Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Miniature Miracles

Most people are familiar with hummingbirds...tiny, flying jewels that never seem to sit still, flitting from flower to flower. They are so tiny and look so fragile. But these birds are remarkably resilient. The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds we see in the eastern part of the U.S. migrate each year from Mexico and Central America up into the U.S. from the Gulf Coast all the way to Canada -- and then back again! More species of hummingbirds occur in the western part of the U.S. than the east, and some of these little birds also migrate. They are supposed to head for Mexico and Central America as well, but in the past 30 years or so, people have started seeing them along the Gulf Coast and even in some eastern states during the fall and winter months. Dubbed "western vagrants," these birds may take up residence in our yards here in Louisiana for the winter and keep us company while we're missing our ruby-throats. The most common of these western hummers is the Rufous (technically, Selasphorus Rufous). I've been fortunate enough to host a handful of these birds, mostly Rufous, over the past few years (since I've known to keep my feeders up and pay attention!). Nancy Newfield and her crew have come to my yard each year to try to band these birds so that we have a better idea where they come from and where they go. Since these birds nest from the northern Rockies to Alaska, one of them may turn up 2500 miles away some day!

Today was Banding Day 2010. They caught 2 female Rufous hummingbirds in my yard. One was new... The first thing they do is apply a band, in case the bird escapes while it's being handled. Generally they are very docile and of course they are treated very carefully. The tiny aluminum band contains a unique code of a letter and 4 digits that identifies only this bird. It's applied gently to the tiny leg of the bird.

Each bird is inspected carefully for general health and to try to determine age....

Each bird is weighed... they're looking to see if she's put on fat and might be ready to migrate back to the west coast

The feathers are inspected to see where she is in the molting process. Hummingbirds generally replace their feathers during the winter months -- getting all pretty for the breeding season!

After the banding is done and all the data about the bird are recorded, the bird is marked with a non-toxic liquid "paint" that will allow us to see from a distance that this bird has been processed. If there is one more than one bird in a location, different colors are used so the host can tell the birds apart. Since this is virtually impossible without the color-marking, this is one of our favorite parts of the process. The "paint" will disappear as the bird molts their head feathers.

This pretty girl is ready to go! We caught her again twice this morning when she came back to the feeders. She had a pretty trying day but I'm sure she'll be fine. She's a tough little bird!

Nancy Newfield and Kevin Morgan on stakeout, patiently watching the traps...
The second bird that was caught today turned out to already have a band on her leg! She was banded in my yard in 2006, so this is her 4th year to travel thousands of miles cross country to my yard! If that doesn't amaze you....well....I just give up :-)

She was marked in blue so I can tell her from the other bird. They think there may have been a 3rd one in my yard, so if I see one that's unmarked I'll know that's the case....

And I got the honor of holding her for the release. The best way I can describe this is "a feather with a heartbeat." She's so light you can barely feel the weight of her on your hand, but you can feel the heartbeat just vibrating, it's beating so fast... She rested there for a moment...and then poof! Back to the shrubbery!

Since she's come back for 4 years in a row, I decided she needs a name. She shall be called "Tish" for "titiana" which means auburn-gold the beautiful feathers in her gorget.

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