The Incredible Hummingbird

Hummingbirds, like this Costa Rican Green Violet-ear, are found only in the Western Hemisphere (Bob Bowers)

It’s hard to imagine living in a place without hummingbirds, but most people in the world are not likely ever to see one. Better than three percent of the planet’s 10,000 bird species are hummingbirds, but they live only in the west. You won’t find hummingbirds in China, India, Australia, or Europe. Not in the Middle East, and not even in bird-rich Africa. Even Darwin’s laboratory of avian evolution, the Galapagos, is hummer-free. The world’s smallest birds, that we so enjoy and take for granted, are found from Canada through the Caribbean to the tip of South America, but nowhere else. Visitors from other parts of the world must be astonished when they first lay eyes on one.

Truth Stranger than Fiction

Picture Bob Newhart as Columbus describing a hummingbird to the King of Spain. An exceptionally long-billed bird smaller than any other, weighing little more than a penny, and capable of flying 2,800 miles during migration. A bird that can fly backward, as well as forward, that can hover and fly sideways, vertically and even upside down. A bird that can fan its wings 90 beats per second, and whose heart rate soars to 1,200 beats per minute at flight speeds of 60 miles per hour. Talk about leaping buildings in a single bound; this is truly ‘Superbird’.

Smallest and Most Acrobatic Bird in the World (pictured: Arizona Rufous Hummingbird, Bob Bowers)

Some 320 species of hummingbirds are found in the west. Most of these are found south of the Mexican border, with the greatest variety found in Ecuador. From Missouri to Virginia, most of the eastern U.S. knows only the Ruby-throated, but more than 20 species have been documented in the western states. We’re particularly fortunate living in Arizona, where 14 species were recorded on a single day in Miller Canyon, a U.S. record. SaddleBrooke’s hummer number isn’t too shabby, either; we saw six species in our back yard one day last August.

The Hummers of SaddleBrooke

It’s probable that one day we will spot a new hummingbird in SaddleBrooke, but to date the list is six: Costa’s, Anna’s, Black-chinned, Broad-billed, Rufous and Broad-tailed. Our Costa’s, the second smallest bird north of Mexico, is a full-time resident, and within the past year both Anna’s and Broad-billed Hummingbirds have been recorded in every month, so they may be moving in permanently, as well. The Black-chinned come north from Mexico in the spring to breed and nest nearby, returning south by the end of September. Rufous Hummingbirds pass through quickly in February, in a hurry to get to their nesting grounds in the Pacific Northwest, but they linger up to six weeks in late summer on their way back to Mexico.

Because we have resident and migratory hummingbirds in SaddleBrooke 12 months of the year, it is important that we keep our sugar water feeders filled whenever we are in town.

August and September Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are present in SaddleBrooke year-round, but their numbers peak from about mid-August through the end of September. Non-resident Anna’s Hummingbirds return to establish winter breeding territories, joining our resident Costa’s (and possibly resident Anna’s). The Mexican migrants join in, hanging around long enough to build the body weight necessary to get them home. Broad-billed pass through in far fewer numbers, but our most tropical birds, with their red bills and iridescent indigo color are worth waiting for, as are the rare high-elevation Broad-tailed Hummingbirds.

No Binoculars Needed if You’re Brave Enough to Hand-feed Hummers (Prudy Bowers)

This frenetic period is a delight for hummingbird fanciers, and the perfect time to hang additional feeders, photograph birds and even feed them by hand. As I write this, I’m at 9,350 feet in Colorado, where there are three summer hummers: nesting Broad-tailed and southbound Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds. They are as thick here in mid-July as they are in SaddleBrooke in mid-August, and the numbers this year bode well for what we will see at home next month. Even though our condo is on the third floor, hummingbirds surround our four feeders from dawn to dusk, and as the sun sets they are as thick as bees, stockpiling the sugar needed to get them through the chilly night. During these last few minutes of daylight, aggression abates and the feeders are crowded with birds finally willing to share this last nightcap.

By the time we arrive home in early August, many of these birds will follow, and the Colorado feeding frenzy will be replicated in SaddleBrooke. This will be your best chance of the year to get close to a hummer. Pull up a comfortable chair, brace your arm to keep it from tiring and hold the feeder in your hand. Try not to flinch as long needle-like bills whiz by and these miniature buzz bombs hover in front of your nose. You won’t find this in Africa.

(This article originally appeared in the August, 2012 Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.  Text copyright July 13, 2012, Bob Bowers, Photographs copyright Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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One Response to The Incredible Hummingbird

  1. Sue Davis says:

    Love your bird photos, Bob. Yesterday at Red Rock State Park, with a bird talk, John
    Moore, local Kachina Retired Teaches Group friend , got all of his bird list, most at our
    home several miles north. Sue Davis, a VERY OLD FRIEND!

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