BirdWatching Magazine Oct. 2012
The Native Alaskan people of Prince William Sound tell how Rufous Hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) migrate to and from Alaska on the backs of the geese. It’s hard to imagine a hummingbird flying two thousand miles or more across mountains, urban landscapes and along broad waterways all the way to Alaska. How else could such tiny birds accomplish this feat other than on the backs of geese?
Rufous Hummingbird natural history knowledge in Alaska is limited even though the species is the most wide-spread hummingbird within the United States. There are approximately 335 species of hummingbirds in the New World. Of those, only seventeen species breed in the United States. Three species: Rufous, Costa’s (Calypte costae) and Anna’s (Calypte anna) Hummingbirds migrate to Alaska. Only the Rufous is common in southeastern and southcentral Alaska. The north Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound is the extreme northern edge of their breeding range. Costa’s and Anna’s are considered to be casual migrants to these regions.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists the status of Rufous Hummingbirds as a species of “least concern”. Though the annual Breeding Bird Survey indicated a slow decline for the species (1-2%/year) in the Pacific Northwest, the population is currently regarded as stable with a 2006 estimate of 6.5 million.
Male Rufous Hummingbirds arrive in southeast Alaska in March, spreading north along the coast through the North Gulf of Alaska and to the small island community where I live in western Prince William Sound by the last week of April. The females show up within a week or two of the males. All are busy feeding and fighting for territories until June when they begin egg incubation which coincides with the peak of the blueberry and salmonberry bloom. One may not see a bird, other than a quick buzz pass sighting, for a few weeks until the fledglings appear on the feeders by the beginning of July. July is also when the adult males start their southern migration, leaving the feeders to the females and immature birds until they too leave the North Gulf coast by the first week of August.
A few days after the New Year long icicles drip off the eaves and the snow drifts pile up in the yard and garden. It’s hard to believe that in four months there will be hundreds of hummingbirds fighting over spaces on the hanging cylinder feeders. Just about every one of the houses in the village will have at least one feeder up by May 1, awaiting the arrival of our miniscule herald of spring. Meanwhile fingertips tap out my email log-in on the laptop computer to check on the hummingbird banding activity going on in the Lower 48 states. I’m logging into the Humband email list serve to get my daily fix on the latest happenings in hummingbird winter migration patterns.
We call ourselves Hummbanders - a network of professional and citizen scientists who are federally licensed and trained to band and study hummingbirds. A great deal of personal effort is spent to chase after, and carefully catch hummingbirds, for scientific purposes. That is, we are performing mark and recapture studies by placing a tiny U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service leg band upon each bird, or document the unique letter and number series on the band if the bird is already carrying one, take a few physical measurements and then set them free to continue their amazing transcontinental journeys.
Every bird released with a band is a mini traveling research project, each with the potential to substantially increase our understanding of hummingbird behavior, natural history and population dynamics. The hummband list serve shares information and discuss issues relating to our hummingbird projects. While it snows and sleets sideways outside my window there are reports over the list serve of Rufous Hummingbirds being sighted in the Lower 48. Hummingbird bander Nancy Newfield will start seeing male Rufous in Louisiana in July and August.
It was originally thought that all Rufous Hummingbirds wintered primarily in northern Mexico and Central America, but since the late 1970’s an increasing number of birds have been documented over wintering in southeastern states. When discovered in the past these winter migrants were often incorrectly diagnosed as lost or ill. Hummingbird researchers now agree that there is an established winter population of hummingbirds in the southeastern United States. Why and when this population was established is still very much under debate. Perhaps the sprouting of so many suburban gardens in the southeast since the 70’s created a new niche offering plenty of food and shelter for hummingbirds as they travel along the eastern seaboard.
Climate change may also be playing a factor with unpredictable weather patterns and warmer winters allowing birds to linger longer in these areas than previously recorded. Rufous Hummingbirds in particular are very cold tolerant and can handle overnight temperatures that dip below freezing by going into a state of topor, a short period of hibernation. They also have a reputation as being extremist wanderers and therefore able to take advantage of new ecological opportunities. Perhaps this is the reason that Selasphorus species are being sighted in the winter along the eastern seaboard in such places as Washington D.C., Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
Newfield began noticing Rufous and Black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri) Hummingbirds during the winter in her backyard in Louisiana in the 1970’s. Her curiosity piqued, Nancy became a federally licensed hummingbird bander and began to document a variety of western hummingbird species far from their known western winter ranges. She trained other hummingbird banders and together they began to gather data in Texas, Alabama and Mississippi. Over 30 years later Newfield and her expanding cadre of southeastern hummingbird banders have documented thousands of wintering hummingbirds in the southeast United States.
Opinions also vary on whether these eastern wintering birds are a new phenomenon or not. The Hummer/bird Study Group was founded in 1987 by Clay, Alabama bander Bob Sargent. Sargent thinks that with few exceptions these species have been wintering in the southeast all along and doesn’t think that changes in weather patterns are playing a factor. “While there may be an increase in the numbers of hummingbirds in the east in winter, I suspect it is because these birds are simply being detected more often. I believe that the assistance of the general public leaving up feeders in the winter, and the wonderful work of dozens of new hummingbird banders that are scattered about the eastern United States are the main reason we are seeing more wintering hummingbirds being documented. Nancy Newfield's work in Louisiana has been a model for all of us as we continue to locate and document these "rare" hummingbird species.”
Currently there are 117 Master class hummingbird banders with 149 sub-permittee banders working under them in the United States, with most located in the southwest and eastern United States. Bruce Peterjohn, Chief of the Bird Banding Laboratory at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, says that hummingbird conservation efforts have resulted in a small but growing number of hummingbird banders in most of the western states as well. “Southeast Arizona has always had its share of hummer banders and there are one to several hummer banders covering most states east of the Mississippi River”, states Peterjon. “The hummer banding community in Alaska and Canada is relatively small and mostly recent additions to this network. The Canadian banders are primarily in southern Ontario and the Vancouver area of British Columbia.”
My husband and I are one of those recent additions to the northwestern network, having gained sub-permitee status under bander Stacy Jon Peterson in 2007. We operate the most northern in latitude hummingbird banding station in North America and the only season-long hummingbird banding station in Alaska. The project’s main goal is to gather baseline population and migration data. We’ve banded 1,423 Rufous Hummingbirds since the project’s start.
Checking the email list serve we hope to see a call to play “hummband bingo”. Every band is marked with a unique letter and number series. All the federally licensed bird banders must submit their records of all the birds they have handled to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) each year. It can take many months before that information is uploaded to the publically available online database, therefore impatient people such as us get on the internet hummband list serve and announce the band number discovered. “Just captured A12345 – whose bird is it?” The rest of us scramble to our databases to check to see if the recaptured bird’s band number could match one of “ours”.
It’s a numbers game. The more birds banded, the better the chance that one will be re-caught elsewhere. The USGS Bird Banding Laboratory database records show 65,916 Rufous Hummingbirds banded in the state of Alaska since 1960. (This data is not complete since the Chenega Bay banding records have not yet been added to the USGS database.)
On June 28, 2010 hummingbird banding history was made when a female Rufous Hummingbird that had been banded earlier that year in Tallahassee, Florida on January 13 by bander Fred Dietrich was recaptured in Chenega Bay. There was speculation among the hummband community that birds wintering in the southeastern United States could be coming from Alaska, but this was the first time it had been documented as fact.
This recapture marks the longest migration of a hummingbird ever recorded, over 3,500 miles. The previous long distance record for a Rufous Hummingbird was a bird that was banded in Louisiana and later found dead on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, a distance of approximately 2,200 miles if you lay a ruler down on a map and draw a straight line. Another long distance Rufous banded in British Columbia was recaptured by Fred Bassett in January of 2012 in Alabama. These three band recovery records show a travel trajectory which points to birds coming out of Alaska.
What is the actual route hummingbirds are taking from the eastern U.S. to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska? Most agree that a direct flight cross country is unlikely, but instead there may be an “elliptical” migration route with birds traveling across the Gulf coast states to the Pacific then following the coast northward. Peterjohn points out the lack of banders in crucial areas, “The only real void is along the Great Plains where there are few, if any, hummingbird banders.”
Fred Bassett has been banding birds at his Fort Morgan, Alabama banding station for over 20 years. His efforts have recorded over 2,000 hummingbirds of ten different species. Bassett “seriously doubts that there is one elliptical route for Rufous heading to the east. I think it is a wide swath heading east. Then most drift south during the winter. They go west through Louisiana and Texas as they begin early spring migration and probably go almost to the west coast before turning north to Alaska.”
Scott Weidensaul, a Pennsylvania naturalist specializing in owls and hummingbirds, is one who believes hummingbirds are expanding their range. “I do think we are seeing a jump in the number of birds in the northeast, along with better detection. This year is a perfect example – we jumped from 13 or so reports last fall to more than 40 this year (2012), with half a dozen sites reporting two or even three Selasphorus. I suspect this is a result of a good breeding year, because many of the reports were hatch year birds.”
The key to understanding these questions is the continuation of hummingbird banding efforts across North America. Birds need to be re-caught not only on either end of their journey, but also at many points in between. The members of this group of dedicated and slightly obsessed people are working hard towards accomplishing these goals.
My husband and I are already preparing for the coming spring season; preparing banding equipment, deciding whether to add a feeder or modify the feeder set up. And perhaps, while waiting for spring, we will be able call out “BINGO!” when a familiar band number pops up on the list serve.
“The Native Alaskan people of Prince William Sound tell how Rufous Hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) migrate to and from Alaska on the backs of the geese.”
“Three species: Rufous, Costa’s (Calypte costae) and Anna’s (Calypte anna) Hummingbirds migrate to Alaska. Only the Rufous is common in southeastern and southcentral Alaska.”
“Every bird released with a band is a mini traveling research project, each with the potential to substantially increase our understanding of hummingbird behavior, natural history and population dynamics.”
“We operate the most northern in latitude hummingbird banding station in North America and the only season-long hummingbird banding station in Alaska.”
Hummingbird Monitoring Network
– a place to learn about attracting, feeding, and studying
hummingbirds in North America by Bander Lanny Chambers.
The Hummingbird Society held their first annual Sedona Hummingbird Festival in August of 2012. The 2nd annual festival will be held in Sedona, Arizona on August 2-3, 2013. http://www.hummingbirdsociety.org/festival.php