It's time to get your hummingbird feeders out; the ruby-throated acrobats are returning to Alabama.
Reports are starting to crop up of the return of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to central and north Alabama, as the tiny birds make their annual trek north from their wintering grounds in extreme southern Mexico and Central America.
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It's hard to imagine for a bird that weighs only a fraction of an ounce, but the Ruby-throated Hummingbird often flies across the Gulf of Mexico in its annual migrations north in the spring and south in the fall. Other Ruby-throats work their way along eastern Mexico to reach the eastern United States and southern Canada.
The birds average about 20 miles per day during migration, but those that cross the Gulf of Mexico are believed to be able to do 500 miles or more in a single flight. (Although some are reported to rest on oil platforms and even fishing boats.)
Reports started coming in for migrating Ruby-throats arriving in coastal Alabama a few weeks ago, but now they are becoming more common in central Alabama.
For instance, Joe Wombaugh wrote on the Birding Alabama Facebook page Thursday, March 17: "Just 2 minutes ago had the first one of the year here in Fayetteville, AL. 8 miles west of Sylacauga." David Green of Montgomery reported on Facebook that he saw his first one Friday morning, March 18.
One of my favorite ways of tracking the northward migration of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is on a web page where everyday citizens can sign in and mark their first sightings: www.hummingbirds.net. As of Friday, March 18, the site showed the two northernmost sightings in the United States were both in extreme north Alabama.
Other hummingbirds are sometimes sighted in Alabama, of course. Debbie Williams Bigbie reports on Birding Alabama that she has had a Rufous Hummingbird overwinter in her yard the past two years, and that it was still there as recently as this week. A Montgomery birder had a Black-Chinned Hummingbird visit his feeder this winter as well. Perhaps the best places to spot a wide variety of hummers in Alabama are at Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island, where the birds regularly rest after crossing the Gulf of Mexico.
But by far the most common hummingbird in Alabama is the ruby-throat. The males, of course, can be easily recognized by their red throat that blazes in direct sunlight. But it can appear more black than red in shadows or in indirect sun. The females have a white throat, and juvenile males resemble the females. By late summer or early fall, juvenile males usually show "spots" of dark feathers as their ruby throats start to develop.
You can attract hummingbirds to your back yard in two ways -- by planting flowers that attract them, or by putting out hummingbird feeders filled with nectar. But lots of people like a combination of the two.
Lots of flowering plants that grow well in Alabama attract hummers. We have the red trumpet honeysuckle in our backyard, and the early hummers almost always seem to go to it before the feeders. (But make sure you get the red trumpet honeysuckle -- also called coral honeysuckle -- instead of the yellow-flowered and invasive Japanese honeysuckle, which will take over your yard and crowd out desirable plants.) An Internet search can find a wide variety of plants suitable for attracting hummers. (A side benefit is that many of them also attract a variety of butterflies.)
But by far the easiest way to attract hummingbirds is with a nectar feeder.
Feeders come in all shapes and sizes; plastic, glass, metal -- you name it. You can spend as much as you like or just a few dollars. Some are beautiful in their own right, and if you're into that, spend the extra money. But from my experience, the birds won't care.
But there are some factors to keep in mind when purchasing a feeder:
-- Bright colors: I like red, but hummers are attracted to other colors as well. But I've also read that bees are more attracted to yellow, so I stick to red.
-- Either get a feeder with a built-in ant guard or buy a separate ant guard. You'll appreciate the investment.
-- Look for feeders that have bee and wasp guards on the feeding ports.
-- Remember that you have to clean these feeders at least once a week (twice is best in the heat of summer), so look for feeders that are easily cleaned and taken apart.
Now for the nectar. You can buy prepared nectar, but it's much cheaper and better for the bird to make your own. If you do buy it, do NOT get the kind with red dye. However, I highly recommend that you make your own, since it is better for the birds. If you make it, do NOT use red food dye. (Some of my photos may show red nectar, but they were taken before I knew better.)
-- A simple solution of 1 part cane sugar to 4 parts water makes a suitable nectar. I bring mine to a boil for two minutes and let it cool to room temperature. Unused nectar can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or two. Never, NEVER, use honey or brown sugar or artificial sweeteners.
-- Change the nectar at least once a week, and at least twice a week when temperatures get into the high 80s or more. Clean the feeders each time you change the food. White vinegar and water is better than soap. Rinse thoroughly. Nope, you didn't rinse thoroughly enough. Do it again.
While this may sound like a lot of trouble, I think you will find it's well worth the effort. Julie and I love to watch the hummers from our sun porch, especially in the early morning or right about sunset. They will feed all day long, but seem most active early and late in the day.
The hummers get very protective of their food sources and will dive bomb another bird infringing on their feeder. Especially in late summer and early fall, we'll get seven or eight hummers vying for the same feeder. We call it "hummingbird wars."
If you've ever seen old black and white movies of aerial "dog fights" in World War I, with a host of biplanes weaving in and out and around one another, you'll get a notion of what it's like.
Audubon Teaches Nature -- The next Audubon Teaches Nature event will feature veteran naturalist Greg Harbor discussing the use of field marks to identify birds. It will be at the Oak Mountain Interpretative Center at Oak Mountain State Park at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 20. I highly recommend coming early to tour the Alabama Wildlife Center, which rehabilitates and releases native Alabama birds. For information, go to: birminghamaudubon.org
Alabama Ornithological Society -- The AOS spring meeting is scheduled for April 15-17 at Dauphin Island, allowing plenty of time for spotting both migratory warblers and shorebirds, and perhaps a hummer or two. For information on membership and meetings, go to: www.aosbirds.org
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper writer and editor who now writes regularly for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at email@example.com. Email items for Bird Notes at least two weeks in advance of an event.
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