Monday, September 27, 2010

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Migration--Part II

There's some cold air moving into east Tennessee right now with steady rain through last night and this morning.  I'm located in the Tennessee Valley on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains.  It's amazing how different 60 degrees F can feel when its accompanied by rain and wind.  Without a doubt, our hummingbirds are feeling it too.  (Click images to enlarge)
Just two days ago, I spent most of the day outside on a sunny, breezy, short-sleeved day.  Sometimes Ruby-throats pulled me out the door with their wing buzzing and shrieks.  A dozen or more had descended upon the feeders, arriving in waves, ahead of the rain.  Another time it was the Pileated Woodpecker family with the male announcing their arrival.  And once you're out the door, anything can happen.
But I'm devoting most of this post to a hummingbird juvenile, one who endeared himself to me far more than I expected.  I noticed him a day earlier, perched on the stem brace in a flower pot on the patio--the flower pot positioned just below his feeder and only a few feet from my door.
I saw my last male Ruby-throat on September 19th.  According to Bob Sargent, a leading hummingbird specialist, the females usually follow the males within about ten days.  The majority of birds we are seeing now are juveniles, with a few late-nesting females.  That change in population make-up has dramatically altered the feeder dynamics.  I still see all the threatening displays, scolding, chasing, beak biting and body slamming, but there are also some peaceful periods in between.  Below you see a battle image that made me shudder.
Challenged by the fact that I was hearing clashing sounds--'splats', I called them--like wings or beaks striking, and also that I saw one hummer land on another's back through my lens, I became determined to capture a few action images, no matter how blurred, to confirm for myself what kind of contact was happening.

I'm showing you these images to round out the picture and dispel any doubt about whether hummers are sweet.  They may look sweet, but behaviorally, they are not.   And they do get injured.  Feathers are stripped off, skin is exposed, and strike wounds appear.  It's a bit reassuring that they all have speed, long beaks, and for the most part are among peers this time of year, so the field is relatively level.  Experience and superior genetics seem to make the difference in who prevails.  But while watching these juveniles, my heart tugs as I quietly gasp at their relentless aggression.  Despite all the 'hoodlum' antics and ambushes, this is necessary training for survival.  Only 20% of this year's juveniles will survive to reach their first year milestone.    
This juvenile male you see above was particularly mean or stealth, as we might call it.  In comparison to the other juveniles who flared tails, chirped and gave warning, he slammed unsuspecting birds relentlessly during his stay.  In my mind, I alternately called him, Calico and Mr. Bad, cringing at some of his attacks.  I believe all that color under his chin is his emerging gorget feathers but it's hard to tell.  Here's another view of him below from a different angle.
But now I want to show you the sweet moments, the ones that endear these birds to us, capture hearts, and guarantee attachment.  Below you see the flower child.  He not only guarded the feeder but incorporated the flowers below it into his territory, swinging down to sip nectar as he returned from chasing intruders.
And here is what was so different.  He and another juvenile guarded their nectar source from the top of the feeder, the feeder perch itself, and from perches below it, all places of disadvantage in the presence of more experienced birds.  At the top of their form, males in my yard typically perch twenty or more feet away, giving opportunity for steep, high-speed dives and unquestionable dominance.  After seeing that kind of action, these late juveniles, no matter how fierce their intent, seemed endearingly naive by comparison.

As much as watching his behavior at such close range, a distance of about seven feet, what endeared him to me even more was his acceptance of my presence.  Neither the clicking of my camera nor my movement in and out the door stirred more than a casual turn of his head to see what I was up to.   And yes, despite all the mean-tempered combat I've witnessed, I still call them 'sweet'.  Oh my, will I ever miss them when they're gone!

To see more of my blog posts about hummingbirds visit Ruby-throated Hummingbird Migration and Hummingbird Banding.  And you may enjoy reading Hummingbirds and Sea Turtles to see what brings these two species together for me while creating art.

Reference for the latest on hummingbirds:
Hummingbird Study Group .


  1. ...really cool post. Love the hummingbird tongue...and the action shots are impressive.

  2. Gorgeous shots of the hummers Vickie. They are definitely a tough bunch but I didn't realize that only 20% live to see their first birthday!

    The close-ups are fantastic, the last one with the tongue sticking out, priceless!

  3. Wow these are the most awesome photos, Vickie!! I too dearly love the hummers---and have also witnessed their fury. I'm in Mooresburg, TN and all of mine have been at your house this past week.:) We've only had the occasional straggler through here for the last few days. I always miss them when they leave for the Winter. I go from filling a 4-cup feeder every other day to a half cup just for those that are slow in pulling out their maps leading South. :) Thanks for the wonderful photos and info.

  4. Those are just amazing shots - the tongue especially! I was never a big hummer fan, but now I'm feeling I was wrong to dismiss them just because they remind me of bugs. That was a really good post!

  5. These photos are amazing!!! Each one is more spectacular than the last - and the post about their behavior is very welcome. I am surprised that we still have a few around our feeder due to the colder weather we have been having - but that burring sound of their wings and the chirp chirp always draws me to see one again. Thanks for sharing the great photos and post!!

  6. What excellent captures of these vicious creatures. Their behavior is so unexpected. I love to watch them tho. We only have one coming to the feeder now. It won't be long and there will be none until next spring.

  7. I love this and learned so much from this post. I also think KY should get some of the rain, for it has been two months now since the grove got a drop~

  8. I really enjoyed your post, Vickie! I loved looking at your photos (Great captures) and hearing of your experience with the Hummers.

  9. I miss all that bickering and buzzing ! My "rubies" are leaving!


For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham