Hummingbirds Summer in Vail

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

TWG_story_birding08imgHummingbirds are fascinating to observe. They often defy our very perception of birds and flight as they hover, climb vertically and dive headfirst toward the ground.

The most common hummingbird to make Eagle County its summer home is the broad-tailed hummingbird. The high-pitched trill made in flight by males make them easy to find. Emerald green overall, males have bright red throats, while females have drab throats with tiny black dots. Both fan out their tails and reveal white patches along the edge of their tails.

When observing birds it is fun to ask ourselves, “What the heck are they doing?” This time of year, male hummingbirds focus their energy on food and sex. Have you ever witnessed a hummingbird rocket vertically until it’s barely visible and then see it dive earthward at neck-break speed pulling out of the dive only a couple of feet from the ground only to repeat this high energy feat a couple of more times? Imagine the energy output and the G-forces they must experience. These radical flights are mating displays that males perform in the presence of females. After the diving antics the male will hover back and forth in front of a perched female. If the courtship goes well, the pair will mate and then part ways.

Female hummingbirds raise the young on their own, while the males focus on servicing as many females as possible, all while fending off competing males, and taking in enough calories to meet the demands of being the local stud.

When a competing male enters into an established territory of another male there is no rest. What starts as scolding chatter, quickly heats up to a battle between these mini jet fighters. The iridescent throat patches, called gorgets, begin to flash as they size each other up while hovering face to face. Each male attempts to physically drive off the other competing male in an aerial dogfight. The winner claims the territory and the breeding females within it.

Hummingbirds feed mainly on nectar from flowers and play an important role as they carry pollen from flower to flower on their bill, face, and head. Hummingbirds also eat gnats, mosquitoes, spiders, insect eggs, and sap. I’ve observed hummingbirds hovering in a swarm of insects a few feet over the surface of the Eagle River snatching up nutritious prey. Hummingbirds are able to hover like this because they utilize a unique figure eight motion with their wings, and can flap between twenty and eighty times per second.

Rufous hummingbirds may also be spotted locally. They are easily distinguished from the emerald green broad-tails because they are bright orange overall. Also keep your eyes peeled for the locally rare black-chinned hummingbird.

Hummingbirds have a super-high metabolism and must consume over one-half their body weight in food each day to meet their caloric needs. Daytime chases and aerial displays may push the heart rate up to 1200 beats per minute. During cold nights, hummingbirds utilize a torpid state to slow their metabolism, minimizing respirations and heartbeats in order to improve their efficiency.

I highly recommend a feeder to attract hummingbirds. One-half cup of sugar dissolved into two cups of water is the proper mixture. When a feeder is getting a lot of activity, it is possible to hold very still with your finger held out as a perch and have a hummingbird land on your finger.

Hummingbirds are like colorful real-life fairies. So fine and delicate, yet bold and sometimes even fierce. I’ve felt those tiny feet grasp gently onto my finger and its like magic to receive such a light touch from the natural world.

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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