Here’s the buzz on hummers: Citizen scientists rise early to record data on the tiny, much-loved birds

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Mary Alexander, a volunteer with the Hummingbird Conservation Network, catches a bird at the Dunton Guard Station in August.

Mary Alexander, a volunteer with the Hummingbird Conservation Network, catches a bird at the Dunton Guard Station in August. Photo by Janneli F. Miller.

In the predawn darkness of a mid-August morning, four women unload several camp chairs, a folding table, net traps, a heavy box of scientific equipment, and some personal gear from a white SUV. It’s just over 40˚ F. above 9,000 feet in elevation at the Dunton Guard Station up the West Fork of the Do­lores River.

A few minutes later a couple more cars arrive with the rest of the crew. These are citizen scientists, volunteering their time to participate in the Hummingbird Conserva­tion Network’s monitoring project, which, according to the website, involves “listen­ing and learning from hummingbirds. It is an essential tool to identify species at risk, assess population size changes, and deter­mine how hummingbirds respond to envi­ronmental changes.”

Several of the group of volunteers at Dunton have been engaging in humming­bird monitoring for 14 years, starting when local residents Phil Kemp and Kathleen Turnbull attended an informational meet­ing about the network, hosted by then-For­est Service wildlife biologist Kathy Nickel.

Kemp and Turnbull have been involved since then, and are joined by Karen Orde­mann, who currently bands the birds, and Mary Alexander, who have both been par­ticipating in the project for 11 or 12 years – laughing as they tell the Free Press they can’t remember exactly how long. Alexan­der recalls she went to a presentation on the project at the Dolores Public Library given by Kemp and Turnbull. “I decided I could do it, so I started coming up,” she says.

This is no small thing, as the volunteers leave Dolores at 5 a.m. in order to reach the Dunton Guard Station before sunrise.

Kemp notes that “14 years is really huge for a citizen science project.”

Kathleen Turnbull holds a hummer that is preparing to fly.

Kathleen Turnbull holds a hummer that is preparing to fly. Photo by Janneli F. Miller

At the site, Alexander unwinds a cable that holds four hummingbird feeders, tak­ing them down before the hummingbirds arrive. Ordemann sets up a card table and starts arranging her equipment, which in­cludes a small peg board holding aluminum bands in four sizes with color-coded match­ing pliers set nearby, a revolving plastic rack with clips, magnifying glasses and head­gear, tweezers, measuring calipers, flash­light, straw, a tiny scale and tiny screen, net bags as well as a couple of clip boards, data sheets and pencils.

Nearby, Alexander and a couple of other volunteers unpack two circular net hum­mingbird traps, which are set up approxi­mately 30 feet apart, one near some spruce trees and one out in the open meadow overlooking the Dunton valley. The traps are hung from an arched metal frame and consist of a feeder surrounded by a circu­lar net enclosure with a bottom, all attached to a fishing line with handle, which is then clipped to a metal pole about 12 feet away. The line raises and drops the circular net from the bottom of the trap (also net) when unclipped.

At 6:30 a.m. everyone is in place: Orde­mann is at the table ready to band birds, Kemp nearby with pencil and data sheets, Turnbull in the “feed and release” position at the table, while Alexander and Brandy Dunn, a local resident participating in this year’s monitoring, sit in the chairs by the trap release poles.

Kathleen Turnbull displays one of the banded birds.

Kathleen Turnbull displays one of the banded birds. Photo by Janneli F. Miller.

There’s a bit of light to the east, and the temperature is 41˚ when Kemp announces “Traps open” as he and the trappers record the time, temperature and weather condi­tions. Hummingbirds have begun buzzing around Alexander’s traps and within sec­onds she drops the net, successfully trap­ping two birds, which are flying around in­side the circular net, looking for escape.

Their escape comes in the form of a net bag. Alexander, a skilled hummingbird catcher, lifts one edge of the netted trap, inserts her arm and reaches for one of the birds. She quickly and gently catches the small bird, placing it tenderly in one of the net bags, and closes the opening. She then catches the second bird and hands the bag to this reporter, who is instructed how to carefully carry the bags at arm’s length over to the banding table where the bags are clipped onto the hanging rack.

Now Ordemann and Kemp get to work, while the others continue trapping. Orde­mann removes a net bag from the rack and begins to examine the bird while it is still in­side the bag, searching its tarsus (leg bone) for a band, and checking feathers to deter­mine sex and species. If there is a band, she reads out the numbers while Kemp records them. He compares these numbers to his list to see if the bird has been banded be­fore at this location.

But this first bird has no band. When a bird is not banded it is Ordemann’s job to put a new one on. She measures the hum­ mingbird’s tarsus, then chooses a band from four different sizes that will fit on the bird’s tiny leg.

“The bands are an aluminum alloy that’s sturdy enough to form, but lightweight,” says Ordemann, explaining that the bands don’t interfere with the bird’s activities at all. “We band every bird that doesn’t have a band,” she says, while noting that once there was a bird without a leg, “so we didn’t band that one.”

Each band has a number that Ordemann reads out for Kemp to record in the data sheet he fills out, which is then later entered into a database the network maintains, as well as recorded in a national database.

After the bird is banded, Ordemann continues her examination, determining species, sex and age. While Ordemann is experienced, she keeps an identification guide open nearby and carefully matches the bird’s features to the pictures if she is in doubt – since juveniles can be difficult to identify.

Accuracy is important. She determines this first bird of the day to be an adult male broad-tailed hummer.

Ordemann, who has been banding for three years now, took a week-long work­shop in Arizona offered by the Humming­bird Conservation Network to learn how to band, trap and capture the birds. She said not everyone passes the class.

“You have to handle the birds carefully, and also work with precision and speed. You don’t want to leave a bird on the rack for over 30 minutes,” she explains. “Precise data is more important than speed, how­ever,” she continues. They also learn how to ID the tiny birds, examining tail feathers, throat color, overall size and shape, as well as size and shape of the beak.

From left, Brandy Dunn, Mary Alexander, Karen Ordemann, Kathleen Turnbull, and Phil Kemp are local volunteers with the Hummingbird Conservation Network.

From left, Brandy Dunn, Mary Alexander, Karen Ordemann, Kathleen Turnbull, and Phil Kemp are local volunteers with the Hummingbird Conservation Network. Photo by Janneli F. MIller.

It takes 5-7 minutes per bird to examine, band, and record all the data needed for the monitoring project. When the rack has about six birds, Kemp announces “Close the traps” and notes the time.

At this point, Alexander and Dunn, the volunteers who have been trapping, now stay in their chairs observing and recording the activity around the traps. Data to be re­corded includes how many hummingbirds are visiting the feeder, which means they ac­tually sit on the red bottom plate below the glass container and drink from the feeder.

Alexander’s trap near the spruce trees is full of constant activity, with as many as five to seven birds visiting at one time while as many as 20 others fly around and back. It’s really not possible to track specific birds, as they fly so fast and just generally hover around. However, the total numbers, including those trapped and assessed, are helpful to the monitoring project.

On this day, there were 250 visitors in the first hour at Alexander’s trap, which is busy. Meanwhile Dunn’s trap had only 10 visitors in the first hour. Overall 49 hummingbirds were trapped during the five-hour session this day in mid-August.

Alexander mentioned that at a previ­ous session on June 26 they trapped only three birds, all broad-tailed, and two were recaptures and already banded. The think­ing there is that since wildflowers were in full bloom, the feeders weren’t attracting as many birds.

But all of the August sessions at the Dun­ton site were busy, with 58 birds trapped during the session in early August – which may indicate that as the wildflowers fade the birds resort to the feeders to ready them­selves for migration.

Other data recorded when the trapping is on hold includes whether the birds are “trap checkers,” meaning they fly around the feeder but do not land to drink.

Another category is “escaped,” which means the bird was trapped in the net, but flew away when the volunteer was trying to catch it. This usually happens when one side of the trap gets lifted too high from the bottom, allowing the bird to fly out.

The record also includes the times traps are open and closed, as well as the weather, temperature, and name of the person col­lecting the data.

The monitoring takes place for five hours, starting within half an hour of sun­rise. All monitoring sites follow the same schedule, to allow for accurate data collec­tion and recording as well as for seasonal comparisons between the sites – which can help researchers determine timing and dis­tance of migration for each species.

The monitoring schedule means all sites record data in the same week, but not al­ways on the same day. Monitoring begins in March and continues through October, depending on the site. Ordemann explains that this depends upon the specific locale, as the birds remain in Arizona, the south­ernmost site, longer, from March through October. The local sites here in the Four Corners usually are open from late May or early June through the end of August.

This year the last session at Dunton in August was quite busy (60 birds trapped) so the season may extend another week into September, depending upon whether or not the birds stay for another two weeks.

Hummingbirds typically migrate from their winter range in Mexico to as far north as Canada, moving up the Pacific Coast to British Columbia, where many of them breed, such as the rufous, then back down through the Rocky Mountains.

Rufous hummingbirds typically travel over 4,000 miles from breeding sites in Canada to their win­tering habitat in Mexico.The species that breed in the Rocky Mountains – and which are seen at Dunton – include the black-chinned, calliope and broad-tailed.

The Hummingbird Monitoring Project al­lows researchers to learn more about specific mi­gration and breeding patterns of each spe­cies. Ordemann noted that researchers used to believe hummingbirds lived only three to five years, but this research indicates they live longer.

One bird banded at Dunton returned eight years later. The longest-lived hum­mingbird on record so far was a female broad-tailed, banded in Colorado, which lived to 12 years.

The longest lifespan recorded for a ru­fous was eight years, and six for a ruby-throated.

The HCN monitoring project is provid­ing new data which is demonstrating that these little birds live much longer than pre­viously thought.

The network currently has more than 30 monitoring locations, from Canada to Mexico. It began in 2002 with two sites in Arizona and California. There are now four monitoring sites in Arizona, including Har­shaw Creek near Patagonia. Other stations in Arizona are at Fort Huachuca, Paradise, and Mt. Lemmon, all in Southern Arizona.

In the Four Corners there are six moni­toring sites: two in Colorado at Dunton Guard station and Mesa Verde National Park; one in New Mexico at Bandelier Na­tional Monument; and three in Utah, at Calf Creek Recreation Area, Escalante In­teragency Visitor Center, and Wildcat Visi­tor Center.

The HCN website states, “We work closely with the land managers of these territories to support their needs to main­tain positive and long-term relationships to allow us to continue working together in these areas. Our purpose is to support each study site where trend and effectiveness monitoring programs occur, ensure and maintain long-term monitoring sites, and promote strong relationships with partners and landowners.”

The Hummingbird Conservation Net­work was begun by Susan Wethington, Barbara Carlson and George West, after Wethington received her Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the Univer­sity of Arizona.

Now based in Patagonia, Ariz. (near the Harshaw Creek monitoring site), the orga­nization’s mission as stated on its website, “is to help hummingbirds survive, repro­duce, and thrive while engaging human communities to demonstrate how they can benefit economically, socially, and ecologi­cally through their hummingbird conserva­tion activities. Maintaining hummingbird diversity and abundance throughout the Americas is still a primary focus of the or­ganization.” Their hope is to promote con­servation of hummingbird habitat, nurture citizen-science networks, and develop eco­nomic income streams to sustain their con­servation, monitoring and research projects.

The organization is multinational, with personnel and projects in the Andes moun­tains, the tropics of Mexico, Canadian breeding grounds, Sonoran deserts, and our local Rocky Mountain region.

“Fresh all around, trace of fat, and it’s a juvenile male broad-tailed,” says Orde­mann, examining the tiny bird in her hand.

She explains that “fresh” means the feathers aren’t molting or worn. “This bird is ready to fly,” she smiles.

Kemp pencils in the information, then listens for the rest of the information.

“Twenty percent orange on the gorgette, moderate stippling,” dictates Ordemann, after carefully removing the bird from the bag and holding it delicately between her fingers.

She checks the shape of the tail, the condition of the feathers, and measures the wing and beak length. The beak is key to de­termining the bird’s age, since beaks are short when the birds are born. Or­demann ex­plains that the beaks grow rapidly, acquiring striations or grooves, and by the sec­ond year they are long and smooth.

A bird is classified as an adult if it is two years or older. Ju­veniles are in their first year, usu­ally having hatched in British Co­lumbia.

The num­bers of males, fe­males and juveniles changes over the season. “At first we see a lot of males, who are usually the first to migrate,” explains Kemp. Later there are more females, and then the juveniles, who were hatched in Canada or the Northern Rocky Mountains, start appearing. These observations help researchers learn about species-specific migration patterns, as well as the impacts of climate and habitat change.

Ordemann takes the straw and blows into the bird’s feathers on the back of its neck to determine the molt, wear, and fat. “The hummingbirds will molt either before they fly or after,” she says.

Kemp explains, “When they arrive they don’t usually have much fat. They want to have a lot of fat before they leave. The ones that breed here – broad-tailed, black-chinned, and calliope – are gathering fat as soon as they leave the north.”

They eat a lot of sugar – which is what the record of whether or not they have pol­len and what color it is can tell researchers – but they also stock up on protein provided by insects.

Meanwhile, Alexander is busy trapping more birds. Her feeder by the spruce trees is super busy, and she has to wait for some of the birds to leave so she doesn’t trap too many at once.

“Two is the most we should trap at a time,” she explains.

This is so the birds don’t bump into each other in the small net trap, and so the trap­per doesn’t harm a bird while catching it.

This reporter had the chance to catch a hummingbird, and it’s no easy feat. The birds fly madly around inside the circular net enclosure, and the trick is to approach them with an open hand and very gently close the hand around them – not at all tightly, but enough to have a secure hold long enough to gently place them in the net bag and close it. Once the birds are in the bag they generally calm down, and are carried over to the rack for measuring and banding.

At 6:38 a.m. Kemp calls out, “Close traps!” since the trappers have caught six birds in eight minutes. It’s a busy day! Or­demann reiterates that the birds should not stay in the bags on the rack for more than 30 minutes, so as not to traumatize them. She works quickly and precisely, to mini­mize the time they are handled.

Turnbull, who is doing the “feed and re­lease,” also monitors the birds in the bags to make sure they are OK. If she notices one that seems overly stressed, she tells Orde­mann it needs to be measured next.

When Ordemann has finished banding and examining the bird, and Kemp has checked to see that all the data for this one has been recorded, Ordemann wraps it in a tiny net and places it on the scale.

Turnbull reads out the weight for Kemp to record, “4.2 [grams], boy is he a fatty,” she says of the black-chinned male, while gently unwrapping the net and delicately holding the tiny bird between her fingers. She places its beak into the feeder so it can drink. Most of the time the birds eagerly swallow the sugar water, but some don’t.

Turnbull talks to the birds as she feeds them. When they seem satiated, she places them in her palm so they can fly away. Some seem a bit dazed and just sit quietly on her palm, in which case she talks to them or raises her palm, moving her arm in a mo­tion mimicking the flight pattern of the bird. Most of the time the birds fly away quickly.

Kemp notes that some people are con­cerned that this entire process traumatizes the birds. However, he explains, “We’ve had birds that come back four or five times in the same day – we’re definitely not trauma­tizing them. We like to band – that’s really why we’re here, because we can tell where they go.”

One bird recently caught at Dunton had been trapped and banded at Dunton before, and by tracking the bank they determined it to be 7 years old. The most common birds found at Dunton are by far the broad-tailed and black-chinned, which breed in the Northern Rocky Mountain region, with an occasional calliope – the smallest North American hummer – and also a fair number of rufous – which travels the furthest of all hummingbirds.

Rufous hummingbirds have been re­ported to beat their wings at a rate of 200 times per second, and various researchers have clocked their flying speeds from 14 to 60 miles per hour (songbirds fly between 20 and 35 mph). In order to maintain such incredible speed, the birds consume a large amount of sugar – from flowers and feed­ers – and protein – from insects.

Researcher Walker Van Riper measured the amount a free female broad-tailed hum­mingbird drank from a feeder, and discov­ered she consumed an average of twice her own weight of the syrup, but that this was only 42 percent of her overall weight, meaning she was also consuming a fair amount of insect protein.

Hummingbirds maintained in aviaries and fed only on sugar have all died, so it is clear they do need protein. Researchers have found that the birds regularly consume insects they find on flowers and also catch flying insects in the air.

The birds store up on fat before they engage in their lengthy migrations, and an­other interesting fact is that the birds sleep – or “noctivate” – by dropping their nor­mal body temperature (which is from 102˚ to 108˚) down 4˚ to 8˚, or below 93˚ when noctivating. They do this in order to con­serve their resources in inclement weather such as snow, cold rain or hail, or when rest­ing during longer migrations. To keep from freezing in colder climates they often take shelter in caves, abandoned mine shafts or other protected spots.

Many people keep hummingbird feeders and enjoy watching these tiny but power­ful birds, but some worry that the birds may become dependent on the feeders, and could interrupt their migration as fall tem­peratures drop and winter comes on.

Not to worry, says Ordemann. “Hum­mingbirds are smart. They know when it’s time to migrate.”

The feeders at the Dunton site were al­ready starting to see less activity at press time.

What people who keep feeders do need to be aware of is how to clean and maintain the feeders, as well as where to hang them.

In our region, they should be kept at least 10 feet high in a shady area, to prevent bears from getting to them, as once a bear knows where an accessible feeder is, it will return.

In order to prevent deadly fungi and bac­teria from growing in the feeder, all parts must be able to be cleaned regularly with a brush and without soap, in sterile (boiled) water, and this should be done at least weekly.

Homemade syrup is also preferable, as it does not contain preservatives, which can be harmful to the birds, but which the store-bought varieties do have. Check the Audu­bon website below for more information.

Another feature of the Hummingbird Monitoring Network’s activities is outreach and education. Visitors are welcome to visit the sites during monitoring sessions, but they need to be respectful of the research and data collection going on. Visitors can contact the local project coordinators if they want to visit during the season, which generally lasts from June through August at Dunton. There is also a monitoring site at Mesa Verde National Park, which has had fewer birds this year than the Dunton site. Ordemann and Kemp are not sure why.

“Maybe it is because of the drought?” says Ordemann.

People who are interested in volunteering can also fill out a contact form on the Hum­mingbird Conservation Network website, which also has information on workshops and events.

Steve Winiecki is an Arizona resident who came up to the monitoring session at Dunton in late August as a guest of volun­teer Brandy Dunn. He and his wife were able to watch Dunn trap several hummers, and they were also able to observe Orde­mann examine the tiny birds.

“In my 62 years, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said, thrilled to have the chance to get up close to these fascinating birds.

Local contacts for the Hummingbird Conservation Network are:

  • Karen Ordemann, 970-882-2450
  • Phil Kemp, 970-882-2251

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From September 2021.