Of all of Nature’s wonders, the tiny, but quick ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most unique.
Just 3½ inches long, the pocket-rocket is an entertaining bird that is a constant motion machine.
Capable of flying at speeds upwards of 60 miles per hour, equivalent to the fastest duck, and with wings beating up to 80 times a minute their jitterbug hovering hummingbirds will even cause non-birders to watch as they dart from one feeding spot to another.
Although hummingbirds are born throughout North America, the migration for some finding their way into Northeast Texas can begin as far south as Costa Rica.
“It takes weeks and weeks to make the trek,” said Cliff Shackelford, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ornithologist and the first author of “Hummingbirds of Texas.” “They stop and refuel along the way just like you would on a cross-country road trip.”
While some hummingbirds take a western path that keeps them overland into the United States, others chose a more adventurous route.
“The Gulf of Mexico in spring is a huge barrier that our ruby-throats cross and do so unaided. If their fat reserves are healthy and the weather conditions are favorable, they can do the 500-600 mile journey non-stop from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Upper Texas Coast in about 18-20 hours. Unhealthy birds or those that hit a blue norther, unfortunately, become fish food,” Shackelford said.
The peak spring migration into Texas usually occurs in mid-March to mid-
April. By mid-May they begin to arrive in Canada. This year, however, birdwatchers in Northeast Texas don’t believe they saw the birds in the numbers they are accustomed.
“Texans often see the large congregations of hummingbirds during spring or fall migration and expect that number to persist but it never does. Nor can it,” Shackelford said. “During the breeding season, ruby-throated hummingbirds, our only nesting species in East Texas, thin out and fiercely defend a territory in order to protect enough food resources for themselves and their offspring. While nesting, female hummingbirds can be quite secretive and can go unnoticed for long periods.”
Never a flocking-type species anyway, he added that during the nesting activity the birds are in even smaller numbers.
Shackelford also said that they are more likely feeding on insects like gnats so they can provide the protein their young need to grow.
Shackelford said he has heard from a several people who are seeing fewer hummingbirds at their feeders and want to blame last summer’s drought.
He argues the point, noting that plenty of Texans watered their yards last summer and maintained feeders to help the birds survive.
It is the males that kickoff the spring migration. Traveling at a snail’s pace of about 20 miles per day, it is believed the birds commonly return to the area they hatch, and based on banding studies will in some instances return to the same feeder during a lifespan that is typically three to five years.
Shackelford said East Texans are going to see the most hummingbirds during the migrations, with the fall return flight providing the best opportunity.
“Folks should embrace the migration periods and the large numbers of ruby-throats that refuel here during their southbound migration. That’s when folks can get their highest counts. The best time to see this is during August and September here in East Texas,” he said.
The ruby-throated hummingbirds reverse migration begins with the first signs of changing weather.
It begins when the flowers quit blooming and the insects disappear at the early onset of fall.
Besides reading “Hummingbirds of Texas,” Shackelford recommends two online sites for learning more about the birds: http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/wildlife_diversity/texas_nature_trackers/hummingbird_roundup/survey/ and http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruby-throated_Hummingbird/id.