Puffleg Hummingbirds: The Birds That Wear Boots

Have you ever seen a hummingbird with flair-like bell-bottom jeans or as some put it, leg puff booties? The South American Tropics is home to some of the most fashionable hummingbirds out there, though some more glamorous than others! The puffleg hummingbirds are small to medium-sized hummingbirds that are named distinctly for the dense feathering around their tarsi, their legs. 

Emerald-bellied Puffleg at Gocta Waterfalls in Peru

 For These Hummingbirds, It’s All About the Boots

There are about fifteen combined species of hummingbirds from the genus Eriocnemis and the genus Haplophaedia. Together, these hummingbirds make up what are known as the Pufflegs. The members of Haplophaedia are generally duller in color than those of Eriocnemis genus.

While it was initially thought that these birds had these extra puffy leg feathers for warmth due to being near the Andes mountains, but researchers found there are other hummingbirds that are found at even higher elevations without them. It is very likely that their white puffy “boots” are for decoration, considering many hummingbirds have some features that are purely aesthetic. Including other hummingbird species characterized by their tawny and black boots. 

Female White-booted Racket-tail at Septimo Paraiso Lodge in Ecuador

Getting to Know the Puffleg Hummingbird

I have taken several birding trips to South and Central America over the years and have been fortunate to photograph a few species of puffleg hummingbirds – the Emerald-bellied Puffleg, Glowing Puffleg, and 2 of the 3 species of the Booted racket-tail hummingbirds – White-booted racket-tail and the Peruvian racket-tail.

The Emerald-bellied Puffleg hummingbird is the smallest of the pufflegs and is named for its glistening, emerald-colored belly. In different lighting conditions, the underbelly can shine as an iridescent blue. It can usually be found where there are plenty of flowers, especially those that are brightly colored. This bird is considered uncommon in its geographic range – Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru – mostly along the eastern slope of the Andes mountains. When it comes to nesting, the female is responsible for most of the cup-shaped nest. I was able to take a trip to Peru to photograph this bird and others in March 2018 with my friend Michael Parr of American Bird Conservancy

Peruvian Racket-tail at the Owlet Lodge in Abra Patricia

Searching for Pufflegs in Peru

In Peru, we were led by our wonderful guide Constantino Aucca, president of ECOAN – Asociacion Ecosistemas Andinos, a non-governmental organization of Peru. ECOAN works together with communities in Peru to conserve habitats. This organization strongly improves the use of natural resources, and is overseeing 6 large projects to conserve Andean forests and the wildlife within. Two of these photos were shot at the Gocta Waterfalls, and the last at the Owlet Lodge on the Abra Patricia reserve. The Gocta waterfalls are some of the tallest in the world, and home to many colorful birds. For many years, its location was not disclosed to foreigners, but in 2007 it was opened to tourists. Owlet Lodge is located on the Abra Patricia reserve, in the Peruvian Yungas forest. It is a conservation priority of Peru, due to it being home to several threatened bird species.

Emerald-bellied Puffleg at Gocta Waterfalls in Peru

Ecuador is Just the Place to See the Most Hummingbirds

The Glowing Puffleg is named for its glittering blue throat and emerald and blue belly. This hummingbird also has buff or rufous flecking on its underparts, which other pufflegs don’t have. It is mostly found in the temperate zone of the Andes. Just like the Emerald-bellied Puffleg, the female is in charge of building the nest. I got to photograph this puffleg at Guango Lodge in Ecuador. Guango is the best lodge in Papallacta, a small town in the Andes. It is one of the top lodges for birding and claims that visitors can see at least 14 hummingbird species per hour. There are at least 135 total recorded species at this lodge, which are attracted by the beautiful orchid gardens. I visited the lodge in September 2012.

Glowing Puffleg at Guango Lodge in Ecuador

These Boots are Meant to be Shown Off

The Booted racket-tails are a small group of hummingbirds in the genus Ocreatus. It was once considered to only have one species but now contains 3 species – Peruvian Racket-tail, Rufous-booted Racket-tail, and the White-booted Racket-tail. Though many people, including the American Ornithological Society, continue to lump the species together under the Booted Racket-tail. All 3 species wear puffleg booties, though their coloring is not always white. Some Booted Racket-tails have tawny cinnamon-colored leg puff booties, although the male racket-tail leg puffs are longer and fluffier than that of the female racket-tails. I have been able to photograph 2 of the 3 Booted racket-tail hummingbirds in Ecuador and Peru – The White-booted racket-tail and the Peruvian racket-tail.

White-booted Racket-tail at Septimo Paraiso Lodge in Ecuador

The White booted Racket-tail, also known as the Racket-tail Puffleg, is a unique south American Hummingbird with a tail twice the size of its tiny hummingbird body!  Its streamer-like tail and pufflegs make this quite a remarkable hummingbird. The White booted Racket-tail is the only member of its genus and it is closely related to the puffleg. Its tail features two elongated feathers with bluish “rackets” on the end. Both males and females wear puffy white leg feathers, which are not always visible, though only the males have the long racket tail. This hummingbird is not migratory and can be found in the Andean Mountains of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. It can be seen moving up and down the mountain seasonally to find the best flowering plants. They often hang on the flower while feeding and can be seen hovering with their tails cocked upward as they feed on the nectar. Most of their preferred flowers that they also heavily feed on are tubular-shaped. These tubular flowers exclude most bees and butterflies because of their shape.

White-booted Racket-tail at Guango Lodge in Ecuador

The Peruvian Racket-tail looks much like the White-booted Racket tail, but with cinnamon-colored fluffy boots. It can be found on the east slope of the Andes in Ecuador (in mid-elevation cloud forest) and northeastern Peru.The male and female are drastically sexually dimorphic, meaning they look very different. The female has different colored plumage and lacks the long racket-tail. The female does have the cinnamon-colored booties, but the male’s are longer and fluffier. All of the Peruvian Racket-tails I have photographed are from the Gocta Waterfalls or the Owlet Lodge at Abra Patricia in Peru.

Pufflegs in Peril

While most puffleg hummingbirds remain common, 3 species are critically endangered- the Colorful Puffleg, Black-breasted Puffleg, and the Gorgeted Puffleg, and one that is presumed extinct – the Turquoise-throated Puffleg.

Peruvian Racket-tail at Gocta Waterfalls

The Turquoise-throated Puffleg, also known as Godin’s Puffleg is classified as critically endangered, but possibly extinct on the IUCN list. It is also considered one of the Three lost birds of the “Lost Birds’ Expedition” supported by the American Bird Conservancy. However, there are more than 150 bird species that are classified as “lost” around the world, American Bird Conservancy, Global Wildlife Conservation, eBird, and BirdLife International are all working together to search for lost birds in order to protect them and their habitat before they are gone forever. Despite the efforts, the habitat this hummingbird lives in has largely disappeared. According to data known about this hummingbird, it is only known by 6 specimens that were all collected in the 19th century. All 6 specimens were located in the ravines of the Guayllabamba river in Ecuador. Though the last unconfirmed sighting in 1976 was near Quito, in the Chillo Valley in Ecuador.

A New Beginning for Puffleg Hummingbirds

Discovered in 2005, and considered a new species in 2007, the Gorgeted Puffleg hummingbird is considered critically endangered and faces the risk of extinction. It was first spotted in 2005 in the cloud forest, in the southwest of Colombia. These mountains of Serrania del Pinche are unprotected and are threatened by coca fields but are believed to hold other rare species just like the Gorgeted Puffleg. The Colorful Puffleg is also endemic to Colombia and its range overlaps with the Gorgeted Puffleg. The Colorful Puffleg is also considered critically endangered, and it is estimated to only have a population of around 250-1,000 hummingbirds. Though the Black-breasted Puffleg is known to have an even smaller estimated population of only up to 250 individual birds and is only found in Ecuador and restricted to Pichincha Volcano.

Peruvian Racket-tail at the Owlet Lodge in Abra Patricia

Fashionable Feathers

These hummingbirds are not the only fancy pants with Pufflegs or feathers from head to toe! Feathering on the legs of birds have always been an interesting detail among birds and is still quite a mystery for some species. Most species of owls have feathered legs or are feathered-footed like the snowy owl. The Snowy Owl endures frigid temperatures and has feathers that nearly conceal their sharp talons. Though the Yellow-thighed finch and the House Martin of Eurasia are not as easily explained like these beautiful pufflegs. These stylish feathered friends from head to toe, along with the Puffleg Hummingbirds, are truly a fashionable mystery.

Conserving Our Hummingbirds

While there currently is no one overall specific program aimed towards conserving the Puffleg hummingbird species, there are bird reserves, foundations and programs aimed towards the Black-breasted Puffleg, Gorgeted Puffleg hummingbird and other South and Central american species. 

The Gorgeted Puffleg Hummingbird Bird Reserve was established in 2011 in Argelia, Cauca, Colombia under ProAves Foundation. This specific reserve aims to conserve the habitat for the Gorgeted Puffleg hummingbird which is endemic to Colombia.

World Land Trust, WLT, also supports the ProAves Foundation and helps fund the creation of nature reserves within Colombia and Ecuador. With ProAves, their focus and conservation priority aim to protect the Choco region and forest. The Choco forest spans the entire west coast of Colombia and has one of the highest concentrations of endemic species on earth. Some of these species cannot be found anywhere else and with Colombia’s development and urban expansion, it threatens these species and this biodiversity hotspot.

The Yanacocha Reserve in the Pinchincha Province, Ecuador was established in 2001 under the Jocotoco Foundation and encompasses 2666 acres. The Yanacocha Reserve includes the Mindo River Waterfall, Polyepis Forest, 6 varied trails, and a hummingbird garden. It aims to protect the home of the Black-breasted Puffleg hummingbird and carries out a habitat restoration program that includes reforestation of pastures and planting native species such as the Young Polyepis trees within its acres. However their focus expands beyond bird species and also focuses on other declining mammals and reptiles like the Andean Coati.  

White-booted Racket-tail at Septimo Paraiso Lodge in Ecuador

My Continued Passion for Bird Photography and Conservation 

With my bird photography, I hope to bring more awareness to endangered species of birds, and to those species that are also rapidly declining. Photographing these common puffleg hummingbirds has allowed me to put light onto the more critical puffleg hummingbirds species and bring more bird conservation efforts forward. I seek to photograph the world’s rarest and most extravagant, unique-looking birds so that people can become aware of species they may not otherwise see in person. The pufflegs and racket-tails are some of those birds. My White-booted Racket-tail photograph is featured in my book, Bringing Back the Birds, in partnership with American Bird Conservancy. This book seeks to bring awareness to the plight of birds and their survival, as well as conservation efforts, and all royalties go to American Bird Conservancy for their efforts. Every purchase goes towards helping birds like these pufflegs and more.