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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on place-based stewardship education. Since 2001, a partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department (KNRD) has supported this newsletter and allowed us to expand class offerings through EPA funding. Further staff support comes through Renewable Resources Extension Act (RREA). Many thanks to our partners and to you, our readers, for your continued enthusiasm for "digging" into the natural history and culture of this part of the world.

The Buzz of Hummers


Ned and Gigi Batchelder

Editor’s note: Ned and Gigi Batchelder have been conducting USGS Volunteer Hummingbird Migration / Breeding Research for 11 years and in seven states as full-time volunteers. This spring they located near Newport, and have since banded close to 3,000hummingbirds in our area. The information they gather about each individual bird during the banding process has already revealed new details about our local Pend Oreille populations. Recaptures of banded birds along migrating routes will help us understand just where “our” hummingbirds travel and may help guide habitat management here and along the way to make sure they’ll always return.

There are about 160 active federal- and state-permitted hummingbird banders in North America. During banding, the bird’s life is interrupted for three to five minutes to measure wing, tail and bill, to verify sex, age, and species, and to apply a uniquely numbered lightweight aluminum alloy leg band. The hummer is weighed, given a quick overall health check and an opportunity to sip from a feeder while in hand, and then released back into the wild. Our 2011 banding sessions were conducted mostly in the Newport area, but also near Kettle Falls, Colville, Usk, Spokane, Sagle, Sandpoint, and Bonners Ferry.

Most of the yards where we conduct our research provide multiple maintained feeders and have a history of feeding for more than five years–but we also look for spots with varied habitats such as proximity to bodies of waters, woods, or open areas. Homeowners often find they are feeding many more individual hummers than they once thought, as they all look the same until banding them individually.

Contrary to popular wisdom, hummingbirds do not become dependent on sugar water feeders; they visit them just for quick energy to catch, or “hawk” small insects out of the air and to search out near-by plants. In fact, maintaining a feeder well into October can assist a possible late-born migrating hummingbird that will utilize the feeder for quick energy to catch insects and build needed “fat” for fuel for continued migration. Mix your solution from a simple recipe of 1 cup (only) white granulated sugar, with 4 cups water; which most closely mimics natural flower nectar. Do not use premixed packages or solutions. No red dye is needed. Clean the feeder at least every five days and refill with fresh liquid. As many enthusiasts learn or know, maintaining popular types of hummer feeders will attract more hummingbirds than one-of-a-kind models, as they are apparently recognized more readily as a food source.

In early May, social hummingbird activity was busy at Pend Oreille feeders. Field results documented an abundance of breeding hummingbirds arriving inland from the west coast. First to arrive and leave were the colorful adult males of the three local breeding species. (Rufous males have a bright red chin and rusty/green back; Black-chinned males have a black throat with a purple band below it; and the smaller Calliope males have red-purple throat feathers forming vertical streaks against a white background.) These acrobatic males conducted stunning display flight dives to impress and attract the perched observing females. Before long, the females in hand were found with nesting material of plant fibers and spider web on bills, feet and wings. We also confirm breeding species by an observation while in hand of a visible egg membrane through the skin near the vent area, with weight correlation.

The intricately constructed hummer nest, if found, can be anywhere from two to seventy feet high in trees or bushes, but one is lucky to come upon these tiny masterpieces. This wee nest, about the size of a golf ball cut in half, is elastic for the ever-expanding growing chicks. The inside of the plush nest is of soft cotton-like plant down, with eggs the size of small dried white beans. The woven structure is basically made of plant fibers and tiny rootlets; the outside is often camouflaged with bits of lichen and fine bark, and masterfully secured to the branch with spider silk.

During the month of June, the noticed slow-down of feeder activity indicates the dispersal of adult males seeking other breeding territories, and of females ingesting more insects. These insects supply protein for forming eggs, and as all birds need, vitamins and minerals. At this time of the season she, solely, is busy with incubating and/or feeding chicks. Also, more flowers and tiny insect hatches are available, so overall, the feeder action generally is less. During our daily banding sessions, many birds are observed with yellow dusty foreheads and with pollen often caked on the bill, highlighting their role as pollinators.

After the young hatch, the mother feeds them a regurgitated slurry of insects and nectar, rich in protein essential for growing muscle structure and feathers. Incubation is about 17-20 days and the nestlings leave the nest in about another 20 days with the female adult feeding for another few days. Amazing to realize they are headed to central Mexico, yet never have been there, but know the way...it is in the genes.

Between May 1st and late August of 2011 at 30 different locations– many with multiple visits–we have banded approximately 1170 Calliope; 600 Rufous, and 1130 Black-chinned hummingbirds.

Adult males are the first to arrive and the first to depart, far south by mid-August down the Rocky Mountain corridor back to central Mexico for the winter. The continued late summer mass of hummingbird movement through our area includes adult females and juveniles, many from western Canada. Hummingbirds, like other bird species, will locate and take advantage of other food sources and feeders in an area as they pass through.

This season some of our banded hummers were found again to original banding locations, indicating to us that they are local breeders. In the past ten years of study, we have recaptured the same hummingbird, (some more than once) in the same yard on almost the very same year-to-date day, for five consecutive years. Our main objective in this study is to learn about breeding population densities, nesting/breeding location fidelity, longevity, and to continually connect the dots of probable migration routes, thus updating the many bird book range maps. For example, in 2009, we recaptured a Black-chinned male in western Montana who was originally banded in 2000 near Mexico. Most researchers assume the average lifespan is around 3-4 years; this one was at least nine years old.

An exciting recapture highlight this season was an adult female Rufous originally banded on May 8, 2011 in our yard along the Pend Oreille River 6 miles north of Newport; and encountered again August 19, 2011 just west of Grand Junction, Colorado. These reencounters of previously-banded hummers are like a needle in-a-haystack event. But each one, though rare, is another opportunity to more fully understand how these special tiny birds travel, and marvel at their intriguing lives...

From November to March, we plan to resume our study (since 2007) of Anna’s and Costa’s hummingbirds in the winter months near the Mojave Desert. We have found that some populations of these closely-related species do not migrate to central Mexico, but actually begin breeding in February. Anna’s hummingbirds can also be observed year-round in Seattle and nearby coastal areas, and have been known to wander inland from September to November– so keep a close eye on those feeders this fall.

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