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

 

Communal nesting – the rookery at Sandy Creek Park

great blue heron DK7A5496© Maria de BruynUnlike Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and other songbirds, great blue herons (Ardea herodias) like to build their nests near one another, forming what is called a rookery, or colony of nests. The nests are often seen in the tops of tall trees and comprise large twigs and branches that surround grass, leaves and moss. As many as 135 nests have been counted in a rookery, but the one at Sandy Creek Park that I visited this spring had three nests.

The herons return to the nests for several years running. Each year, the males re-furbish the nests in order to attract a mate.

great blue heron DK7A7297©Maria de Bruyn great blue heron DK7A7367©Maria de Bruyn

You can see the nests well with binoculars from a walking path, but as I have no binoculars and rely on my camera’s zoom lens, I slogged through forest and marshy terrain on numerous occasions to get close to the pond that had their rookery pine trees on the other side. They were still a bit out of range for my lens, but occasionally I managed to get a half-way decent shot, which encouraged me to return often to follow the nestlings’ progress.I followed them from 8 March through 26 June.

great blue heron DK7A5924© Maria de BruynGreat blue heron DK7A3689© Maria de BruynThe top nest in an open-to-the sky tree appeared to have four babies, while the nest below it had three.

A nest in a tree to the right, which had much more dense foliage, seemed to be occupied by only one or two babies.

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There were always 1-4 adults around, including both parents on the nest and “guards”, who took up posts atop nearby trees to watch the nearby skies. This is one reason for the rookeries; the herons want to ensure that there are adults around to protect the nestlings from predators, which include raccoons, crows and hawks, such as this red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) that was hanging around the nests one day.

red-shouldered hawk DK7A7354© Maria de Bruyn red-shouldered hawk DK7A7371© Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron DK7A6601© Maria de BruynGreat blue heron DK7A3495© Maria de Bruyngreat blue heron DK7A8238© Maria de Bruyn resThe parents feed their young by regurgitating food and the young birds get excited when a parent returns after being away for a time.

The nestlings make quite a lot of noise squawking loudly while they jostle to get first in line for the meal.

great blue heron DK7A3743© Maria de BruynThe young herons appear to “argue” with one another with loud calls and it seemed that they “jousted” with one another using their beaks.

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Weaker chicks may miss out on getting enough food and can die of starvation, but that didn’t happen at the Sandy Creek rookery. Some chicks were obviously larger and stronger than others, but even the smallest fledglings survived.As they grew, the babies began standing tall and walking around the nest.

great blue heron DK7A8283© Maria de Bruyn Great blue heron DK7A3638© Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron DK7A9348© Maria de BruynWhen they were close to fledging, they stood near the edge of the nest and practiced spreading and flapping their wings. Sixty days after hatching (much longer than smaller birds!), the young herons were ready to fly and began taking short flights to nearby trees, before venturing out on farther trips. great blue heron DK7A8960©Maria de BruynThe young ones will not breed until they are two years old.

Watching events unfold at the rookery was a new past-time for me this year and likely one I’ll repeat in the future. If you have time and the opportunity, I’d recommend the experience!