Birding Blog Archives

January 19th, 2016
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Bee Hummingbird

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My most wanted bird on Cuba was one of the really iconic ones. Not everyone realizes that hummingbirds are restricted to the Americas. Growing up in Britain, I’d never seen one until I arrived in Arizona in 2002. They quickly became my favorite birds.

At first I became familiar with Anna’s Hummingbird, which at 4.25 inches is a very small bird. With more experience of hummingbirds I realized that Anna’s is actually a chunky, mid-sized hummer. The smallest hummingbird regularly seen in Arizona is Calliope Hummingbird, and these look really tiny, being only 3.25 inches in length.

I mention this for a bit of context. It’s easy to reel off the fact that Cuba’s endemic Bee Hummingbird (not to be confused with Mexico’s slightly larger Bumblebee Hummingbird) is the world’s smallest bird. Even for a hummingbird, it’s small. But it’s impossible to imagine just how small until you’ve seen one.

They weigh in at about 0.06 oz (less than 2 grams) and on average they measure between 2 and 2.25 inches in length – half the size of an Anna’s Hummingbird, and a full inch smaller than the tiny Calliope Hummingbird. They are absolutely minute!

Birds are measured when stretched out in a prone position, from the tip of the bill to the tip of the tail. With that in mind, measure out 4.25 inches for an Anna’s Hummingbird (or whichever hummingbird you’re familiar with – Ruby-throated is about 3.75 inches) and then 2.25 inches for this little guy. It’s amazing. That’s all of it, stretched out, including the bill!

Our first encounter with a Bee Hummingbird was an immature male, actively feeding on flowers and singing from a prominent branch at a site near Zapata. It wasn’t particularly flashy, but wow, was it small!

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

One thing that really struck me was the song, which was a scratchy trill, not unlike an Anna’s Hummingbird.

I was delighted to have seen a Bee Hummingbird but, being greedy, I wanted more. I wanted to see an adult male in full breeding plumage. Could we find one?

On our last day of birding we made one final stop in the town of Playa Larga (Zapata) before heading back to Havana. We were directed down a little back street and into someone’s backyard.

Here we found a few hummingbird feeders, the only bird feeders we saw on the island. The bases were in tact, but the glass bottles had long since been smashed and replaced with soda bottles. The ‘nectar’ looked a bit funky, but there were hummingbirds coming in, at first a Cuban Emerald, then, briefly, an adult female Bee Hummingbird which I didn’t get a photo of.

Finally the adult male arrived. What a little stunner! The Anna’s Hummingbird comparison held up, but now we could throw in a bit of Costa’s as well, with that elongated, flared gorget contrasting against a white breast.

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

To reinforce the size issue, at one point he disappeared for a few minutes, during which time one the guys shouted out “here he is… oh, no, that’s an actual bee… it’s too big!”

I’d been treated to great views, but could I persuade this smallest of all birds to turn in the right direction to get a photo of the full color? Slowly he turned…

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

And then he came closer, perching right in front of me about six feet away. I was the only one with a lens that could focus closely enough. I could hear my brother swearing behind me!

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Keep turning, keep turning… yes!

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

It was a moment that I’ll never forget. Without any doubt it was one of the best birds I’ve ever seen. I got quite emotional about it. We took a poll over our final meal in Havana and, even with some very stiff competition, this little male was unanimously voted bird of the trip. How could it not be?

Finally, I have to thank the couple who had opened up their yard for visitors to see this dazzling little gem. We’re so lucky in Arizona to have multiple public feeding sites where you can watch and photograph hummingbirds and other species coming in to feed right in front of you while you’re sitting in a comfortable chair, snapping away. One such place is the delightful Ash Canyon B&B, run by the even more delightful Mary Jo Ballator.

Allow me to introduce you to the ‘Cuban Mary Jo’, the wonderful Jaunita.

Juanita

There was all manner of wildlife in their small backyard, not just the hummingbirds, although the hummers were obviously the main focus. Juanita and her husband had a range of Bee Hummingbird-themed items on sale, and we all either bought something or made a donation to show our appreciation. Muchas gracias, Juanita!

Now I can’t wait to get back to Ash Canyon, to see more hummingbirds and spend time with my friend Mary Jo – or, as I’ll call her from now on, Maria Juanita!

More blog posts about my trip to Cuba:

 

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