another competing species.

Far from the damp, muggy habitat of the majority of the over 360 hummingbird species in the humid riparian and montane forests of South America, the Bahama woodstar stakes out territory in some of the driest, most stunted, scrubby forests available. Hummingbirds are the third most speciose family of birds, and the bee clade—the group to which woodstars belong—is the youngest and most rapidly speciating group.

Bahama woodstars are found throughout the Lucayan Archipelago from Abaco (Bahamas) southward into Turks & Caicos Islands, but they tend to be more numerous on the central and southern islands where a heavy competitor in the larger northern island forests—the Cuban emerald hummingbird Riccordia ricordii—is absent. Indeed the Cuban emerald has been noted in Turks & Caicos Islands, but only as a vagrant on two confirmed occasions. Our only other very unlikely vagrant hummingbird is the world’s smallest bird and a close relative of the woodstar, the Cuban bee Mellisuga helenae. (There are two credible records of Cuban bee sightings in the Turks & Caicos Islands.) With these species generally absent, the Bahama woodstar has free range of the TCI and with their frightful brand of militantly weaponized gumption, the larger birds tend to steer clear of them too.

Hummingbirds are known for being fearless defenders of their territories, including nests and feeding areas. It’s not unusual to see them interacting with other birds —including larger birds of prey—in a way that is surprisingly severe. They chase, stab and harass other birds away with their superior flight capacity, powered by wings that beat over 60 times a second and can allow them to attain true hovering, and to fly forward as well as up, down, sideways, backwards and even upside down. This is due to the structure and movement of the wings, which move more like human hands treading water than they do other birds’ wings. Angling each wing forward on the down-stroke and backwards on the up-stroke in a figure eight motion, they fly on vortices as much as they do lift.

Flying and hovering on vortices is energy expensive, and hummingbirds have the highest metabolisms of any vertebrate. Their heart rates average 250 beats per minute at rest, spiking to over 1,000 beats per minute during their most demanding flight manoeuvres. Fortunately, their main food source as adults—nectar—is sugar-rich. They can digest and burn this sugar as little as thirty minutes after a sweet sip.

This mother hummingbird (at right) is carefully supervising her young chick.

In Turks & Caicos Islands, Bahama woodstars encounter numerous plant species that have specifically evolved to accommodate bird pollinators. Robust, funnel-shaped flowers in bright hot colours are their favourites. These blossoms also carry the typical trait of having scent only at night (for the sake of long-tongued sphynx moths which also visit them) or no scent at all. Hummingbirds have no significant sense of smell, and find their food exclusively by sight and memory, so plants don’t bother perfuming their flowers for them.

Some of the Bahama woodstars’ favourite nectar plants are very showy—the Christmas hog potato Ipomoea microdactyla with its waxy scarlet trumpets, and the five-fingers Tabebuia bahamensis with its blousy crepe paper funnels in pale pink. These are seasonal bloomers, and so they do what they can to attract their pollinators. But just as attractive are the subtly orange tube-blooms of the golden creeper Ernodea littoralis and pineland creeper Ernodea serratifolia which bloom year-round and therefore spend less energy making gaudy displays.

While these flowers are certainly custom fit to the woodstars, other birds that cannot fit inside them still sometimes get to the nectar. It’s common to see five-fingers flowers with rough holes ripped in their tube bases, the delicate pink browning from the damage done by the scimitar bills of bananaquits, more robust nectar feeding birds. Bananaquits are one of many species for which woodstars have no time, and will bravely scold and chase from their favourite plants. As bananaquits are more social birds that live in family flocks, a sacrificial bananaquit sometimes diverts a defensive woodstar from a favoured flower patch while the rest of the family tears the posies up and loots the juice.

This well-defended precious nectar is put to good use by the woodstars. Throughout the year but mostly in summer, females gather spider webs, wild cotton, fine grass and air-plant seed fluff to built tiny nests, the size of walnut shells, on branches often just 1–2 meters off the ground. Males take no part in nest-building; they spend their time defending territories especially rich with nectar plants that are likely to attract females. Male hummingbirds are, like most birds, most flashy than the hens, and the male woodstar is equipped with an iridescent gorget (chin-to-throat patch) and small crest. He will flash his gorget and raise and lower his crest while twittering at a female, hoping to attract her attention. The gorget can be angled, and it can flash as amethyst purple or blood red, depending on the light angle. He can even “turn it off” to almost black, by angling it downward.

The male woodstar achieves that colour show by way of his feathers, which in hummingbirds rely on both pigmentation and structural refraction of light to create colour. In fact, it is the melanin itself that is arranged in a structured formation within the feathers that refracts the light, and the feathers themselves incorporate both melanin and carotenoids for their pigmentation.

Once a female is sufficiently wooed and mates, she completes her nest. The nest is camouflaged with bits of lichen stuck to its outside. The silky wisps of the air-plant seeds, usually cuttlefish air-plant Tillandsia balbosiana, silvery air-plant T. streptophylla, flexuous air-plant T. flexousa or scorn-the-ground T. utriculata, tend to find their placement on a tree limb bound into a moisture-retaining nest the perfect place to germinate, and this is how many air plants wind up in trees. The germinating seedlings further assist in the camouflaging of the nests.

This is a pair of baby hummingbirds, recently hatched from their tiny eggs.

Into the disguised nest the female will lay two white eggs roughly the size of cooked soybeans. Pound-for-pound (so to say), Bahama woodstar eggs are massive in relation to the female’s body size. To compete relatively, a chicken would need to lay two eggs the size of goose eggs. The female incubates them stalwartly for two to two-and-a-half weeks, and then gathers insects and nectar to feed her quickly growing young. Fully feathered within ten days, they often leave the nest for their first uncertain flights in as little as 15 days. They need to be able to fly strongly, and will be able to do so within a week, in order to find food and—perhaps most importantly—survive hurricane season.

Bahama woodstars are known to survive hurricanes by hunkering down near the ground in dense scrub, often on the leeward side of a tree trunk. But many are lost in the strong winds, and they may also succumb to starvation if a hurricane has been strong enough to damage vegetation severely enough that nothing is in flower. Scarlet cordia Cordia sebestena becomes a lifesaver for them, as these trees often throw out their orange blooms right after storms. Oddly, while other populations of hummingbirds seem to take quickly to hummingbird feeders, Turks & Caicos woodstars don’t seem to—but planting their favourite native species definitely helps them and attracts them to home gardens.

The female hummingbird gathers insects and nectar to feed her quickly growing young.

But my diva hummingbird arrived after a happy gardening accident, and I had no idea any nesting was going on—I never actually found the bay bean vine diva’s nest, so well she hid it. I only knew it was there from the sudden shift in her behaviour. Where she would previously defend the flowers from bumblebees and bananaquits with an authoritatively selfish demeanour, she suddenly became downright kamikaze at anything that flew too close to the vines even as the flowers acquiesced.

Hummingbirds—thankfully—tend to completely ignore anything they don’t see as a threat, and so I didn’t have to watch my head the way I do for the repugnantly aggressive American kestrel that nests in the corner of my office roof every year. But one mid-morning, a passing male Bahama woodstar caught sight of the few remaining purple bay-bean flowers and zoomed in for an inspection. Diva must have heard his wing hum, because she emerged in full Amazon warrior mode quite ready to lance him through. The moment he saw her, he spiralled upward behind me then dropped behind my head by inches; I could feel his wing-paddled vortices puffing against my neck and hear the low hum just beyond my ears.

Diva Woodstar suddenly—for the first time ever—took an interest in me. She flew accusingly at my face and hovered a foot in front of my nose, glaring as she darted left and right. Within a few seconds the interloping male tried to peek around me (as evidenced by the buzz and breeze near by right ear), and the jig was up. Diva rocketed at him past my right temple, he tightly circled around the back of my head and to the front, and both twittering the entire time, she chased him in three full circles around my head (I felt like a noggin-knocked cartoon character) before he pulled up and careered over my roof, sacrificing elegance for speed. Once she was sure he was forever vanquished, she retired back to her nest in the tangles, ignoring inconsequential me again, as a woodstar should, forevermore.



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On the Cover

Marta Morton, owner/operator of Harbour Club Villas & Marina (www.harbourclubvillas.com) did a careful photographic study of a family of Bahama woodstar hummingbirds that made their home on the property. Here, the two chicks appear ready to burst out of their tiny nest. See article on page 46.

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