“The hummingbird competes with the stillness of the air.” ~ Chogyam Trungpa
The coming of autumn in Houston is always marked by the Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration to the south. We are smack dab in the Texas flyway, through which these little jewels travel hundreds of miles to the south — tanking up at my backyard feeders along the way. With the goal of building up fat stores with lots and lots of sugar water and nectar, they will finish the last leg of their journey, flying several hundred more miles directly across the Gulf of Mexico…non-stop.
It is an amazing journey for an even more amazing little creature.
Because I go through the trouble of maintaining feeders in my yard year after year, they return to guard them like it’s the last meal they’ll ever have. They linger in significant numbers, through mid-October. See for yourself!
Our family Big Year journey coupled with prodding birding friends have had my family eager to attend a hummingbird banding session before the year end. Lucky for us, the great folks at the Gulf Coast Birding Observatory had one this weekend. The event is geared specifically toward enlisting all the young, budding naturalists into the field of ornithology; adults pay $2 each, but if you’re a kid, you get to enjoy it all for FREE.
And what each child takes away is just priceless.
We are no strangers to the hand-held hummer. At our home, pairs of dueling hummingbirds occasionally will make their way into our garage. They will fight each other all the way to the ground, if need be, to protect their feeder rights, and sometime fly away in the wrong direction — where they’re stuck without help. (I will only raise the door three feet to prevent such an occurrence, but they still manage to get in.)
It is no small task, catching them. They don’t fly out the opening or to the nearest window to escape danger, like other birds — they fly up. As they bang their little heads repeatedly against the ceiling, I practice copious amounts of patience paired with flexibility and persistence, with a soft broom and a miniature person as my helpers. As the exhausted bird is allowed rejuvenation time at his own feeder for a spell, before bolting from the palm of one of my kids’ eager hands. Such a treasure.
Getting to hold a hummingbird in for even a few seconds without the unnecessary exertion of umpteen thousand calories and frustration is a much better deal. Professionals have all the required equipment and know-how to do it right; a bird-banding session is just the thing for a close encounter with one of the most intriguing species I can think of.
Lake Jackson, Texas, is home of the annual Xtreme Hummingbird Extravaganza. We headed out early because we knew that there would be a lot of people in attendance. As we exited the highway, some raindrops and spectral colors greeted us with happiness.
In order to band birds, first you have to catch them. Several feeding stations are set up to get ready for the banding process. More than 100 birds will be caught, checked, banded and released just on this day.
Netting is placed around select feeders to safely entrap visiting birds. Once removed, each bird is placed in a smaller mesh “waiting bag” until its his turn with the ornithologist. After a few minutes resting in queue, this one gets a drink from the bottle. All to himself, for change.
Some birds aren’t so docile. This one squawked and squirmed for most of the ordeal, which only lasts a couple of minutes. The kids named her WyldStyle.
Since hummingbirds will stay in the immediate area of a favorite food source for several weeks, it is not uncommon that those caught were banded previously. This one was from just last week, judging from her band number. Is there a number there, too? Really??
It’s pretty much all Ruby-throats in our area, with the occasional Rufous, who is keen to stay on rather than migrate. The first year males are distinguishable by their red throat feathers; like most female bird species, they do not have the bright coloring. This young male probably hatched mid-Spring, I was told.
Hummingbirds’ metabolisms are incredibly high and put my own fat-burning genes to shame. Their heart rate is more than a thousand beats per minute, compared with a human child’s 100 bpm. If not for torpor every evening, they would die of starvation in their sleep. During the day they must constantly be eating to build energy stores as fat.
Females are just as pretty as (or maybe more pretty than) their male counterparts. We call them ‘greenbacks’ to adequately describe the iridescence of the blue and green on their top sides. Their undersides are a buff cream.
The best part about the banding session is that you get to sit right next to the ornithologist when it’s your turn. He explains patiently to each child several times in the day that the weight of this little bird is about 3.5 grams — more than a penny, less than a nickel. He also lets them see up close how precious they are as he lays it right in the palm of a waiting little hand. Understandably, the little guys don’t fly off straight away, given their ordeal. Sometimes they need a little encouragement to go on their way.
As each is weighed, measured, checked for general health, one the more important checks is how much fat has been acquired. As with many animal species, these birds tell us a lot about our environment by how well they’re doing — as they’re just going about doing their thing. He is looking for milky white fat on their bellies by blowing the feathers away with a straw.
As this feathered nugget of fluff ends his brief abduction in the hand of a child, I’m reminded that the the most wondrous, the most compassionate, most caring of our own species are indeed these beautiful little people.
For the future of our planet — the future of this species — I hope they never lose that appreciation.
To view any of these photos in hi-res form,
ya gotta go to SmugMug, link below.