Chenega Bay Alaska Rufous Hummingbird Banding Project


Bird Watcher’s Digest May/June 2012


The Alaskan nesting season is short and intense, just like the summers. The verdant, mountainous islands and fjords of Prince William Sound’s Chugach National Forest, the U.S.’s most northern temperate rain forest (receiving up to 160 inches of rainfall a year) is thickly strewn with an alder/willow understory and a spruce/hemlock climax forest. In June and July south central Alaska receives an average of twenty hours of sunlight. Steep hillsides covered in blueberry, salmonberry, columbine, fireweed and geranium, spill down the sides of the mountains and frame the muskeg meadows, making this part of North America an incredibly rich place for a hummingbird to raise a family.  

Prince William Sound, located on the North Gulf Coast of Alaska, is the extreme northern edge of breeding habitat for Rufous Hummingbirds. Scant information exists on rufous hummingbird life histories in Alaska and no base line population studies have ever been performed on rufous hummingbirds in Prince William Sound. 

In 2007, operating under USFWS Master Bander Stacy Jon Peterson’s guidance my husband and I began the Chenega Bay Rufous Hummingbird Banding Project at our home in the small village of Chenega Bay located on Evans Island in the western part of the Sound. Since then we have banded over 1,300 rufous hummingbirds from our front yard.

At the end of April, the orange and white males arrive with their bright red gorget feathers flashing, ready to fight for territories. Like small jets, they zoom through the village on trilling wings, issuing squeaky challenges; a sure sign that spring is here at last, even though snow can still be found under the alder bushes and on the hillsides. 

The subtle green and white females show up a week or so later. They hit the feeders hard for a few weeks and then relatively disappear to incubate the eggs as soon as the berry bushes bloom. It is common to see the birds picking gnats, aphids and other tiny insects off of the sticky willow and alder buds during this time. By mid June, the adult birds are regulars on the feeders again.  The males head south by June’s end, leaving the feeders to the females and immature birds who will remain only until the first week of August before they too, follow the last of the summer’s bloom out of the Sound.

The 2010 season began with the anticipation of lots of local recaptures - birds that had been banded by us from previous years, and the hope that we might catch a “foreign” bird – one that had been banded by someone else on the other end of the bird’s migration route through Canada and the southwestern United States. 2010 was turning out to be a banner season with 212 birds banded and 51 recaptures, a 9% rate of return. This rate of return demonstrates the amazing site fidelity of rufous hummingbirds.

On 28 June 2010 I caught a mature female rufous hummingbird with a band number that was not one of the unique letter and number series of bands that we use. After examining the band closely at least a half dozen times to be sure I had recorded the number sequence correctly on the tiny band; I weighed her and placed a white dot of water soluble non-toxic paint on her head - marking the banded bird clearly so I wouldn’t accidently catch her again - and released her within three minutes of being captured.  

The tiny bird weighed in at a hefty 4.6 g, a size equivalent to about 3 large paper clips. The band she wears weighs a tiny fraction, less than .02%, of her total mass. Her throat had a scattering of about a dozen sparkly red gorget feathers, which are thought to become more numerous as the bird ages. Marks on the bill, called corrugations, cover about 80% of the bill on an immature hummingbird; this female’s bill was smooth up to about 10% of the base of the bill, a clear indication that this was a mature bird that had lived through at least one winter.

Already excited to have caught our first foreign banded bird, it was an added surprise to discover that this particular female did not come from Colorado or New Mexico, as expected, but was banded as a young adult bird (bill showing 50% corrugations) at the home of Pam Flynn in Tallahassee, Florida on 13 January 2010 by bander Fred Dietrich. 

This capture stands to be the world’s distance record for a banded hummingbird of any species to be caught on both sides of its migration - a distance of over 3,500 miles in a straight line. It can be assumed, however, that this bird did not travel in a straight line and the question remains whether she traveled over continental Canada or headed down the NW coast and “took a left at Albuquerque” as Bugs Bunny would say – the elliptical migration route that some bird researchers have been suspecting. 

It’s quite probable that this little bird was born right here on Evan’s Island, maybe within my own flower garden. At barely 3 months old, with no parent bird to guide her, she found her way down to the lush sub-tropical Florida suburbs and then flew all the way back to Alaska within a single year – a 7,000 plus mile round-trip journey – across rivers, mountains, cities and deserts; a truly heroic migration. 

Data gathered from banding projects can help answer important scientific questions such as: What is the survivability and longevity of these birds? Do they return to the exact areas where they were born? How far are young birds straying? Data can also be used to track global climate change patterns with the recording of arrival and departure dates and locations of species over many seasons.  Rufous hummingbirds are considered a “species of international concern”.  Population declines may be due to habitat loss in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

The 2011 banding season was our best to date; with 409 birds banded and 116 birds re-captured.  Unfortunately, no foreign banded birds were caught this season.

By early August, barely more than three months since they arrived, the hummingbird feeders hang abandoned. September arrives and the internet banding network grapevine announces that rufous hummingbirds are already being sighted in the lower 48. While the hummingbird banding community in the southern half of the country continues to play bird band bingo all winter, I will be here through the storms watching the snow pile up, shaping bands for next spring, and monitoring the hummingbird banding listserve all winter with the hopes that one of “my babies” will show up in the lower 48 at another bander’s station and we can document another world record.


Hummingbird and People/Place Resources mentioned in this article:

McLaughlin Environmental Services
PO Box 8043
Chenega Bay, Alaska 99574

Hummingbird Research, Inc.1520 Katrina Place
Montgomery, Alabama 36117

Hummer/Bird Study Group, Inc
PO Box 250
Clay, Alabama 35048-0250

Alaska Hummingbird Festival (held in April)
Southeast Alaska Discovery Center
50 Main Street
Ketchikan, Alaska 99901

The Hummingbird Monitoring Network
PO Box 115

Patagonia, AZ 85624

Western Bird Banding Association
1595 Beverly Drive
Arcata, California 95521-6550

Chugach National Forest
U.S. Forest Service, Alaska Region
PO Box 21628
Juneau, Alaska 99802-1628

Stacy Jon Peterson, Master Bander
5801 W. Joli Circle
Wasilla, Alaska 99654