WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
The shortening hours of daylight as summer’s end draws near has accelerated activity of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that have again honored me, and perhaps you, with their beautiful iridescent colors, incredible flight patterns, and pleasing presence. From the moment of dawn’s early light until dusk, they are constantly flitting between my suction cup window feeder, an array of potted flowers, and a hanging feeder in my rustic arbor.
Even when the grape leaves of the arbor rustle in the wind, their distinctive hum is often clearly audible, thus the name hummingbird. They zip close to my observation seat as I watch them at the hanging feeder. I would describe the loud hum, created by their wings, as being akin to that of over-caffeinated angry bumble bees, especially when they are in conflict with another hummingbird. High-speed professional photography has established their wingbeats as 55 to 75 per second, which also explains why their wings are a blur in my photos.
In less than a month, these high-energy precision flying machines of nature that weigh less than a nickel, will be bound for Central America. Until then, they are a joy to watch as they prepare for their autumn migration flight. Hummingbird identification is so easy that even I, a novice when it comes to identification of small birds, could easily write a field guide titled: “A Beginner’s Guide to Oakland County Hummingbirds.” Here’s why: the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only species of hummingbird in Oakland County and eastern North America’s only breeding hummingbird. If you see a hummingbird in Oakland County, it’s going to be a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
Since mid-July, I’ve been spending more hours than I care to acknowledge photographing them from my arbor and occasionally at the suction-cup window feeder viewed from within my house. Only once have I seen a male this season and luckily my camera was in reach, which it usually is. His shimmering ruby-throat is eye-catching and unmistakable.
To put that sole-sighting of a male hummingbird in perspective, it was not possible for me sit near the arbor feeder for more than a few minutes without seeing a female perched nearby or zipping in for a sip of sugar water from the feeder. I have yet to see a male hummingbird at the arbor feeder and I think I know why. The males do not stick around long after mating and forage much further away from the old nest site, decreasing the chances of sightings. By this time of year, male hummingbirds are pretty much on their own and most will be winging south before the females depart, if they have not already left. Feeder watching also brings other surprises at times, such as when an American Goldfinch landed at the suction cup window feeder. Perhaps it was trying to figure out why hummingbirds kept zipping in and where the hidden treats were located.
The angle of the sunlight brings out the iridescent colors and beauty of hummingbirds. The adult male is unmistakable with his dramatic iridescent ruby-red throat that often appears black unless viewed at just the right angle. The tip of his tail feathers also appear blackish. The slightly larger female has a spectacular iridescent green back that is visible when the sun catches it at just the right angle. Females also have a grayish-white throat and chest, and a white belly. Unlike the male, her tail feathers have white tips, a characteristic that will only be noticed if she is perched or hovering near by. Juvenile hummingbirds of both sexes look like adult females. When they are in flight, it’s their sound and movement that is mostly noted, not their colors.
My frequent sitting in the arbor, which doubles as my outdoor writing office, disclosed something else of interest. Although hummingbirds readily accept my silent presence within a few yards of the feeder, they are unsociable when it comes to other hummingbirds and compete with one another for sips at the feeder. For example, when one hummingbird lands, another one will almost dive bomb in, seemingly from nowhere. A short-lived, yet rapid high chase follows, accompanied by that angry bumble bee buzzing sound as wing speeds accelerate. I’ve witnessed this at the hanging feeder and filmed it at the window feeder where one hummingbird zips off, drives off another, and then the scene repeats.
I was never able to locate either nest of my resident hummingbirds. I say either nest because I often saw hummingbirds zipping back up into both the canopy of a silver maple that shadows my arbor and a black walnut tree about 60 feet away. As a matter of fact, few people have ever seen the walnut-sized nest of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. That’s because it is usually 10 to 40 feet high up in a tree and constructed on the upper side of a branch. Here’s how the Canadian Wildlife Federation describes their nest building, which is done entirely by the female:
“A skillful builder, she uses cobweb and plant down, such as the fluff from catkins and cattails as nesting materials. Working with her bill she cements these materials together and lashes the structure securely to the branch with sticky spider silk. She picks lichen and sticks them to the outside walls. That gives the nest the appearance of a natural knob. With her body she molds the inside of the cup and then draws the loose ends over the edge and smooths it out with her bill.”
Many myths persist about hummingbirds. One, in particular, is very silly, but rather fun; three other common myths are just shared misinformation. The first myth and the silly one is that hummingbirds cannot possibly fly all the way to Central America and cross the Gulf of Mexico and so they hitch rides on the back of geese.
The 2nd and more common myth is that hummingbirds use their long bills, that resemble a darning needle, as a straw to sip nectar. They don’t. They use their long tongues to lap up the flower nectar or sugar water from a feeder.
Until I did a bit of fact checking with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I believed this 3rd hummingbird myth: Ruby-throat Hummingbirds only consume flower nectar and sugar water. Totally false. They consume small insects including mosquitoes, gnats, and fruit flies, and also feed their hatchlings these high protein treats. That information solved my mystery of watching hummingbirds perch on skinny dead branches with a clear view of their surroundings and then suddenly, rocket into a short erratic flight pattern. They then return to their original location and preen a bit, most likely with a full stomach.
Debunking the final myth takes on importance as September draws near. It’s often said that as summer fades, we must take down hummingbird feeders so they do not loiter here too long and run out of flower nectar, and then starve. There is not a grain of truth to that. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds know when it’s time to migrate based on their hormonal changes triggered by diminishing hours of daylight. In fact, it’s a good idea to leave your feeder up until the middle of September to offer a final Oakland County fueling stop for last minute departures before their great journey to Central America begins. It’s also a great time to mark your calendar to remember to put your hummingbird feeders back up in mid-April to be ready for their colorful return.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.