A Dazzle of Hummingbirds

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By Paul A. Johnsgard

Ruby-throated male with pollen on head. (Paul A. Johnsgard)

Query a typical Nebraskan as to whether he or she has ever seen a hummingbird or a UFO, and the response is more likely to be in the realm of flying saucers than flying birds. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are common migrants in eastern Nebraska, and a few stay on to breed along the Missouri River Valley, but it takes special efforts to be able to see them. During May, they migrate through the state rather rapidly and rarely stop for more than a day or so at bird feeders before continuing north to begin nesting in the Dakotas, Minnesota or southern Canada. However, the fall migration is a more leisurely one, with the first adult males usually arriving in mid-August, and some females and immature tarrying into middle or late September. It is then that one’s best hopes for watching them can be realized.

To achieve this goal, one or more hummingbird feeders are needed, stocked with fresh sugar water. The sugar water should be made at a ratio of one part sugar to four parts of water; it need not be tinted red, although the birds are certainly attracted to red objects. Hummingbirds can detect even small differences in the sugar content of water, up to 20 percent or more, and if given a choice will select the richest source available. As important as putting out hummingbird feeders in a conspicuous location is also having an array of flowers to serve as general attractants. Late-blooming plants with red to orange flowers that are rich in nectar are best for autumn migrants. Flowers with deep, tubular corollas that can be reached by hovering and are not surrounded by other vegetation are especially favored.

Trumpet vines are usually at their peak of flowering in mid-August and are great attractants, as are red-colored salvias, but the equally attractive monardas and cardinal flowers evolved to bloom during the hummingbirds breeding season and are usually past blooming by the time the birds pass through Nebraska. Hummingbirds are known to be able to see into the ultraviolet range of light, so strongly violet-tinted flowers are also attractive to them, but almost any red-colored flower will attract their attention.

Ruby-throated female and trumpet vine. (Paul A. Johnsgard)

August in Nebraska is usually too hot and sultry to venture far outside in search of natural attractions. So, it was a welcome surprise for me one day in mid-August a few years ago when three grams of feathered serendipity in the form of a gorgeous male ruby-throated hummingbird arrived in a friend’s yard, where there were enough blooming trumpet vines to satisfy any hummingbird’s appetite.

We soon put up two hummingbird feeders near a kitchen window, and it took less than five minutes before the hummer had switched from a diet of trumpet vine nectar to one of super-rich sugar water. He quickly made himself at home, perching directly over one feeder and watching carefully for any other intruders. Meantime, I supplemented the feeder with sprays of trumpet vine, to improve its appearance and make any photos appear more natural.

I have tried to photograph hummingbirds for more years than I care to remember, usually being rewarded with no more than shots of bare sky, or at most blurred and out-of-focus photos of unidentified flying objects. Then came digital photography, with autofocus telephoto lenses and capabilities of rapid-fire bursts of images. Equipped with a digital camera and telephoto lens, all one now needs is the patience to sit all day, with the camera prefocused at a hummingbird feeder. One also has to be ready to take advantage of the few seconds it might take for the bird to drink his fill. These visits usually occur about every 15–20 minutes, meaning that over an eight-hour day one might have 25–30 visits, totaling perhaps only a minute or so of actual photographic opportunities per day.

Hummingbirds are often highly tolerant of people, but this male was skittish of any sudden moves and of shutter noise. He also seemed distinctly annoyed when I covered over all but one of the feeder’s four feeding openings with tape. This forced him to use the only one that was best oriented for me relative to the sun, so that his iridescent gorget might best catch the light in my photos. I also moved one of the two feeders to an inconspicuous spot behind some shrubs, where I thought it would be out of sight and force the male to use only the feeder nearest the window. However, it didn’t take the male long to find the hidden one, forcing me to hide it even better.

Ruby-throated female and monarda. (Paul A. Johnsgard)

Whenever another male appeared in the yard, the new resident would immediately challenge and engage him in a spirited aerial chase far too swift to follow with the eye. It was never possible to determine the victor with any certainty, but after a male repeatedly returned to a specific perch I assumed that the same bird had always managed to defend its feeding territory. Hummingbirds form no pair bonds, and many species probably distinguish adult males from females simply by the presence or absence of an iridescent gorget. The rules of hummingbird social behavior during the breeding season are seemingly simple—all other males are to be challenged and evicted from the territory, and all females are to be chased and mated.

The intensely brilliant array of highly specialized feathers found in hummingbirds produces some of the purest iridescence to be found in nature, and is used by males both for courtship and as a threat display toward other males. Males obviously are aware of the visual impact of their gorgets. A common male courtship display is to fly to within a few inches away from the female, hover in front of her and, with his gorget fully spread, quickly shuttle from size to side like a feathered shuttlecock, as if trying to hypnotize her. If mating follows and is successful, the male quickly loses further interest and is likely to turn his attention to other females. Another display technique of many hummingbirds is to perform spectacular power dives from up to about 100 feet above ground. As the male finally pulls out of the dive, he produces a sudden sharp noise through feather vibrations or by vocalizing.

Broad-tailed female. (Paul A. Johnsgard)

Hummingbirds have extremely fine place memory, and doubtless can locate favorite feeding locations from year to year, even after a migration of perhaps a thousand miles to wintering areas in Central America and back. Five days after the resident male had arrived at the backyard feeder, a bold female suddenly appeared. It took her only an hour or two to evict the newly settled male, after which she maintained vigilant control over both feeders. In an outright bill-to-bill fight female ruby-throats probably have an advantage over males, as they average slightly larger and are about 10 percent heavier, but the lighter male is probably swifter and more agile during aerial encounters.

The new female seemed more inquisitive than the male and would sometimes fly up to the window where I was sitting, trying to get a good look inside. She was more prone to try to get nectar from the trumpet vine blossoms I put out, although both sexes were more interested in probing freshly picked blossoms that angled slightly upward than in older, more dangling blossoms that had wilted somewhat and whose nectar had probably drained out. She also was less bothered by my camera movements and shutter noises than the male had been. As a result, I was finally able to get some of the photos that I had imagined for many years.

In eastern Colorado and Wyoming bird-watchers and photographers have greatly increased chances of seeing broad-tailed, rufous and calliope hummingbirds. The broad-tailed is similar to but slightly larger than the ruby-throated, and males produce a distinctive loud buzzing whistle when in flight. Broad-tails are common from May to September along the Front Range foothills and lower mountains north to southern Wyoming. From July to September fall migrant rufous hummingbirds are also common at the same elevations, with males arriving first, followed by females and finally by juveniles. All ages and both sexes of this species are strongly rufous on the upperparts and underparts, as well over most of the tail.

The rufous hummingbird breeds as far north as Anchorage, Alaska, and often winters in western Mexico well over 1,000 miles away, and sometimes strays to the Gulf Coast or even the Atlantic coast, some 2,000 miles away. Considering that a rufous hummingbird might live as long as 10 years and migrate at least 2,000 miles per year, it is possible that some hummers fly the equivalent of traveling around the world at the equator in the course of a lifetime.

Calliope hummingbirds are the smallest of the North American hummingbirds, averaging only a 10th of an ounce, and are common in western and northern Wyoming mountain ranges but are rare in Colorado. Although only about 3 inches in length, the male calliope has a stunning iridescent red gorget of elongated feathers. Campers in the Rocky Mountains often carry hummingbird feeders with red spouts to attract hummers. I have a green tent with ornamental red striping; this pattern alone is sometimes enough to attract them to the tent.

I will never forget my many observations of calliope hummingbirds during two summers that I spent in Grand Teton National Park. When I regularly entered a male’s territory near camp, he would apparently treat me like a rival, perhaps because I often wore a red cap. He would fly to a height of about 30 feet, then hover overhead and orient himself relative to the sun so that his expanded ruby-red throat gorget was pointed directly at me. The resulting visual effect was that of a laser-like beam of light coming down out of the sky—an impact that certainly would not be overlooked by either visiting females or intruding males.

Western hummingbird species sometimes track well to the east of their usual migration routes, often passing through eastern Nebraska, and have even appeared as far east as the New England states. Short of traveling to Latin America, where most of the family’s 300-plus species are found, the best region for seeing North American hummingbirds is in the Southwest, especially Arizona, where at least six species might possibly be seen in a single day.

Watching hummingbirds is almost like being given the opportunity to observe a totally different world from our own, and may force us to think of the amazing amount of intelligence, memory and other information that is packed into a brain far smaller than a pea. A botanist might ponder the relative importance of nectar production, flower color, flower shape and blooming times in shaping the evolution of hummingbird-pollinated flowers, while an ornithologist might wish to study the anatomical and foraging adaptations that make hummingbird perfect pollinators, favoring the long-term survival of both bird and plant. Or, one may simply relax, watch hummingbirds and revel in their dazzling beauty.

 

Image Credits: Paul A. Johnsgard 

 

Immigration in Nebraska