Hummingbirds Entertain Us

Filed in Birding, Expert Articles by on November 12, 2013

TWG_story_birding07imgThe other day I was relaxing over a couple of ice-cold beverages at the home of Paul and Sherri Wilson in Minturn. We sat outside on the patio surrounded by their magnificent flower garden while a couple of hummingbird feeders hung nearby attracting many hummingbirds.

The most common hummingbirds here are the broad-tailed. They are emerald green overall and the males have a bright scarlet throat patch. The males make a high-pitched trill sound with their wings when in flight, whereas the females are silent. If you hear the high-pitched trill of a passing hummingbird, you know without looking that it is a male. Remember, a big part of bird watching is bird listening.

While taking close-up photos of a hummingbird, I unknowingly captured an image of a long tiny tongue that looked like a clear piece of fishing line. Upon researching how hummingbirds actually drink nectar, I was surprised to find that they did not suck or lap up nectar. Instead the nectar or sugar water travels up the tongue in a sort of capillary action, much like a wick in an oil lamp.

Interestingly, hummingbirds have some alternatives for food other that nectar from flowers. For instance I’ve seen a hummingbird hovering in a swarm of gnats snapping them up. Also, hummingbirds are known to visit trees with sap running and eat sap when nectar isn’t available. Sometimes opportunistically, as a hummer visits a flower, there are tiny spiders or insects that are eaten as well.

When a hummingbird feeder is getting heavy use, the hummers can be quite bold. I have a feeder that has four plastic red flowers that attract the birds. If I cover three of the flowers with aluminum foil, the birds are forced to drink from only one of the flowers. Then, I hold out my index finger as a perch at the base of the flower and wait still patiently.

Sooner or later a hummingbird will come. It may take a couple of approaches before the birds gain your trust, but if you hold perfectly still they will alight on your finger. Wow! How cool it is to have a fairy-like creature from the wild settle in on your finger. I can assure you that this is a fun activity for adults and children alike.

Like many of our summer birds, hummingbirds migrate to warm climates during the winter where they can find flowers. Some species such as the rufous hummingbird may travel up to 2500 miles between their breeding range as far north as southwest Alaska and their winter range in Mexico. All this distance covered each year by a creature that weighs little more than a penny.

Rufous hummingbirds have apparently just started to come through Eagle County in the last couple of weeks. The rufous hummingbird’s typical migration route from Mexico is up the California coast in the spring, and down through the Rockies in the late summer. These aggressive hummers drive other competitors from flowers and feeders. They can be recognized because they are orange or copper-colored overall.

Hummingbirds have extraordinarily high metabolisms and can drink up to one and one-half times their body weight a day in nectar. During times of energy conservation such as nighttime, storms, or food shortages, hummers can go into a state of torpor which lowers their body temperature, heart rate, and breathing that lowers their overall metabolic rate. This is an example of how efficiency in animals is often the difference between life and death.

Hummingbird and wildflowers go together, and both are true joys of summers here in Eagle County. Visit areas that are rich in red flowers such as Indian paintbrush, scarlet gilia, or firecracker penstemon, and hummingbirds will naturally be attracted.

Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.

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