Saturday, April 18, 2009

Hummingbirds - The Great Indicator of Spring

by Janine Gates

Above: A male rufous hummingbird on a lilac bush.

A few days ago, I took exciting pictures of male rufous hummingbirds in my yard and of course I knew what kind they were because I pulled out my trusty, little Birds of the Puget Sound book written by local birder, naturalist and author Bob Morse. There’s a rufous, right on the cover. Morse’s latest book, released this last fall, is Birds of the Inland Northwest and Northern Rockies.

I contacted Morse, who lives in Olympia, not only because I wanted to brag about my pictures but I wanted to get his insight on why my neighbor and I have noticed what seems to be a particularly heavy invasion of stunning hummingbirds this year. Their buzzing and crazy aerial fights look and sound like battling WWII planes.

“Hummingbirds are the great indicator of Spring. I put up my hummingbird feeders on Valentine’s Day. Red reminds me that it’s that time of year again,” says Morse, who was happy to share his knowledge.

“It is usually soon after that some males arrive on their migration up north. They will stoke up on nectar and take off after a few days to continue their journey to breed in Alaska or northern Canada. A week or two after they depart, the local hummingbird residents return," says Morse.

“For years we have only had rufous hummingbirds in our community. And, while other communities like Seattle and Tacoma have the Anna’s hummingbirds in the winter, it has been only in the last year or two that we have started to see a number of Anna’s in the Olympia area during winter. That's why it's important to keep our hummingbird feeders up all year so the Anna’s can survive the cold winter evenings. There are few blossoming flowers at that time of year so the feeders really play a key role in their survival during the winter.”

Above: A male rufous humminbird finds my rosemary bush a real treat.

I went to Wild Birds Unlimited, 1200 Cooper Point Road, to check out their feeder selection. Three staff members and the owner, Ruth Pagel, were busily helping several customers, many of them congregating around the hummingbird section. Wild Bird Unlimited sells many types of feeders.

“The feeders don’t have to be red, and there’s two basic styles: saucers or jars,” said employee Francoise Hudson-Damm. “I personally feel perches on a feeder are worthwhile. The hummingbirds will perch and drinking longer.” Hudson-Damm says hummingbirds are fussy. "It’s important to keep the feeders clean. In my experience though, they won’t drink from it if it’s spoiled.”

Above: Wild Birds Unlimited employee Francoise Hudson-Damm stands next to the hummingbird feeders.

Five year employee Rachel Bjorklund says business has been good, despite the closure of the nearby Linens N’ Things. “The store is doing fine, with customers coming over from the post office and Party City…and I think this year we are having more hummingbirds than usual. I was walking around Nisqually last weekend and you couldn’t walk anywhere without hearing them buzz you.”

A customer, Victor Sorge, of Lake Cushman, came in looking for a “Perky Pet” jar replacement for one of his feeders. He says he has 40-50 hummingbirds near his house. “It’s like being inside a beehive when I’m sitting on my porch. Sometimes they run into me!” He says his hummingbirds go through a 32 ounce jar every two days.

Bob Morse had suggested I go to Bark & Garden Center, 3334 Mud Bay Road, to see employee Betty Moynahan, who developed a special handout which lists the local plants and flowers that can be planted to attract hummingbirds. I went there today and it was very busy, but there she was, right next to the perennial plants that attract hummingbirds.

Moynahan’s list is in blooming order, stretching from the Flowering Quince and Red Currant which usually blooms in February through the Trumpet Vine which usually blooms in August or September.

Above: Just one option at Bark and Garden Center to attract hummingbirds.

Moynahan agreed with Wild Birds Unlimited staff. There seems to be more hummingbirds this year. “The whole winter has been strange. I had a whole bunch of hummingbirds this Spring but I had to put out feeders early because the flowering quince and currant were late to bloom,” says Moynahan.

She showed me that the flowering currant was popular today, and they only had two little pots left.

So get out, enjoy the sunshine, fill your feeders, or get some plants that attract hummingbirds, and enjoy the show.

Above: Another male rufous hummingbird takes a break.