Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Hummingbird migration (With update)

This is one of the two most exciting times of the year for birders. The first, of course, is spring migration when wave after wave of bright and noisy songbird migrants pass through on their way north to their nesting grounds. The second is fall migration which is a much quieter affair.

Fall migrants do not bear the bright colorful feathers that they wore in spring when they were ready to attract mates and get on with nesting. Moreover, they are much more silent for the same reason. They are not looking for a mate; they are looking to safely get to their winter homes. They are entirely focused on that goal. The result is that, unless one is out specifically looking for the birds, thousands can easily pass through unnoticed in a matter of days.

Most of the fall migrants pass through relatively quickly. They don't tarry with us for long. Hummingbirds are something of an exception to this rule. They may stick around for days or even weeks while they fatten up to ready themselves for their long journey. The hummingbirds that come through here - primarily Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, and Rufous - may go as far south as Costa Rica and Panama, although many Rufous hummers do winter in the Gulf Coast states. For the past several years, I've had as many as three Rufous Hummingbirds wintering in my yard.

Here are some maps from Journey North which show where hummingbirds have been reported this week. (You can report your own sightings to their website.)     


This map shows reports of adult male hummingbirds. The adult males generally lead the way in hummingbird migration both in spring and in fall. Look along the Gulf Coast of Texas and you will see a lot of those red circles stacked up on top of each other. Well, those are right over my backyard! My yard is teeming with hummingbirds this week. 

This map shows reports of all species, sexes, and ages of hummers. You can see that there are still some circles far north, even well into Canada. These would primarily be females and immatures by this time of year.
Hummingbirds are endemic only in the Americas. There are more than 300 species of the unique little birds and most of those live in the tropics. Historically, there are 18 species that make their summer homes in North America, although as the climate changes, more and more of those tropical species are moving farther north and some now routinely are found in the United States during summer.

In the same way that tropical species are moving farther north, western species are being found more often in the eastern part of the continent. Again, historically, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird was the only one found in the East, and it still comprises the vast majority of the sightings east of the Rocky Mountains. But Anna's, Costa's, Calliope, Broad-tailed, Violet-crowned, and Buff-bellied are becoming more and more commonly reported in the eastern parts of the country.


The gorget of a male Ruby-throated hummer glows as he comes in for a sip from one of my nectar feeders.

This is a female Ruby-throat who has spent the summer in my garden. She will probably be here at least a few more weeks before she moves on southward.

I haven't yet seen a Rufous Hummingbird in fall migration. This is one of the females that spent the winter with me in 2014-15. I usually start seeing the Rufous hummers coming through in late August, so any day now...

This is a subadult male Rufous that was here last winter.
Last spring, we took a trip to South Texas to see the birds there and one of the ones that we saw was the Buff-bellied Hummingbird.


Our Buff-bellied was visiting a feeder that had been set up at the visitors' center of one of the parks we visited.

Note his distinctive red bill. That is an unmistakable field mark for this bird, which is actually becoming quite common in South Texas. It hasn't made it as far north as my yard yet.
Wherever you are on the North American continent, keep your eyes open over the next several weeks and you may just see one of these tiny visitors passing through. And if you are in a situation where you can hang out a nectar feeder for them, you will better your chances because these guys are hungry!

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UPDATE: Here's a link to an interesting story in Slate.com today about hummingbird aggression. They are very fierce little birds.

4 comments:

  1. I'm not a birder, but I do love watching the hummingbirds! They're plentiful at my house this time of year, and it's so fun to watch them cavort and dance through the air. My best friend has four feeders in her tiny back yard, and we've seen at least a dozen at a time fight over them. I didn't know that some of the other types of hummers were moving eastward--I'll have to keep my eye out for them. They usually stick around central Illinois until some time in September. Wonderful photos, Dorothy!

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    1. Feeders can get really, really busy at this time of year as the little birds pass through and often linger for quite some time to sip from the sugar water that we provide for them. As you've noted, they are great fun to watch.

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    1. Thanks, Carmen. They are very interesting little critters.

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