MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - If you haven't already, it's time to get your hummingbird feeders out. The Ruby Throats are back.
I saw my first Ruby-throated Hummingbird this week at my backyard feeder in Montgomery, so they will soon spread throughout Alabama as the tiny birds make their annual trek north from their wintering grounds in extreme southern Mexico and Central America.
As difficult as it sounds for a bird that weighs only a fraction of an ounce, most of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds we see in Alabama fly across the Gulf of Mexico in their 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 up to 500 miles in a single flight.
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.
Other hummingbirds are sometimes sighted in Alabama, of course. I saw a Rufous Hummingbird here in Montgomery in December and January that has wintered here for several years. (It has been banded, so we know it's the same one.) (See photo.) Other Western hummers sometimes winter here in Alabama.
But by far the most common hummingbird in Alabama is the Ruby Throat. (See photos from past years.)
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 mostly 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 -- plant flowers that they like, or put out hummingbird feeders filled with nectar -- just plain white sugar and water. But lots of people like to do both.
Many 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. (Many of them also attract butterflies.)
But by far the easiest way to attract hummingbirds is with a nectar feeder.
Feeders come in all shapes and sizes as well as in plastic, glass or metal. You can spend as much as you like or just a few dollars. Some are beautiful decorations, and if you're into that, spend the extra money. But from my experience, the birds won't care.
There are other 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 keep that in mind. I seem to get wasps no matter the color, so check closely for them before you take down a feeder to clean it and replace the nectar.
-- 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 and twice 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 cheaper and better for the birds to make your own. If you do buy it, do NOT get the kind with red dye. If you make it, do NOT use red food dye. (Some of my photos 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 80s or higher. Clean the feeders each time you change the food. White vinegar and water is better than soap. Rinse thoroughly. No, you didn't rinse thoroughly enough. Do it again. And maybe one more time for good measure. (Before I store feeders for the winter, I clean them with diluted bleach and rinse and dry them thoroughly.)
It's well worth all this effort. Julie and I love to watch the hummers from our sun porch, especially right about sunset. They intermittently 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 at a 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." It reminds me of old black and white movies of aerial "dog fights" in World War I, with biplanes weaving in and out and around one another.
-- Alabama Ornithological Society: Kevin Karlson, the author of several books on birding and a professional nature guide, will be the featured speaker and lead several field trips at the AOS spring meeting on Dauphin Island April 21-23. Karlson is co-author of "Birding by Impression: A Different Approach to Knowing and Identifying Birds" and "The Shorebird Guide." He will join with another professional wildlife guide, Andrew Haffenden, to lead several field trips during the three-day weekend.
Karlson will hold a workshop on Friday evening on identifying birds by impression and on Saturday evening will present a program on "Birds on the Wind -- the Miracle of Migration." Dauphin Island is one of the best sites in North America to see migrating warblers and shorebirds.
To see a schedule of activities, to join AOS or to register for the meeting, go to: www.aosbirds.org
-- Birmingham Audubon Mountain Workshop: This respected and wide-ranging nature workshop will turn 40 years old when it is held May 11-14 in Mentone. Classes will explore the ecology, wildlife, and culture of northeastern Alabama. Knowledgeable faculty members will lead classes and field trips on such things as animal ecology, stream biology, beginning and advanced bird identification, mammal identification, insect collection, geology, Native American culture, canoeing and more. There is also a program aimed at youth. Participants will stay at either Mentone's Alpine Camp or at nearby DeSoto State Park. For information, go to: birminghamaudubon.org
-- Birmingham Audubon Teaches Nature: Alabama Birding Trails, April 30, 2-4 p.m. Joe Watts, Birmingham Audubon president, will discuss the success of and plans for the Alabama Birding Trails program. The program will be at Oak Mountain Interpretive Center. The program is free, but the usual admission to the park is required. For information, go to: birminghamaudubon.org
-- Birmingham Audubon field trip to Bushy Creek Lake in Bankhead National Forest, April 15, 7 a.m. - 5 p.m. Details, birminghamaudubon.org
-- North Alabama Birdwatchers Society field trip to Monte Sano State Park, April 15, 7 a.m. Details at: www.northalbirding.com
-- The Alabama Birding Trails web page has developed a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature-related activities around the state that is much more detailed than space allows here. Most of the activities are open to the public and many are free. See it at: alabamabirdingtrails.com
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is an updated version of a past column. To see other columns, go to: http://www.wsfa.com/category/245234/ken-hares-natural-alabama