Coquettes are these tiny, insect-like hummingbirds that are strong contenders for being the most exquisite group of birds on Earth. The males in particular, with their incredibly ornate tufts and crests, remind me of glass figurines of hummingbirds crafted by someone with a fearless imagination and tendency towards extravagance, or perhaps jeweled pendants fabricated by an artist who has a thing for wispy plumes.
The group as a whole (along with their relatives, the Thorntails) just look unbelievable and so of course they are among the most wanted of hummingbird species. As is common with many bird species that elicit gasps when viewing their illustrations in a field guide, however, coquettes are (sigh) also among the least guaranteed of hummingbird species. I think one or two species in Peru and Brazil grace feeders with their presence but none of the three species that have been identified in Costa Rica have developed a taste for sugar water.
In addition to their disenchantment with “feeder juice”, there are three other reasons I can think of to explain the difficulty in seeing coquettes:
1. They are inconspicuous and bug-like by nature. Seriously, when they fly around, they resemble a slow and steady bumblebee or other fat, largish insect. This is probably no coincidence because such a strategy likely allows them to sneak into flower patches that are viciously guarded by larger hummingbirds. Thus it pays to check out chunky bugs seen flying around when birding Costa Rica. They might turn into coquettes when viewed through binoculars and if not, well there’s a lot of super cool looking insects in Costa Rica in any case.
2. Coquettes feed on smaller flowers, many of which occur way up in the tops of trees. Even if you do see a coquette as it feeds in the canopy, you will probably pass it off as a bug because it will look like one 100 feet above where you are standing. On a more positive note, coquettes also feed on Stachytarpheta bushes at eye level. Not always, but watch some Porterweed long enough in the right place and you have a fair chance of seeing one.
3. Coquettes move around in search of their favorite flowering trees. How could we not expect persnickety behavior from such flamboyant creatures? The three coquette species of Costa Rica move up and down slope and who knows where else to get their fill of select, vintage nectars. It is perhaps this fact that presents the biggest challenge to seeing them. Little is known about their movements in Costa Rica except that they might be present for a time at one site and then who knows where the following week.
So, they are tough to find but how about some information about each species? The three coquettes that have occurred in Costa Rica are the Black-crested Coquette, White-crested Coquette, and the Rufous-crested Coquette.
The one that is most regularly seen when birding Costa Rica is the Black-crested Coquette. Buzzing around the humid forests of the Caribbean Slope from southeastern Mexico to Central Costa Rica, this creature can show up at a number of sites but appears to be most regularly seen in Costa Rica at foothill and middle elevations south to about Rancho Naturalista (a good site for them). The other, easiest site for this bird when birding Costa Rica is the Arenal area. They could be seasonal there but birders have an excellent chance of connecting with this species by watching the flowering bushes around the Arenal Observatory Lodge or entrance to the Arenal Hanging Bridges. El Tapir just outside of Braulio Carrillo Park has also been a regular site for the Black-crested Coquette as was Virgen del Socorro.
The White-crested Coquette looks particularly stunning but it’s not easy despite only being found from Carara south to western Panama. It didn’t seem like they were very tough to find when I was birding the Golfo Dulce and Osa Peninsula some years ago but that may have been a fluke. I recall seeing them pretty easily around patches of flowering Inga. species trees and have even had them at flowering balsas. I suspect that southwestern Costa Rica is still the most reliable area for this species when birding Costa Rica (the folks at Bosque del Rio Tigre often know where to find them) although it occurs as far north as the Carara area (where it’s super rare) and even moves into the Central Valley at certain times of the year (maybe October and November?).
The Rufous-crested Coquette is a vagrant to Costa Rica that hasn’t been positively identified for a number of years. I bet at least a few show up in country and get overlooked though, especially if they search for flowers in the underbirded southeastern sector of the country. Since this bird has been recorded just across the border in Bocas del Toro, Panama, the southeast is also the most likely area for it to turn up. These little, rufous-crested sprites were historically recorded from San Jose though so it’s not entirely out of the question to have one turn up in the Central Valley or perhaps even in Braulio Carrillo National Park.
In fact, one may have showed up at El Tapir just last week. Not only that, but rumor has it that it was also sharing space with the other two coquette species in a roadside garden somewhere near the arial tram! If true, this would be like hitting the once in a lifetime Costa Rican birding jackpot. So far, it’s still just a rumor and hasn’t been authenticated but given the coquette’s propensity for wandering combined with freaky weather that could affect flowering patterns, it’s not entirely out of the question. If I check the situation out and hit the jackpot, I will make up for the lack of coquette photos in this post by showing all three in my next.