New post at my Web site

WN-Jacobin

I’m such a bad blogger. I didn’t even post about my spectacular trip to Trinidad and Tobago last summer where I photographed this stunning White-necked Jacobin.

Has it really been almost a year since I last posted here? I’m still working on the second edition of A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America, so I haven’t been doing much writing otherwise, but I did just add a post to the News tab on my Web site about a controversy that erupted during the spring 2012 Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration. Hope you enjoy it!

P.S.: If you’d like to see more of my photos from Trinidad and Tobago, check out the album on Flickr.

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Search of the Week: “it is september why am i only getting female hummingbirds at my feeders…”

In juvenile plumage, young male hummingbirds like this Ruby-throated usually look a lot like their mothers. They also seem to leave the nest with chips on their shoulders.

In juvenile plumage, young male hummingbirds like this Ruby-throated usually look a lot like their mothers. They also seem to leave the nest with chips on their shoulders.

The full search was: “it is september why am i only getting female hummingbirds at my feeders and she is very aggressive”

By September, most of the migratory hummingbirds remaining at northern latitudes will be young birds of both sexes, which look like adult females except for variable amounts of pale fringing on the iridescent feathers of their backs and heads (plus a few other subtle differences, depending on species). Young males often show lines of dark spots on the throat, a pattern hummingbirders call “five-o’clock shadow.” Some young males will show bright flashes of color in their gorgets as adult feathers replace drab juvenile ones.

Though females of any age can be very aggressive and territorial, especially in migration, it’s the young males that seem to be the biggest troublemakers (as though they think they have something to prove). As long as there are still good numbers of hummingbirds around, expect the screeching, chasing, grappling, and chest-bumping to continue.

What Not To Wear Cranewatching

The Sandhill Cranes that winter at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area have learned that humans are mostly harmless within the no-hunting zone.

The Sandhill Cranes that winter at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area have grown accustomed to crowds of humans ogling them from the trails and viewing platforms.

Sandhill Cranes have returned to southeastern Arizona for the winter, and I’ll be visiting the flock at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area almost every weekend between now and the end of February. When you have the privilege of spending a lot of time with cranes, you get to see lots of interesting behavior and interactions. Some are hard to miss, but the subtle ones can be the most educational.

One Sunday last February, I was leading a crane watch activity for the public on one of the viewing platforms at the wildlife area. Uncommonly cold temperatures that day kept most visitors away, but a handful of hardy souls joined me to watch the midday crane fly-in. The viewing platform has no roof or walls to block the wind, but spectacular unobstructed views of thousands of cranes made the eye-watering cold worth braving.

Drought had shrunk the playa lake to its lowest level in many years, and the scarcity of open water encouraged the cranes to land even closer to the viewing area than usual. They dropped in a few dozen yards in front of the platform, often skating across patches of ice (and sometimes falling down). The nearest birds cautiously picked their way across the frozen mud to a narrow band of open water a few yards from the platform and bent their long, graceful necks to drink. Camera shutters clicked madly, recording the spectacle.

The idyllic mood was broken by a sudden commotion east of the platform: a group of cranes scuttling warily away from a popular viewing spot on the trail, their necks extended and red crowns expanded in alarm. Peering through the leafless willows to see what had frightened the cranes, we saw four men dressed in varying degrees of hunting camouflage. All wore shirts and billed caps in camo patterns, and at least one wore coordinating pants. They weren’t accompanied by a dog (whose mere presence, even leashed, is known to have negative effects on birds and other wildlife), and none were carrying rifles or shotguns.

A dozen or so people in street clothes of various colors and at least three leashed dogs had already walked past that same spot without discouraging the cranes from approaching the trail. Maybe one of the men pantomimed shooting at the cranes, but it seems more likely that the older, more experienced members of the flock had learned to associate camo-clad humans with danger and reacted to the clothing alone.

Though I’m a strong proponent of dressing inconspicuously for birding, this experience has caused me to have second thoughts about whether hunting-style camo is a good choice for field wear, at least for watching cranes and other hunted birds.

Beware the wrath of the birding legions!

A Snowy Owl at Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, safe from murderous bureaucrats and and Silver-bellied Gashawks.

A Snowy Owl at Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Montana,
safe from murderous bureaucrats and and Silver-bellied Gashawks.
CC image courtesy of USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr.

(Title borrowed from a column by the late, great Molly Ivins.)

On Monday morning, the New York Daily News broke a story about the Port Authority killing Snowy Owls at airports in New York City. Follow-up articles contrasted trigger-happy NYC with the more responsible and humane policies of Boston’s Logan Airport (a famous location for wintering Snowy Owls). The story quickly spread via Facebook, prompting a petition and phone campaign to stop the carnage (three owls had already been shotgunned by the PA’s euphemistically named “wildlife specialists” after five others struck planes).

Usually such efforts take days, weeks, or months to bear fruit, and some never do, but by Monday evening the PA had come around and agreed to stop slaughtering the owls and cooperate with trapping and relocation. The outrage from the public, including the birding community, was so swift and so fierce that it overcame bureaucratic inertia.

Every day on social media we see calls to action in support of one good cause or another or against the latest outrage. It’s good to know that raising our voices and signing our names can make a difference.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  — Margaret Mead

Rethinking winter hummingbirds

This post is adapted from an article that originally appeared in 2010 in my “Out the Window” column in WildBird magazine. Though the focus is vagrant hummingbirds of migratory species, many of the issues apply equally to semi-migratory hummingbirds such as Anna’s that have expanded their range into areas where winter survival depends on feeders. 

Anna's Hummingbirds are the most cold-tolerant of any North American species, but even they can't survive extended periods of subfreezing weather without help from their human hosts.

A hungry male Anna’s Hummingbird fills his crop moments after a thick layer of fresh snow was brushed off the feeder. Anna’s are the most cold-tolerant of all North American hummingbirds, but even they can’t survive extended periods of subfreezing weather without help from their human hosts.

For more than 20 years I’ve been telling people that it takes more than a bottle of sugar water to keep a healthy hummingbird on the breeding grounds when its instincts tell it to head south. Though that’s still true, it doesn’t apply to the increasing numbers of vagrant hummingbirds whose instincts lead them not to the tropics or the relatively mild southern and coastal parts of the U.S. but to cold latitudes where their chances of long-term survival are slim.

In some cases, these seemingly lost and doomed migrants do make it through the winter with a little help from their human friends, even surviving to return the following fall. It’s the less fortunate ones and the dilemmas they pose for their hosts and admirers that caused me to rethink my longstanding advice to leave hummingbird feeders up in fall.

The vast majority of wild birds live and die without a single human ever taking a personal interest in their welfare, but hummingbirds aren’t most birds. Their deceptive daintiness and apparent dependence on our gardens and feeders trigger much stronger and more complex emotions in us. Small wonder, then, that firestorms of controversy often erupt over whether, when, and how to help vagrant hummingbirds that are struggling to cope with brutal northern winters.

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with tiny birds in trouble. A hands-off policy, as heartless as it may seem, would be the logical choice if wintering hummingbirds were getting by entirely on natural resources. Once artificial feeders and the people who tend them enter the picture, “letting nature take its course” is no longer an option. It’s not so easy to talk about natural selection when you have to look that hummingbird in the eye each morning as it huddles on its slushy feeder.

Intervention has its own hazards, even when left to licensed experts (as required by federal law). The “Three Rs”— Rescue, Rehabilitate, and Release—may fail if delayed until the bird is too weak to survive the stress of capture or if the specialized care it needs is unavailable. Some wildlife rescue groups are reluctant to take in hummingbirds because they don’t have the expertise or resources to provide proper care.

New problems arise when the rescuers decide to add a fourth “R”: Relocate. It was once common practice to capture vagrant hummingbirds, even those in no obvious distress, and fly or drive them hundreds of miles to warmer climes. As we learned more about hummingbird migration, we realized that in most cases this is a spectacularly bad idea. Like many other birds, hummingbirds learn the particulars of their migration routes by experience. Without that experience, a bird that manages to survive capture and relocation may end up permanently disoriented. Release at or near the original rescue site allows the bird to reorient itself to familiar landmarks in preparation for the next leg of its journey, whether further south or back towards its breeding grounds.

When to release a rescued hummingbird can be just as important as where, especially for early-migrating species such as Rufous and Allen’s. Their northward migration along the Pacific Coast is well underway in January and February, when much of the U.S. is still in the grip of winter. Releasing a hummingbird in the dead of winter isn’t as crazy as it may sound. Some of the tougher species have been observed to hang on through blizzards and ice storms only to move on once the weather cleared.

This Pine Warbler is no better adapted to winter weather than most hummingbirds, but few people would advocate capturing it for relocation or incarceration in a zoo.

This Pine Warbler is no better adapted to winter weather than most hummingbirds, but few people would advocate capturing it for relocation or permanent captivity.

Another misguided approach is to sentence “defective” hummingbirds to life in captivity. Though modern zoo ethics discourage taking wildlife out of the wild, this was exactly what happened to a Green-breasted Mango that found its way to southern Wisconsin in the autumn of 2007. This spectacular bird, only the second member of its mainly tropical species ever seen north of southern Texas, was preemptively rescued ahead of a winter storm and transported to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Against the advice of numerous hummingbird experts, center officials decided to turn the bird over to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Members of the hummingbird community lobbied for the bird’s release either back in Wisconsin or in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, but zoo officials were determined to add this avian celebrity to the collection. The following fall a late-migrating Ruby-throated from Michigan ended up at the same zoo under similar circumstances, again against the advice of experts.

How do we keep hummingbirds out of these predicaments in the first place? One simple change in your feeder routine could make a huge difference. Switching to a sugar-water ratio of 1:3 by early September, when high-risk birds may be passing through, will help your visitors put on fat more efficiently while still providing essential water. The higher sugar content also lowers the solution’s freezing temperature without making it too syrupy for hummingbirds to drink, so it’s the perfect recipe for winter feeding as well. Most hummingbirds take to the sweeter solution right away, but you can gradually increase the sugar content over several days to avoid alienating your regular clientele.

Of course, the ultimate solution to the problem is to stop feeding hummingbirds before winter sets in. If you live north of USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7a  (average minimum winter temperatures 5 to 10̊ F.) and would prefer not to take on the responsibility of hosting a wintering hummingbird, simply take down your feeders within a week after before the first frost or by mid-October, whichever is earlier, even if there are still hummingbirds around. You’ll still be providing a boost to tardy migrants without encouraging any wayward travelers to consider your yard as a possible winter refuge.

* With increasingly erratic weather resulting from global warming, some areas with long, cold winters are experiencing first frosts later in the fall, after most hummingbirds have reached their winter destinations. Taking feeders down while natural resources are still abundant provides a less abrupt transition for any lingering birds and may increase their chances of survival, at least in the short term. [updated 11/30/16]

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Blogroll update

I did a little housekeeping on my blogroll, deleting links to a few blogs that hadn’t been updated in more than a year, updating links to others, and adding several A-list birding blogs whose creators/contributors I had the privilege of birding with this weekend. Enjoy!

Dispatches from the West preview: September/October 2012

Male Montezuma Quail by Sheri L. Williamson

Male Montezuma Quail by Sheri L. Williamson

Montezuma Quail are the topic for my final “Dispatches from the West” column in the September/October issue of WildBird magazine. Here’s a teaser:

Our hearts pounded as we drank in every detail of his harlequin plumage. The quail stared back, and we could almost hear the gears slowly turning in his head. It finally seemed to dawn on him that he’d been spotted, and he slowly turned and strolled away, watching us over his shoulder.

This is usually where I encourage you to subscribe if you don’t already, but it’s too late. After being informed that WildBird was downsizing and no longer able to publish my column, I was saddened (but not surprised) to learn that the magazine will soon cease publication entirely.

WildBird‘s parent company, Bowtie Incorporated, publishes annual special issues on popular topics, and I hope to contribute to any issues covering wild birds. I’ll also be releasing my past columns and articles, along with other selected writings, in e-book form later this year. Thanks and best wishes to the staff of WildBird for so many years of reading enjoyment, and thanks to the subscribers and newsstand readers for supporting the magazine.