Readers’ wildlife photos

May 23, 2014 • 4:59 am

Honeycreepers!  Reader Bruce Lyon sent photos of three species from Costa Rica, along with his notes and the IDs (indented):

During my recent trip to Costa Rica I had the delightful experience of having all three species of Costa Rican honeycreepers feeding at a bird feeder at the same time. Color explosion!  Honeycreepers are tanagers and, as their name suggests, they like sweet things. Nectar is a key part of their diet but they love fruit too and are readily attracted to fruit tables. These birds were all photographed at a wooden platform supporting a hand of very ripe bananas.  Honeycreepers were formally placed in their own family (I think), but fairly recent phylogenetic work suggests that they do not comprise a monophyletic group. Nectar-feeding, and the various traits that accompany this diet, appear to have arisen independently in a few different tanager clades.

A male Shining Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes lucidus). Check out the legs on this guy. They are so fleshy and bright yellow that they almost look plastic.  The striking leg colors on this species and the Red-legged Honeycreepers suggests that leg color might be under sexual selection:

Shining honeycreeper male

A female Shining Honeycreeper—her legs are somewhat less ridiculous than the male’s:

Shining honeycreeper female

 A male Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus). These guys are particularly common and at times a dozen or more birds can swarm a feeder:

Red-legged Honeycreeper mal

 A young male Red-legged Honeycreeper making the transition from subadult to full adult male plumage:

Red-legged Honeycreeper m 1

Last, a male Green Honeycreeper (Cholorphanes spiza). This green color almost seems unnatural—I have no clue what name would apply to this green. No fancy legs on this guy, which is interesting because this species is not closely related to the above two species.

Green Honeycreeper male

30 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

    1. I used my Canon 500 F4 (amazing lens!) with a 1.4 extender, making it effectively a 700mm lens. With the crop factor on the non full frame camera sensor this setup is equivalent to a 1000mm lens. Unnecessary here because the birds were so tame.

  1. Curiously,I perceive the colour of the Green Honeycreeper as shades of blue: predominantly varieties of turquoise with some ultramarine…

    1. I must demur. It looks like teal with dark blue edges to me, as JBlilie suggested, more or less.

  2. Super-beautiful pictures.
    Any explanation why tropical birds exhibit such flamboyant colors that we don’t see in higher latitudes?
    Too much foliage around and need to stand out and become more visible to the females?

    1. I was going to include a couple of dull birds with these honeycreepers just to raise that issue but you got there anyway. A few points. Some have argued that tropical birds are not more colorful on the basis of large scale comparisons–if you throw enough groups into the mix the patterns are not always clear. There are clear taxonomic differences even within the tropics. My sense is that the oscine songbirds (those that learn their songs) actually are more colorful, at least in the New World tropics. This probably reflects a few things: background as you suggest, but also females in many species are also colorful because they defend territories (considered social selection rather than sexual selection by some of us. The subsocine birds, a huge radiation of birds with tons of species in the neotropics, mostly involves earthtones. Finally, the birds that come into nectar and fruit feeders are not a random subset of tropical birds since birds that eat nectar and fruit are super colorful. Tourists often see a biased subset around lodges with feeders and go home thinking all tropical birds are colorful.

      1. I’m also really interested in this question. Some people seem to argue that there are just more species in the tropics and thus more colorful species. It seems to me like that could be a partial explanation. I’ve also read about differences in the environments (more consistent weather in the tropics, but no food booms like in the temperature zone) maybe allowing for more sexual selection. I still need to read more of the literature, but I like the phylogenetic approach you describe. I had not thought about that.

        On a related note, there are very colorful birds in the temperate zone. I think people get used to starlings and pigeons and forget that orioles have ranges in North America. And then the wood warblers are an experiment in color by themselves.

        1. Just to follow up, there might also be some historical/taxonomic patterns in the temperate zone as well. Some of the colorful taxa in the temperate zones derive from tropical clades–they are tropical birds that decided (evolutionarily) to spend their summer vacations in the temperate zone. I think orioles and tanagers are examples of this pattern, but I am not sure what the deal is with the wood warblers. Certainly the built of species richness is in the temperate zone but perhaps the clade derived from a tropical group. There is a recent warbler phylogeny (I think) so this is probably known.

          1. Just to point out: tanagers are entirely a tropical group. What we call tanagers in the U.S. are not tanagers at all; they’re cardinalids.

            Perhaps you’d like to join my campaign to change the scarlet (and western, summer, and hepatic) tanager to the scarlet (etc.) piranga.

            (The auto spellcheck keeps insisting that I change that to piranha; now that’s an arresting image.)

            1. Busted! I should know better because I teach ornithology and my recent batch of students also pointed out my error a few months ago. Slow learner (or perhaps just hard to erase stuff learned early on). Thanks for the reminder, John

      2. “birds that eat nectar and fruit are super colorful”

        That’s true of temperate-zone birds as well: Tanagers, grosbeaks, cardinal, pyrrhuloxia, goldfinch, orioles (they visit sugar water and fruit feeders), buntings, hummingbirds.

        I have hooded orioles at my hummingbird feeders. I tried putting out fruit for them (cut up bananas, oranges, tomatoes, etc.) but they just want the sugar water.

      3. “… birds that eat nectar and fruit are super colorful.”

        Coincidentally–or maybe not–so are flowers and fruit, relative to other plant stuffs.

  3. I would call the green one aqua (mix of light green/light blue). Notice the coloration is almost exactly opposite of the others: black face-blue hood-yellow beak vs. blue face-black hood-black beak. Thank you for pix and your answers above (of course, thanks also to JC for web post).

  4. I would call the color on C. spiza cyan. I looked up the wikipedia article on cyan (color) and matched up eyedroppers from the image with the color variations. Teal is also a variant of cyan. So is aqua. If this bird had aerial predators, perhaps its color is partly camouflage. Or maybe not.

  5. Beautiful! Thanks for the pics and the information, Bruce. Those sexually-selected leg-colors are wild!

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