I always look forward to my annual spring visit to Portal and the Chiricahua Mountains. I’ll be surrounded by beautiful scenery and great birds including Elegant Trogons, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Scott’s Orioles, and one very special hummingbird: the Blue-throated Mountain-gem. The mixed woodlands and riparian habitat of Cave Creek Canyon is the best spot in the entire US to find this, the largest hummingbird north of Mexico. I’m virtually guaranteed to see it, but I’ll have to work a bit harder to get a good look at its striking cobalt blue gorget that only shows up at the right viewing angle. As hummingbirds go, the Blue-throated Mountain-gem is quite visually understated, and males and females look surprisingly similar. Also breaking with traditional hummingbird natural history, it does not have a flight display, males instead flash the gorget and white tail corners when pursuing females. All of this could be possible because the Blue-throated Mountain-gem has unusually complex vocalizations for a hummingbird—it’s traded in bright colors and acrobatic flight displays for singing. During courtship, males sing a quiet “whisper song” and females may respond with an equally complex song, a dueting that’s unique among all hummingbirds in the US.
As can be expected with its large size, the Blue-throated Mountain-gem is the dominant species at nectar sources and beats its wings about half as fast as smaller species—still managing a respectable 23 times a second! Feeder stations may have allowed some individuals to winter in Southeast Arizona, but the majority of the population here and in SW New Mexico and west Texas retreats into Mexico. This species was called Blue-throated Hummingbird until 2019—it was changed to be in-line with the other members of its genus, Lampornis, which includes 7 other species of mountain-gems.
Visit the feeders at the Southwestern Research Station in the Chiricahuas to be assured of seeing Blue-throated Mountain-gems. Other much less reliable spots include the Palisades visitor center on Mt. Lemmon, feeder locations in the eastern Huachuca Mountains, and any Sky Island canyon—just listen for the series of loud, repeated tseep calls given by males.