I’ve had several emails telling me how much you enjoy our winter travelling – thank you all for those – so this winter I’m taking you to the South American country of Ecuador where my husband and I (how very royal!) went in 2015.
The first place we stayed at was a lodge situated in a tropical cloud forest. It was a beautiful place where Hummingbirds zipped around providing us with endless hours of fascination. Hummingbirds are creatures of the Americas and the Caribbean, the new world, and Ecuador has more species than any other country. At the lodge they were encouraged by the feeders filled with a sugar solution, similar to the nectar in the flowers these birds feed on. They also eat small insects, spiders and aphids, tree sap and the juice from fallen fruit but the flower nectar is their main diet.
They need to feed five to eight times a day and some will consume half their body weight in that time. They don’t suck up the nectar through their long beaks but lap it with their tongues which have tiny hairs on the end and are grooved enabling the nectar to travel up the tongues to their throats. They have very good memories and experiments have proved that they remember which flowers they have visited and how long it will take for the nectar to refill. This source of sugary food provides the high energy these birds need because they are so active and fly at lightening speeds. Their wings often move at seventy times per second depending on the species; the smaller the bird, the faster their wings are. Their hearts can beat up to two hundred times a minute when resting and up to twelve hundred times when feeding but when food is limited these birds go into a torpor to conserve energy and their heart rates drop significantly. Some can travel between twenty five and thirty miles an hour and dive much faster. They can also fly in all directions, even backwards and they are the only birds that can do this; their wings make a humming sound which gives them their name. Hummingbirds cannot walk or hop like many birds, their tiny legs are just used for perching or moving sideways on a branch; their legs have evolved to be so small because they don’t really need to use them for much else, other than grooming, as they achieve all they need to by flying.
Some Hummingbirds are so tiny you think they are moths! In this country people often get excited because they think they have a Hummingbird visiting the garden, when in fact it is a moth – a Hummingbird hawkmoth!
Most species of Hummingbirds have iridescent colours which appear to change as the bird moves, often making it difficult to identify which species you are looking at and some will interbreed with other species producing hybrids which adds to the confusion. Hummingbirds do not mate for life and it is usually the female which builds the nest, from moss, lichen and cobwebs, which can be as small as one and a half inches in diameter; two tiny eggs are laid, sometimes only one.
We saw many species of birds at this forest lodge but one that we were lucky to see was the White-bellied antpitta. This bird is very secretive and because it tends to stay mostly on the ground in dense forest, it is difficult to observe. The owners of the lodge used to seed a particular spot with meal worms and the bird remembered this and came every day for the snacks, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to see this shy creature. Little is known about this bird because of its retiring nature but there is a good article by an American, Edwin R. Price, for the Neotropical Ornithological Society about its nesting habits, reputed to be the first time details on this subject have been published.
The plants of the tropical cloud forests are spectacular. The warm, wet conditions are ideal for creating luxuriant growth and the trees are covered with thick mosses which thrive in the soggy habitat. These trees are often stunted and crooked because of the wind and also it can be quite cold, especially at night, but we did come across some huge fern-like palms. These were not the famous ‘walking palms’, which are able to move from their germination spot. They grow new roots on the more sunny side of the tree and the old roots die and lift from the ground. This enables the tree to ‘walk’ and they have been recorded as moving up to twenty metres a year! Some trees in the cloud forest are able to take in water through their leaves, some of which are enormous, as well as their roots. The moisture in the mist from the clouds, which will hang in the canopies of the trees, provides the water for the leaves as well as dripping to the ground for the roots.
Next month we will look at the fabulous flowers, butterflies and other insects that live in this amazing forest habitat.
© Sheila Sims 2019