Ever since my first visit to the Chimborazo Lodge on the slopes of the highest mountain in Ecuador, I have wanted to see a male Star of Chimborazo hummingbird (Oreotrochilus chimborazo), a member of the Ecuadorian Hillstar family. This particular bird is an anomaly in the hummingbird world, living between 11,500 feet and 17,100 feet (3,500 to 5,200 meters) above sea level. Crazy, right?
Until yesterday, I had only ever seen the female of the species. While she is a beautiful bird in her own right, her colorful mate sports a brilliant purple head, a flashy white chest slashed with a thin black line and, in the right light, a bright turquoise blue collar. He is a rock star of the hummingbird world.
Why is the Star of Chimborazo a Sub-species?
Ecuador is home to over 130 species of hummingbirds. This number fluctuates as biologists and citizen scientists report new sightings or reconsider relationships between species and sub-species. For example, only recently scientists declared a known hummingbird, the Blue-throated Hillstar (Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus), its own species. Previously, people thought that it was just another Ecuadorian Hillstar hummingbird.
Moreover, scientists are very interested in the Ecuadorian Hillstar as it is an example of geographic isolation and possibly evolutionary adaptation. Today, there are three recognized sub-species, each with their own specially colored gorget:
O. c. jamesonii, with a violet-blue gorget the same color as his head; lives in the paramos of Ecuador and southern Colombia
O. c. soderstromi, with a violet-blue gorget and a few green feathers; lives on the Quilotoa volcano
O. c. chimborazo, with a bright turquoise blue gorget; lives on the Chimborazo volcano
The Star of Chimborazo hummingbird at the Chimborazo Lodge
A couple of years ago, we saw our first Star of Chimborazo hummingbirds flitting around the property of the Chimborazo Lodge, located a few kilometers from the entrance of the national wildlife reserve. Every bird we noticed was female, with shiny green feathers and tails that shone a pale-turquoise blue with white tips in the sunlight.
A couple of these birds nest in the eaves of the main lodge and restaurant. A few more nest in the small ravine that runs between the lodge and the cabins. I spent one very enjoyable afternoon sitting in the warm sun, bundled up against the cold breeze, snapping photos of these wonderful little birds as they came to sip nectar from the bright orange flowers of chuquiragua.
However, not once did a male Star of Chimborazo hummingbird fly by. We never saw one from a distance. Locals told us that if we were to hike in further, that they are easily found but we never found the opportunity. Unfortunately, we were too busy hiking to the Chimborazo Refugio and the Polylepis forest.
The Star of Chimborazo in the Wildlife Reserve
Fast forward to last week. After a few envious posts sharing photos of this stunning bird from our friend and fellow-photographer, Humberto Castillo, Not Your Average American received a rare-opportunity. Humberto asked if Scott and I would like to join him on a day-trip to try and photograph this endangered species. Despite knowing the long drive there and back from Quito, we jumped at the chance!
The entire day was perfect, from sunrise to sunset. As we drove along the highway, each and every turn gave a new vista. We ticked off volcanoes in the distance one by one, Pasachoa, Cotopaxi, Las Ilinizas, Tungurahua, Sangay, Altar, and, our final goal, Chimborazo. It is the only day in my memory that we have seen so many volcanoes in a single morning. It was a good omen.
Humberto took us to his secret spot. I won’t share exactly where but I will tell you that it is not incredibly hard to find. My recommendation is to look for a hillside covered with chuquiragua flowers and possibly with some water running through a small ravine. The birds will be there, especially on a sunny morning.
Photographing the Star of Chimborazo Hummingbird
Two of the photographers in our group, including Humberto, chose to use tripod set-ups for their photography. While I can use a tripod, I do find that I am far more comfortable holding my camera. It gives me the ability to twist and turn. That means finding unique shots that might not be easily attainable with a tripod. Of course, the tripod photographers get absolutely excellent shots. Often, their lighting is better and their subjects can appear perfectly posed, belying the fact that they may have waited hours for a single photo.
In the bright, high altitude sunlight, it was easy to use a ISOs ranging from 350 to about 1250. The latter worked for the dimmer light in the ravine or when clouds passed over the sun. Furthermore, the faster the ISO, the easier it is to stop motion and catch a hummingbird in flight. The vast majority of my photos were taken with the fully extended 400mm lens and with f-stops ranging from 5.2 to 7.1. I tend to take slightly under-exposed photos in hopes of not loosing any detail in the birds’ white feathers. Over-exposed shots can make it hard to recover essential information.
I also chose to spend part of the day photographing the Star of Chimborazo hummingbird away from its traditional setting, the chuquiragua flowers. My husband noticed that several birds were taking turns bathing in the water of the small stream running in a tiny crevice cut into the mountain. With a little patience, crouched down in the soft soil of this mini-canyon, I was able to capture a hummingbird in flight. I missed a fight between two birds by mere micro-seconds. Sometimes, even a trigger happy camera fiend is not fast enough for the speed of a hummingbird.