Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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"A few hummingbird species, however, have adapted to crossing vast, flat expanses where
food is scarce. Before their daunting spring migration to the United States and Canada,
ruby-throated hummingbirds gather in Mexico and gorge on insects and nectar, storing
fat and doubling their weight in a week. Then they launch across the Gulf of Mexico,
flying nonstop for 20 hours and 500 miles (800 kilometers) to the far shore.
- from the National Geographic Magazine website


That's what I call an ultra-distance champion! And these little guys weigh only two or three grams (not ounces, GRAMS). Amazing. Some of these photos are larger than the birds themselves.


Jim and I have had our hummingbird feeder up for a couple of weeks now, and we are just as thrilled now when our little feathered visitors come to feed as we were the first time they discovered this new source of nectar. Jim hung it outside the window at our computer desk. Now we vie to sit there even when we don't want to use the computer! It's very distracting. We are mesmerized by the little creatures . . .

. . . so much so that Jim went out and bought a SECOND feeder within a week!

Hummingbirds are so territorial, however, that only one will feed at a time. If an interloper approaches, the first one will drive the second one away. The beautiful bronze-colored Rufous hummingbirds that frequent our feeders have an especially belligerent attitude, confirmed by what we've read about them. We plan to move one of the feeders to the opposite side of the camper so two birds can sip at once.

This is my favorite hummingbird photo so far -- I was able to capture two birds in a stand-off at the feeder. The one on the right is a Rufous; I'm not sure what the other one is:

When two birds get to the feeder at the same time, they usually both fly off and return separately in a little while. Here are close-ups of the dueling birds:




It's amazing how fast they found the feeder. We put it up late in the afternoon, and by the next morning we were rewarded with several hummers. Word spread quickly. At first we thought maybe it was just one voracious eater, but then we saw two flying by at once, deciding who was going to "win" a turn at the feeder. They don't like to share even through there are three feeding holes.

Soon we noticed there were different colors of birds, indicating even more than we thought were feeding. Some have backs that are predominantly green, some mostly bronze. One morning I was thrilled to see a male ruby-throated hummingbird -- very showy against its gray body:

As with many types of birds, the males usually have brighter colors than the females and are easier to identify.

We have a hummingbird feeder at home in Virginia, but it's on our deck and we aren't three feet away from it when the birds come in. Now that we have such close contact with them, we can better appreciate their beauty and habits. Watching them truly is addictive, and I hope we never tire of it.


Capturing them with the camera is very tricky. I've used normal settings and two sports settings and none of them can freeze the rapid movements of the hyperkinetic birds' bodies, let alone their wing movements. The "sport composite" setting takes 16 shots in about two seconds and arranges them in four rows to form a single picture. I can't enlarge and crop those as well as normal shots that are 3072 x 2304 pixels (20.3M) for just one shot, but they do capture an interesting sequence of movement that a single frame can't. 

Here is an example of a composite photo. Below it are two of the frames I enlarged until they got too pixel-y. You can at least see that the bird is in different positions in less than two seconds:



Compare those with single shots (below) taken either in landscape or sports mode where the original is 20.3M size. The photos I've cropped and included here are greatly reduced to 550K or less, otherwise some folks would never be able to see them:




The photos in this essay that I have taken are a little blurry; they're the best I've been able to shoot so far. I'll continue to work on my photo skills and present better ones if I master the technique. Suggestions for settings appreciated (and I know a tripod would probably help with image stabilization).

I'm also including some professional photos near the end of this essay that I downloaded from the website www.hummingbirds.net so you can see what some of the hummers REALLY look like. They were taken by Dan True. His photos should be obvious compared to mine, which are blurry and usually have a red "apple" feeder in them. I'll identify his. They include some of the species I think we've seen at our feeders.

I've also read information about hummingbirds on two other websites that you might want to see: www.hummingbirdsociety.org and the National Geographic Magazine website cited in the quote above.


These are some of the basics I've learned about hummingbirds

  • There are about 330 species
  • Their average life span is three to five years, although some have lived twelve years
  • They are a "bridge between the insect and bird world"
  • They come in a myriad of colors, many spectacular, and often iridescent (especially those in South America)
  • They live only in the Western Hemisphere
  • They thrive from Alaska to the tip of South America (Tierra del Fuego)
  • They can be found in all fifty states
  • They range in weight from two to twenty grams
  • They feed on nectar and insects
  • They live in tiny nests, never bird houses
  • They can fly from 30 to 50 MPH, and even faster if they're dive-bombing
  • Most in the US and Canada migrate to warmer climes in the fall and winter
  • Their heart rate is about 250 beats per minute RESTING, and 1200 BPM eating
  • They eat enormous quantities of nectar (carbs!) and insects (protein) each day, up to twice their body weight
  • They frequent our feeders even when it's pouring down rain!

Ten species of hummingbirds can be found in Colorado in the summer (mainly July and August) because the state is along a major migratory route to Mexico and points south. They are Anna's, Black-chinned, Blue-throated, Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, Calliope, Magnificent, Ruby-throated, Rufous, and White-eared hummingbirds.

There are only three species in Virginia: Allen's, Ruby-throated (the most common species in the US), and Rufous, shown below and in two photos earlier in this entry. I love how the gold throat just glows in the sun:

You can easily see which species live in which states at the hummingbirds.net site. Here are Dan True's professional photos of five species that I think we've seen at our feeders. Where there are two photos side by side, the male is on the left and the female on the right:



Calliope (male)




I've copied the page below from the National Geographic Magazine's website for your enjoyment. 


A flash of sapphire, a flutter of wings, and the tiny bird—or was it an insect?—vanishes, the briefest mirage. Moments later it reappears, this time at a better angle. It's a bird all right, a thumb-size dervish with hyperkinetic wings that can beat 80 times a second, producing the faintest hum. Tail feathers paddle, steering gently in three dimensions. As the bird stares into the trumpet of a bright orange flower, a thread-thin tongue flickers from its needle beak. A sunbeam glances off its iridescent feathers, the reflected color as dazzling as a gemstone hung in a sunny window. Little wonder hummingbirds inspire heartfelt affection and stuttering efforts at description. Even reserved scientists can't resist such words as "beautiful," "stunning," and "exotic."

A greater wonder is that the seemingly fragile hummingbird is one of the toughest beasts in the animal kingdom. Some 330 species thrive in diverse and often brutal environments: from Alaska to Argentina; from the Arizona desert to the coast of Nova Scotia; from the lowland forests of Brazil to the 15,000-foot-plus (4,600 meters) snow line of the Andes. (Mysteriously, the birds are found only in the New World.)

"They're living at the edge of what's possible for vertebrates, and they're mastering it," says Karl Schuchmann, an ornithologist at Germany's Alexander Koenig Zoological Institute and the Brehm Fund. Schuchmann knows of a captive hummer that lived 17 years. "Imagine the durability of an organism of only five or six grams to live that long," he says. Its cranberry-size heart, which averages 500 beats a minute (while perching!), would have thumped four and a half billion times, nearly twice the total for a 70-year-old person.

Yet these little birds are durable only in life. In death their delicate, hollow bones almost never fossilize. This was one reason for the astonishment that greeted the recent discovery of a jumble of 30-million-year-old fossil bird remains that may include an ancestral hummingbird. Like modern hummers, the fossil specimens had long, slender bills and shortened upper wing bones topped by a knob that may have let them rotate in the shoulder socket for hovering flight.

The other surprise was where the fossils were found: in southern Germany, far from modern hummingbird territory. To some scientists, the discovery shows that hummingbirds once existed outside the Americas, then went extinct. Or maybe the fossils weren't true hummingbirds. Skeptics, including Schuchmann, argue that other groups of birds evolved hummingbird-like characteristics many times through the eons. True hummingbirds, says Schuchmann, evolved in Brazil's eastern forests, where they competed with insects for flower nectar.

"Brazil was the laboratory for the prototype," he says. "And it worked." Hummingbirds became nature's micro-engineering masterpieces, perfecting their hovering ability tens of millions of years ago to compete for a share of the New World's flowers.

"They're a bridge between the insect and bird worlds," says Doug Altshuler, who studies hummingbird flight at the University of California, Riverside. Altshuler has examined hummingbirds' flapping motion and observes that the electrical impulses that drive their wing muscles look more like those of insects than those of birds, which may explain why hummingbirds produce so much power per stroke—more, per unit mass, than any other vertebrate. Altshuler has also analyzed their neural pathways, which function with the lightning speed of the most agile birds, such as their closest cousins the swifts. "They're amazing little Frankensteins," Altshuler says.

They are certainly fearsome—gram for gram, perhaps the most confrontational players in nature. "I think the hummingbird vocabulary is a hundred percent swear words," says Sheri Williamson, a naturalist at the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory. Their aggression stems from fierce territorial instincts shaped by their need to sip nectar as often as every few minutes. Hummingbirds compete by challenging and bullying each other. Face-to-face in midair, they post up and pirouette, dive to the grass, and paddle backward in dances of dominance that end as suddenly as they begin.

These battles are best observed in mountains, especially tall ones near the Equator that offer rich ecosystems at a variety of elevations. Williamson suggests that the north-south orientation of mountain chains in the Americas also creates favorable migration highways with a constant source of flowers. Compare that, she says, with natural barriers in Africa that stretch east to west, such as the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea.

A few hummingbird species, however, have adapted to crossing vast, flat expanses where food is scarce. Before their daunting spring migration to the United States and Canada, ruby-throated hummingbirds gather in Mexico and gorge on insects and nectar, storing fat and doubling their weight in a week. Then they launch across the Gulf of Mexico, flying nonstop for 20 hours and 500 miles (800 kilometers) to the far shore.

Ninety-five percent of the world's hummingbird species occur south of the U.S.-Mexico border. In the first moments out of the airport in Quito, Ecuador, you might be greeted by a sparkling violet-ear with iridescent splashes of war-paint purple on its cheeks. East of the city in the highest reaches of the Amazon watershed, the swordbilled hummingbird floats amid dense greenery, hoisting the longest bill of any bird for its body size—more than half the animal's total length. On the slopes of Cotopaxi, a volcano south of Quito, the Ecuadorian hillstar has been spotted above 15,000 feet (460 meters). There it spends the night in caves and enters torpor, curbing its metabolic rate enough to avoid starving before dawn. Later, warmed in sunlight, the hillstar powers up and resumes feeding.

"You can't learn about hummingbirds and not get sucked in," Sheri Williamson says. "They're seductive little creatures. I resisted them, but now I've got hummingbird blood pumping through my veins."


We'd love to hear your hummingbird stories and learn more information about them from readers. If you don't have a feeder to entice the little fellas to your own abode (house, apartment, camper, whatever), we encourage you to go spend $5-10 on an inexpensive feeder, preferably one that's RED. If you have a flower garden, too, they'll be even happier.

We mix up a simple sugar-water solution every day or two, depending on how fast they drink it and the weather (hot sun deteriorates it faster). Just boil one cup of water, mix in 1/4 cup sugar until it dissolves, and let it cool down before putting it into the feeder. Wash out the feeder with hot water (no soap) each time you fill it.

Simple! Now sit back and watch 'em discover the feeder. It helps if they can't see you (our camper windows are dark so they can't see in unless we have a light on). It also helps if your pets are nowhere near!

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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© 2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil