Summer hummers – entertainment for free: part 2

In my yard this summer, the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) came late to the feeders (similarly to what other people in the area had reported). Now, there are at least four vying for the four feeders, claiming territory for their own.

 

 

One bird in particular is most likely to be seen enjoying the garden flowers, including blue-black sage (Salvia guaranitica) and hot lips salvia (Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’). In the first two photos below, you can see as his throat starts to bulge more as he sucks up the sweet nectar to complement his mostly insectivorous diet.

 

 

The airborne nectar droplets indicate that sometimes this hummer is a messy eater — or must leave quickly as another hummer is almost literally on its tail.

A couple of the birds spend a lot of time near the nectar feeders, perching close by to chase off anyone who comes near.

 

 

 

They each have favorite perching spots from which they can observe if an “intruder” is coming near the feeder they have claimed.

 

 

Sometimes, they fly up to a higher perch so they can see both the front and back yards – a necessary vantage point if they want to keep an eye on where everyone is.

 

Most ruby-throats have 940 feathers, all of which are replaced each year. As they take little rests, they stretch their feathers and may also groom them.

When a rival approaches, they spread their rectrices (tail feathers) – both when sitting and in the air.

 

Their feathers are beautifully arranged, looking like scalloped decorations.

 

They make frequent trips to the feeders and then occasionally “air out” their tongues.

 

The bill of the ruby-throated hummingbird is one of its most distinctive features. It measures about 0.59-0.79 in (15-20 mm) in length and is said to open no more than about 0.39 in (1 cm wide) at the tip. The hummers in my yard seem to be able to open their mouths to varying extents, however. They consume nectar by extending and contracting their tongues up to 13 times per second.

 

 

 

A quick, only few-second nap is also a frequent behavior. The hummers are almost constantly at the feeders and thus bulking up for their long migration, but they also expend considerable energy chasing one another away from feeders and flowers!

 

 

 

The hummers are not fazed by weather, zipping around rain or shine. Putting on weight and strength for their autumn migration down south is important for survival!

These minute marvels are such a pleasure to watch; I will certainly miss them when they begin their journeys to their wintering grounds.

 

Summer hummers – entertainment for free: part 1

 

When a hummingbird other than a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is seen in the Triangle area of North Carolina, it is listed as a rare bird on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology listserv. One year, I did have a chance to see a buff-bellied hummer visiting in a nearby town though; another year a rufous hummer frequented my own feeders in the winter. Mostly, however, it is the ruby-throats who take up residence at my address, which is just fine as these feisty tiny birds provide loads of entertainment.

 

During a trip to Quebec earlier this year, we also saw ruby-throated hummingbirds there – early arrivals during the spring migration.

 

A few years ago, one of my blogs focused on their preening and cleaning, so this time I’ll mostly feature some of my favorite photos of them taken this summer in various places. (When looking through the shots, I had a LOT I liked, so this is now going to be a 2-part blog!)

At Sandy Creek Park in Durham, one female hummer had made a coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) one of her preferred dining spots.

 

 

A butterfly garden featuring blue-black sage (Salvia guaranitica) and bee balm (Monarda) also attracted her and some other hummers.

 

One female found the bee balm to be a good place to rest, understandable since these bundles of energy have a high metabolic rate. Their hearts beat up 1260 times per minute and they take about 250 breaths per minute even when they are resting! Taking a few sips while remaining perched has to be a welcome luxury.

 

 

 

 

The hummers’ main wing bone, the humerus, is adapted to hovering flight and they have very large deltoid pectoral muscles relative to their size.

 

 

Male birds produce sperm that flows through the vas deferens (sperm duct) to the cloaca. When they mate with a female, they transfer sperm by touching the tip of their cloaca to that of the female; they do not have a penis. Females only have a functional left ovary; the right one atrophies early in her development, which allows her to avoid the extra weight of a second ovary and makes her lighter for long migratory flights.

One big treat for me this year was finding two ruby-throated hummingbird females tending a nest, the first time I had been able to spot this.

 

Later, I was able to take a quick photo of one female collecting cattail fluff with which to line her nest.

Even when several ruby-throats are frequenting an area, the (temporary) coloring of their feathers can help distinguish them. This young male had a few olive-green dots under his eye and a bit of white on the crown of his head.

 

A somewhat more mature male has a little white patch behind his red gorget.

 

They are all little beauties! Second part of this blog is coming up and then on to Costa Rica!

Busy as a bee is no joke! Our hardworking pollinators – pretty and persevering!

honey-bee-brazilian-sage-i77a1269-maria-de-bruyn-resHere it is, 7 November, and the honey bees were still busily working over the Brazilian sage, lantana and chrysanthemums in my garden. The Eastern carpenter bees were absent today, perhaps because of the cold night we had, but a few butterflies were flying among the flowers. We know that some of our pollinators are in serious trouble, but my garden has nevertheless been blessed this year with a steady stream of pollinating visitors who were to be seen on the varied blooms morning, noon and almost night.

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I’d enjoyed seeing the bees, butterflies and syrphid flies in the past, but started paying even more attention to them as pollinators this year as I worked on the “Healthy Bee, Healthy Me” project initiated by the non-profit organization Keep Durham Healthy.

 

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The project expresses its goal as follows: “…to establish educational pollinator gardens in proximity to pre-existing community gardens to ensure the sustainability of nectar and pollen sources for our honey bees, native bees, butterflies and other pollinators throughout the year, and to increase the yield of the food crops grown within the community gardens.” Some of my photos were used in one of their interpretive garden signs and next year more community gardens will join the project.

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Science knows that more than 250,000 plants are pollinated by over 100,000 different types of animals, but not all plants require assistance from pollinators for fertilization. In abiotic pollination, fertilization occurs without another organism as an intermediary – for example, through movement of pollen from male vegetative anthers to female stigma by the wind (called anemophily) or water (called hydrophily). However, much fertilization occurs with assistance from biotic vectors, which not only include bees, butterflies and flies but also moths, birds and mammals (e.g., lemurs, squirrels, opossums, monkeys and bats; here you see a hummingbird clearwing moth – Hemaris thysbe – getting nectar.) How cool is that!

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The most efficient pollinators are the bees. Some species like honey bees (Apis mellifera) and bumble bees have pollen baskets (corbiculae) on their legs – a concave portion of their hind leg in which pollen can be stored as a ball. It starts out small but eventually gets fairly big so their little tibia begin to look like barbells. The color of the pollen can differ from bright yellow to brown to red to white, depending on the pollen of the flowers visited most often.

 

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American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus)

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Common Eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens)

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Honey bees

The attractive little honey bees, which vary in their coloring, are known to pollinate about one-third of the popular foods eaten by humans, including items such as tomatoes, peas, beans and other fruit.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1315-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen visiting tubular flowers, like the Brazilian sage (Salvia guaranitica), the bees don’t look for nectar by entering the flower as do the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) with their long bills. Rather, they alight on the base of the corolla tube so that they can drill down into the flower to extract the nectar at the source.

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Honey bee                                                  Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)

The clearwing moths and butterflies, like the Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus), have long tongues that they use to probe the flowers as they hover. Nevertheless, they can get pollen on their legs or bodies and transport it to another plant, although they are not as efficient at this as, for example, the sweat bees and carpenter bees.

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These bees have scopae rather than pollen baskets on their legs, i.e., structures comprising dense masses of compressed hairs into which pollen grains are pressed.

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Small carpenter bee (Ceratina)

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Female sweat bees (Augochlorella)

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Long-horned bee (Melissodes)

Sometimes the bees manage to get their whole bodies covered with pollen, which can make species identification more difficult but creates some interesting views.

eastern-carpenter-bee-i77a2601-maria-de-bruyn-res    eastern-carpenter-bee-i77a3750maria-de-bruyn-res

four-toothed-mason-wasp-monobia-quadridens-i77a2039-maria-de-bruyn-bgWasps can carry pollen as I saw almost daily when the four-toothed mason wasps (Monobia quadridens) visited my yellow passionflowers (Passiflora lutea). Here you can see the pollen collecting on the head of a male, whose sex can be determined by the fact he has 7 abdominal segments and curved antennae (females have straight antennae and 6 abdominal segments). How’s that for a bit of obscure information for the non-entomologist?

The syrphid flies, often known as bee mimics, help pollinate, too. A number of these flies are honey-bee size and can be confused with the bees easily.

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Flat-tailed leaf-cutter bee (Megachile mendica)

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Transverse flower fly (Eristalis transversa)

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Syrphid fly (Eristalis dimidiata)

Others are itsy bitsy, tiny flyers that can have pretty interesting abdominal patterns. I couldn’t see the patterns even with my glasses on; enlarging the photos revealed their beauty, which could make for interesting fabric patterns in my opinion.

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Syrphid fly (Toxomerus marginatus)                      Syrphid fly (Toxomerus geminatus)

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Syrphid fly with a lovely golden sheen (Eupeodes subgenus Metasyrphus)

The pollinators don’t appear to begrudge one another nectar – different species will share space on particularly popular plants.

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Eastern carpenter bee and monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

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Eastern carpenter bee and sweat bee

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Eastern carpenter bee, sweat bee and syrphid fly

Occasionally, the pollinators do not live out their usual short lifespans as predators catch them for food. This Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) had been eyeing a bumble bee and was slowly moving toward it but the bee flew off before the mantis could complete its lunge. Later the mantis managed to snag a honey bee, however.

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While on a walk one day, I suddenly was startled by the loudest buzzing I had ever heard, coming up behind me. It sounded angry, intense and was rather piercing for a buzz. I turned just in time to witness a giant robber fly (Promachus) settle on a grass stem with a bumble bee that it had just caught. The buzzing stopped fairly quickly as the fly proceeded to ingest its meal.

 

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Various organizations and agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, are drawing attention to the endangerment of pollinator species. The main threats include loss and degradation of habitat as we pave over an increasing amount of natural space and plant lawns instead of native plants in yards. Using pesticides in landscaping areas is further threatening many of the insects on which pollination depends.

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Planting pollinator gardens is a way in which we all can contribute to saving our pollinators; if you don’t have your own yard, you can volunteer with a project to create a community garden. And then you can watch these fascinating insects with appreciation for their contributions to us!

My hummer summer, part 2 — beauty in flight, beauty at rest

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8438-maria-de-bruynIn my previous blog, I mentioned that the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilocus colubris) had a greater variety of flowering plants to visit in my yard this year and that increased the size and diversity of their nectar buffet. The availability of multiple food sources also meant that they spent a bit more time visiting – they didn’t just dash to a feeder, perch or hover for a drink and then take off. They visited feeders, different blooms and took little rests between meals, giving me numerous chances to watch them and practice my hummingbird photography – a win-win for both us!

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One of their favorite flowers were the lantanas (Lantana), which are also a favorite of mine as they attract many smaller pollinators such as bees and butterflies and are still profusely blooming in the latter half of October.

 

 

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This year, several types of sage brightened my gardens. Some deep blue Brazilian sage plants (Salvia guaranitica), kindly donated to me by Gail, a fellow birder, added color and provided the hummers with deep blooms into which they could insert their long bills.

 

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7519-maria-de-bruyn-resA small-leaf sage (also known as Festival or little-leaf sage, Salvia microphylla “San Carlos Festival”) provided an ongoing splash of deep red blooms that attracted the hummers over and over again. This plant not only graced the garden in the summer but is still blooming profusely now, making it another one of my favorites. A couple other different red sages and a red beebalm (Monarda didyma) were good nectar choices but they didn’t bloom as long or in such abundance. Perhaps next year, they will have gained strength.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1160-maria-de-bruyn-resThe two stonecrop plants (Hylotelephium Autumn joy), in my front garden, with their rounded bunches of little pink flowers, had hummer visitors on a few occasions, but these are not one of their preferred blooms. The milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca) also only had a few visits as far as I could tell.

 

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And it was the same story for the blue balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), which does get its fair share of bees.

 

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a2198-maria-de-bruyn-resI had planted cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), which unfortunately didn’t get any flowers. I did see a bird visiting this plant species near Bolin Creek, however. The same happened with a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), but at a vine cluster near the Haw River I saw how they inserted their heads entirely into the tubular blooms.

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In between feedings, the hummingbirds will perch to watch for intruders into “their space”. But they also will take sun-baths, pointing their faces upward and puffing themselves up.

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They will then change shape, stretching their necks and spreading their wings and tail feathers to expose as much of their bodies as possible to the sunlight.

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They may relieve themselves while they are in flight and then later take a little power nap of a few seconds.

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Grooming is also a frequent activity – these little avians make sure that they stay just as beautiful as the sweet flowers that they frequent!

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When the males turn their heads so that the light hits them in different ways, they do a nice job of demonstrating that their bright gorget colors are not in the feathers themselves but the result of prism cells in their feathers that change how the light is reflected depending on the angle we see.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a6366-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen they’re done sun bathing, grooming and resting, the hummingbirds need to take off again. However, their feet are so tiny that they can’t walk and, when they lift off, they also don’t have the foot strength to push.  So they rise into the air using the power of their wings, quickly flapping as they set off and rapidly reaching their usual rate of about 50-53 beats per second.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7167-maria-de-bruyn-resMy last summer hummingbird residents appear to have left for their Central American wintering grounds on 7 October, just before Hurricane Matthew arrived in North Carolina. I really hope that they were able to get through the windy environment without problems as they began their long migratory journeys and I am already looking forward to seeing them arrive next spring. In the meantime, I’m keeping a couple feeders up in case another hummer species decides to over-winter here – and the Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) and tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) can continue to use the ant guards over the feeders as their preferred watering holes.

 

My hummer summer, part 1 – guarding the home front!

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Just like human beings, some birds like to hang out in groups, while others are more solitary in nature, coming together mainly to reproduce. A prime example of the latter group are the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris).

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7336-maria-de-bruyn-res2This past summer, some health and other problems led to my spending a good deal of time at home. The upside was that being a bit home-bound gave me plenty of opportunities to observe the comings and goings of these gorgeous little flyers and to learn more about their behavior towards one another.

I had at least four ruby-throats – and probably more as I couldn’t distinguish them all – visiting my feeders and yard regularly. A couple had a distinctive trait that helped me identify them, like some white feathers on top of their heads or at the bottom part of their gorgets.

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I usually had three or four nectar feeders up in my back yard and two in my front yard. In addition, as the summer progressed, the gardens were filled with increasing numbers of nectar-filled flowers so my home site was a fairly well-stocked larder for them.

The ruby-throats are among the more competitive hummingbirds and don’t really like to share their feeding space with others, although a friend and I visited a birder in a nearby town who had more than a dozen feeders up and many dozens of hummers visiting his back yard every day, feeding right next to one another. At my house, I suppose guarding their food source is an instinctual imperative, since they do consume half their own weight in nectar each day.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8255-maria-de-bruyn-resThe tiny birds were quite intent on protecting their territory from intruders. Only thing was, several of them considered my feeders THEIR territory, so there was a continual rotation of birds perched in nearby trees and shrubs to watch for “invaders”. Once spotted, the newly arrived hummers would have the current “resident” bird swoop down on them (at up to 60 miles per hour!), frequently chittering like mad as a warning to “get out of here.”

Sometimes, they would have a little “challenge flight ballet” as they confronted one another, until one gave up and flew off – sometimes across the street, sometimes to the yard on the other side of the house, and sometimes to a nearby tree or shrub at the side of the house.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8257-maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8256-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a9443-maria-de-bruyn-resThere was one particular male hummer who seemed particularly aggressive – or perhaps possessive is a better term as I never saw him body slam a rival; he just made sure that the other bird would leave. I recognized him as he often chose exactly the same spots on a nearby Rose of Sharon, a willow oak and a cedar as his watching posts,

Some of those who were run off didn’t travel far, however. They would fly to a nearby tree or shrub and wait to see if Hummer No. 1 would leave.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a0290-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1099-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a5725-maria-de-bruyn-resScientists have determined that the brain section responsible for memory and learning – the hippocampus – is five times larger in hummingbirds than in woodpeckers, seabirds and songbirds. They memorize where feeders and nectar flowers are and can remember when they last fed there. They can even estimate how long it will take each flower to fill up with nectar again.

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The hummers’ memory is long-term, too – they recall not only where feeders are placed in their breeding territories but also in places along their yearly migration routes! Wouldn’t it be nice if we had such great memories making GPS and maps less of a necessity?

 

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7716-maria-de-bruyn-resAnother behavior I observed several times was a hummer hovering in front of me, especially when the nectar feeders were getting low. Scientists have determined that they can recognize the people who replenish their food sources, which makes for a delightful encounter as one chirps at you while suspended in front of your face with its wings flapping at 60 beats per second!

While guarding their home turf, they may stick out their tongues briefly after feeding.

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However, if you see one with its tongue stuck out permanently, this can be a sign of a fungal infection (often acquired from dirty feeders). Their tongues swell with the infection and they can no longer drink with these anatomical, elastic micro-pumps.

 

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Often death ensues, so it’s important to keep the nectar feeders clean!

 

 

 

Coming up in part 2: the beauty of the hummingbirds at rest and in flight