Monday, March 23, 2009

Rufous hummingbirds in migration

Early this Sunday afternoon I was sitting by the window feeder in the living room, pretty much minding my own business when SHAZAAAM! Our first female Rufous Hummingbird of the season showed up. Eighteen inches away from my fascinated view, she sat and drank for a couple of minutes. I quickly unscrambled my brain and reviewed her field marks: the most telling identification cues for her are the rufous wash on her flanks and wing pits, along with a few scattered deeply colored feathers on her throat and a muted green back.

Ten minutes later, it was our resident male Anna’s hummingbird Big Red. I wrote about this bird on February 16th; he had a hellacious fight with the then dominant female in our yard (Big G). He won and has been the big cheese in our yard since. His field marks include the distinct fuschia helmet over his head (green or black in low light) and an iridescent emerald green back and gray vest over his chest. He has no rufous whatsoever.

Ten minutes after Big Red flew off, a male Rufous Hummingbird flew in. He too sat and drank at length. He is vividly rufous - almost everywhere, except for a large scarlet-green iridescent patch that covers all of his throat and wraps around the side: this is called a gorget, which is a great word: it truly is gorgeous. All this within 20 minutes.

As the day has progressed, we have continued to see this variety of these hummers coming and going. I called with my friend Cynthia who has eight nectar feeders, and she too is seeing big numbers and varieties fighting and feeding at her nectar stations. We talked about the sheer numbers we are seeing; it is Spring migration season and we speculated that we are seeing a flood of migrating Rufous hummers coming through.

Some hummer watchers believe their migration movements are tied in part to the blossoming of Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum). Hmmm, is it a coincidence that we have one big bush in bloom in our garden as I write this?

Seeing this surge of hummingbirds in our garden reminds me of some field work I did years ago at Cape Flattery. In spring 1989 - 1991 I volunteered for a hawk watching project on a hill called Bahokus, overlooking the town of Neah Bay. This was a two-week stint starting at the end of March, since this is when the hawks tend to migrate through in the biggest numbers. The hawks would only migrate over Bahokus is certain unusual weather conditions, which meant that many days we were skunked as far as hawks. However, many birds use this same migration corridor, so a lot of time we sat around and watched whatever showed up (not a bad gig).

Rufous hummingbirds were regular migrants on Bahokus, and would suddenly show up at the hawk-watching hill. They had most likely followed the coastline north on their spring migration, only to arrive at Neah Bay, which is the northwestern terminus of Washington state. In front of the hummers was the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and to get further north meant they had to cross 13 miles of cold salt water to Vancouver island.

So we watched to see how they would handle this problem. Hordes of them would start to build up, hanging around for a few days fighting and feeding, mostly on thimble and salmonberry blossoms, probably restocking their fat stores. There were hummers everywhere, including in front of our spotting scopes, making hawk watching a little challenging. Finally one day we’d show up in the morning to start our shift and the hummers had disappeared, completely. That was the end of the migration.

But we don’t have to go to Cape Flattery to watch migration. It is happening right now, right in our own gardens, as herds of Rufous hummers move through. In a couple of weeks, the bulk of them will have moved on. Probably one male Rufous will take over your garden and feeder, and a few females will sneak in on occasion when his back is turned. So enjoy the spectacle of jewels in flight: it will soon be over.


1 comment:

  1. Hi Janet! Yep, they are all at my house, and my neighbors. I used my car as a photo blind and caught lots of them on my rosemary plant and our lilac, which is just budding. I put one picture on my website at Thanks for your beautiful writing! Janine : - )