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The Ingenious Architect: How the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Builds Her Nest

i May 31, 2024 No Comments by

This month, Wake Audubon invites you to join us in a blog-writing experiment. This Bird of the Year article for June was composed by ChatGPT-4 and edited, amended, and fact checked by me, contributing writer Brittany Richards. With mating season in full swing, and our female Ruby-throats preparing to raise their broods, I prompted ChatGPT to write a “blog post about how the Ruby-throated Hummingbird builds her nest.” I changed and added supporting details to ensure factual accuracy and to provide additional information about our fascinating hummingbirds. Please share in the comments any thoughts or feedback you have about this A.I.-assisted post. And if you prefer your articles written entirely by human beings, then you can look forward to next month when we will return to our regularly scheduled programming! 

The Ingenious Architect: How the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Builds Her Nest

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is a marvel of nature, not only for its dazzling aerial acrobatics and iridescent beauty but also for its extraordinary nest-building skills. These tiny birds create nests that are intricate and remarkably sturdy, tailored to the survival of their young. Let’s delve into the fascinating process by which the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird constructs her nest, a masterpiece of avian engineering.

Location, Location, Location

The first step in the nest-building process is selecting an appropriate site. Just as every aspect of rearing her chicks is a solo endeavor, the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird chooses the location for her nest all by herself. Typical sites include the slender, horizontal branches (out on the limb, and not in the fork) of deciduous trees such as oak, maple, or sweetgum (but also less frequently in evergreens such as pines), usually 10 to 40 feet above the ground. These locations are typically near a reliable food source and provide ample cover to protect the nest from predators and harsh weather. Rarely will a nest have survived the previous winter and can be refurbished in the spring. But a female may use the same tree, and even the same branch, as previous years to build her new nest. Likewise, in areas where a female raises more than one brood, she may reuse her nests, but may also build a second nest even while still raising chicks in her first! 

Female sitting on a slender branch. Photo by Bob Oberfelder

Female sitting on a slender branch. Photo by Bob Oberfelder

Gathering Materials

Once a suitable site is chosen, the female begins gathering materials. The construction of the nest involves a variety of natural materials that are both lightweight and durable. Key components include plant down, spider silk, and lichens. Plant down, sourced from dandelions, thistles, and other plants, forms the soft inner lining of the nest, providing a comfortable and warm environment for the eggs. Spider silk is a critical material, used to bind the nest together. It offers remarkable elasticity and strength, allowing the nest to stretch and accommodate the growing chicks. Lichens, collected from tree bark, are used to camouflage the nest, making it less visible to predators

Building the Foundation

The nest construction starts with the foundation. The female uses her tiny beak and feet to weave the spider silk into a flexible base that will attach securely to the chosen branch. This initial phase is crucial, as it ensures that the nest is anchored firmly and can withstand the elements. The spider silk’s adhesive properties are especially valuable here, creating a sturdy but pliable base.

Crafting the Cup

With the foundation in place, the hummingbird begins to build the cup-shaped structure that will house her eggs. This process involves meticulous layering and weaving. The female alternates between adding plant down and spider silk, molding the materials with her body to shape the nest. She uses her body as a mold, pressing against the sides to form a perfect cup shape. This stage requires incredible patience and precision, as the nest must be both deep enough to keep the eggs secure and compact enough to conserve heat.

Camouflaging and Final Touches

After the basic structure is completed, the female focuses on camouflage and insulation. She meticulously applies lichens to the outer surface of the nest. The lichens blend seamlessly with the bark of the tree, rendering the nest nearly invisible to predators. This camouflage is crucial for the survival of the eggs and, later, the chicks. Additionally, the female may use more spider silk to reinforce the nest and ensure it remains securely attached to the branch.

The final touches include adding extra plant down to the inner cup, creating a soft and insulated environment for the eggs. The entire process can take up to 10 days to complete.. Despite the small size of the hummingbird, the resulting nest is a marvel of engineering, typically about the size of a walnut (meaning just about 2 inches across and 1 inch deep!), yet strong enough to protect and nurture the next generation of these tiny birds. The nest, with its elastic properties, expands as the chicks grow, providing a secure home until they are ready to fledge.

Finding a Hummingbird Nest

Because they are so tiny and well camouflaged, a Ruby-throat’s nest is usually very difficult to spot. But you may know that nest building is underway nearby if you see a female hovering around the eaves of your home collecting spider webs. In addition to planting native pollinators and providing a nectar feeder, another way to attract hummingbirds to your yard is to leave spider webs undisturbed so they are available for hummingbird nests! And remember, if you are lucky enough to find a nest, it is illegal to disturb or damage it, so leave it be. Even after nesting season is over, it is best to leave the nest alone and admire it without touching it. 

Conclusion

The nest-building process of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of nature. Each nest is a unique creation, perfectly adapted to its environment and crafted with a blend of skill and instinct. Through her diligent work, the female hummingbird ensures the safety and comfort of her offspring, contributing to the continuation of her species in a world full of challenges. If you ever spot a tiny, camouflaged nest high in the trees, take a moment to appreciate the remarkable effort and craftsmanship that went into its creation.

Two videos of Ruby-throats building their nests:

From the Michigan Nature Association

From the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission



The (Humming) Birds and the Bees

i Apr 30, 2024 No Comments by

By Brittany Richards

Pollen – so much pollen – is not the only thing wafting on the breeze these days. Love is also in the air! Signs of nature’s fecundity are all around us this time of year. For all of us backyard birders, we delight to see the mating pairs of so many of our songbirds succumbing to the call of the season; the males wooing their mates with fancy feathers and fanciful flights. We know in a few weeks’ time we will see the fruits of their efforts when our feeders are visited by the first fledglings, feathers still fluffy, wings still wobbly. So what about Ruby-throated romance? How do our hummingbirds court and couple?

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird courtship story is a brief affair, more fling than lasting love. It begins when the migrating males arrive first in the summer breeding grounds and stake a claim. They will look for abundant food sources and then aggressively defend an area of up to a quarter acre. Tiny but feisty, males jealously guard both food and females within their boundaries. While these fights are typically more about intimidation than injury, with flaring feathers, harsh chirps, and darting dives, there may be occasional casualties. If you find an injured bird, it is best to confine it in a small container, like a shoebox, lined with a towel, and take it to a nearby wildlife rehabilitator. (On the Wake Audubon “Links” page you can find a list of local organizations under “Injured birds and other wildlife”.) 

Threat Display. Photo by Mike Dunn.

Threat Display. Photo by Mike Dunn.

Food is such a precious resource for hummingbirds who need to feed so frequently that females will also guard food sources such as nectar feeders. To encourage fewer squirmishes, you can plant flowers to offer more feeding locations in your yard, or put out multiple feeders. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers this advice: “Overall, you’ll feed far more hummingbirds by setting out four tiny one-port feeders than one giant eight-port one. Spread them out and the birds won’t have to see one another, arousing their territoriality.”

But back to our love story! After a male has successfully claimed a territory, he will attempt to mate with as many females as possible. When a potential mate is within his range, he will try to get her attention with a courtship display that includes whirring and chirping, flashing the feathers of his gorget (that beautiful ruby throat of his name), and a signature U-shaped flight with dramatic dives from as high as 50 feet above her. When she is perched, he will make short flights buzzing back and forth in front of her. Like many facets of this solitary and somewhat secretive bird’s life cycle, it is not precisely known which aspects of this behavior are most persuasive to females. The flashiness of his throat? The energeticness of his display? But some studies of hummingbirds suggest it is the quality of his territory more than his physical attributes that is most attractive. 

Male with gorget on full display. Photo by Bob Oberfelder

Male with gorget on full display. Photo by Bob Oberfelder

When a male has successfully won the affection of the female, the act of mating lasts only a few seconds. As with most birds, this involves a “cloacal kiss” where the cloacae (the single rear opening that is used for digestive, urinary, and reproductive purposes) are briefly pressed together. And this is where the romance ends! Unlike the doting males of some species, who may build the nest or feed their partner or help rear the young, Ruby-throated males will part ways as soon as mating is complete, leaving the female to perform all the duties of raising the young on her own. But while she may be a single parent, she may still receive some indirect support from the male. There is some debate whether females will build their nests precisely in the territory of their mating partner, or a neighboring territory of her own. But it is believed that she and her young will benefit from the male’s territorial guarding in her vicinity because she and her young will have less competition for nearby food sources. 

Ruby-throats are definitively polygynous, meaning the males will mate with multiple females in a season. But it is also believed that they are polygynandrous, meaning the females will mate with multiple males as well. A female will have one to two broods a year, with a single brood more common in the northern part of the breeding range where the season is shorter, and a third brood being possible in the southernmost part of the range where the season is longest. Here in North Carolina, a female will typically have two broods, almost always of two eggs each. 

With spring fully sprung, and the season of romance in full swing, hopefully your backyard is aflutter with love birds of all sorts. Meaning in a few weeks time, you’ll be treated to some adorable baby sightings as well! 

A male’s ruffled ruby throat. Photo by Bob Oberfelder.

A male’s ruffled ruby throat. Photo by Bob Oberfelder.

 



Celebrating our Volunteer Award Winners, Colleen Bockhahn & Larry Zoller!

i Apr 24, 2024 No Comments by

Authored by Jeff Olander, Communications Committee member and volunteer with Wake Audubon.

Happy Volunteer Appreciation week! Did you know that Wake Audubon is an entirely volunteer-run organization? We depend on volunteers to table at events, educate local groups and schools, participate in Advocacy Day, lead nature walks, and so much more. So to all of our volunteers we say a very big Thank You!

Every year we recognize two volunteers for their exceptional service and commitment to the initiatives and goals of Wake Audubon Society. Each receives an award that speaks to their strengths. The Paulette Van De Zande Volunteer Award goes to one who embodies a spirit of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes and interests. The John Connors Conservation & Environmental Education Award honors one who demonstrates significant participation in conservation and environmental education activities for the furthering of Wake Audubon’s mission.

Larry Zoller (Left) receiving his award from WAS President, Dave Powell (right).

We are happy to present this year’s Paulette Van De Zande Volunteer Award to the wonderful Larry Zoller! Larry is our Chair of the Education and Outreach Committee and retired middle school teacher. He is extensively involved in leading bird walks, organizing and presenting nature-oriented talks, and representing Wake Audubon at various events. He loves sharing wildlife discoveries from his frequent international travels and participating in North Carolina Audubon’s Advocacy Day. Larry has a knack for connecting with youth in ways they can relate to, whether it’s setting up a plastic spider jump-scare, showing off animal skulls, or simulating animal skat. 

Recently, Larry was a quiet champion for conservation at Hilltop Needmore Park in Fuquay-Varina. Thanks to his tireless photo documentation of park wildlife, residents were moved to vote down a development bond. Taken together, Larry Zoller’s outstanding contributions to community building, environmental education, and wildlife conservation make him a highly deserving candidate for the Paulette Van De Zande Volunteer Award. His dedication, leadership, and passion for environmental stewardship serve as an inspiration to others, embodying the spirit of volunteerism.

Colleen Bockhahn (left) receiving her award from WAS President, Dave Powell (right).

Colleen Bockhahn (left) receiving her award from WAS President, Dave Powell (right).

Next, we are thrilled to give the 2024 John Connors Conservation & Environmental Education Award to the amazing Colleen Bockhahn! Colleen is an educator and leader in conservation. At Lake Crabtree and White Deer Parks she has supervised many community youth programs including nature walks and Scouts badge achievement. Colleen educated the public on the management of invasive plants while serving on the NC Invasive Plant Council. As a conservation leader, she steered policy for the Town of Cary and Wake County Parks. She has served on the boards of the Carolina Bird Club and Wake Audubon Society. In fact, for two years, Colleen was our very own Chapter President! Her adeptness in crafting job descriptions and onboarding materials has streamlined volunteer roles within Wake Audubon, enhancing our efficiency and effectiveness.

In summary, Colleen’s outstanding service embodies the spirit of the John Connors Conservation and Environmental Education Award. Her dedication, leadership, and passion for environmental conservation have made Wake Audubon and the communities we serve better. Congratulations to both our awardees for 2024! Many thanks to them and to all of you who volunteer with us!

It’s Stress Awareness Month. Let birds be your remedy.

i Apr 23, 2024 No Comments by

Authored by Rick LaRose, Wake Audubon board member and Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging co-chair. Reach Rick at [email protected].

I’ll admit I’m stressed a lot of the time. Work. Relationships. Health concerns. The wellbeing of my nearly 90-year-old parents. Doing my best to be the best son, brother, partner, mentor, coach, co-worker, friend, board member or committee chair I can be. Though I try, I’m not always the best at navigating these, and all the sources of stress can be – well, stressful. 

The catalysts of stress are many. 

Common stressors in our everyday lives can include relationship and family situations, financial worries, health concerns – ours and those we know and love, and work-related issues or academic challenges. 

Stress may be triggered by time constraints, overwhelming expectations and all the demands on us in our day-to-day lives. 

We might feel uncertainty about major life changes, like losing a job, starting a job or moving. 

We might feel stress in our desire to be seen or heard, or to find empathy and understanding. 

We might feel stress about big picture problems like political strife, climate change, systemic inequalities, or the suffering of others around the world due to war or famine. 

There seems no lack of reasons for our stress. Experiencing one or more of these can leave us physically and emotionally worn out. 

Are you stressed too? If so, you are not alone. 

People who live in North Carolina have shown signs of being impacted by stress more than most. North Carolina was ranked seventh out of 49 states across four stress metrics: employment, housing, health, and Google search trends, according to data scientists at Leafwell, as reported by The Charlotte Observer August 2023. 

Those Google search trends included stress-related search terms such as unemployment rates, changes to housing prices, and stress relief and stress remedies, the report stated. 

Our inability to manage stress can lead to more. 

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization. NAMI advocates for all who are affected by mental illness, both the individuals and the people in their lives. In particular, they work to address disparities and injustices and to promote dignity and inclusion for all people with mental illness and their families.

According to NAMI, an estimated 1 in every 5 adults experiences mental health problems each year. 

In 2023, our rate of mental illness in NC was 19.8%. 

30.1% of adults have anxiety or depression. 

Our ability – or inability to process stress is a high contributor to this reality for many in our community. Every person has some risk of developing a mental health disorder, regardless of their demographics.

Stress can manifest in both physical and emotional ways.

While in short bursts stress can help to increase productivity or maintain focus, chronic stress takes a toll on overall well-being.

The physical effects of stress on our bodies can be profound, manifesting in increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension and headaches, digestive issues and sleep disturbances. 

Emotionally, stress can take a toll on our mental well-being, leading to increased anxiety, worry and nervousness, and persistent feelings of irritability or sadness. 

April calls our attention to stress awareness.

April, designated as Stress Awareness Month by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), brings attention to the diverse sources of stress that impact individuals across various aspects of life. 

NIMH prompts us to learn what causes or triggers our stress and what coping techniques work for us. Activities they recommend include sticking to a sleep routine and getting enough sleep; exercise and healthy regular meals; and relaxation exercises to practice mindfulness, which is a psychological process of actively paying attention to the present moment. 

One way to mitigate stress is right outside. 

Some great news is that there’s a counter to stress right outside our windows and doors. 

As I’m writing this a mockingbird has perched atop my chimney, or fake chimney in that it frames the vent from our gas log fireplace. I’m able to hear it as if it’s in the room. Cycling through its repertoire, I’m allowing myself to pause, to take in the lovely gift of song it’s brought to me. 

I find myself noting the number of times the mockingbird repeats a phrase (known to be 2 – 6) before shifting to a new sound, and the different sounds I hear given that the mockingbird is a skilled imitator of so many other birds, with sharp rasps, scolds and trills among its delivery. 

Compelled to look outdoors, male goldfinches, having reclaimed their bright yellow color, are drifting with females to and from a feeder with sunflower chips. A downy woodpecker is cautiously grasping the feeder pole, staging its next move to a suet cake. A Carolina wren is popping about flowerpots, always the investigator. I can’t help but smile to think that it’s likely seeking to build its nest in our grill again this year. How it manages to do that I haven’t a clue. 

Male and female cardinals dart about and begin to chirp. With the mockingbird now quiet, I faintly hear the slow, thin Old-Sam-Peabody-Peabody’ whistle of a white-throated sparrow – one of my favorite bird songs – which beckons me to slow my pace and be present in the moment with it too. 

All within a few seconds my mind is lifted away from all that was busying it. After that respite I find myself more methodically thinking about my day, ready to take on my tasks ahead. 

The health benefits of birding and bird song are many.

Cognitive stimulation: Engaging in birding (the observation of birds) and listening to bird songs stimulates cognitive function. The sensory experiences of observing birds in their natural habitats and tracking their chirps and songs can be mentally rejuvenating. Learning about different bird species, habitats, and behaviors enhances cognitive skills such as observation, attention, and problem-solving, providing a cognitive challenge and a sense of accomplishment. 

Emotional well-being: The serene environment of natural settings and the beauty of bird songs evoke positive emotions, such as joy, awe, and gratitude, which promote psychological resilience against stress-related mood disturbances and foster contentment. Observing birds and listening to their songs can be meditative experiences, calming the mind.

Physical relaxation: Spending time in nature and engaging in birding also induces physical relaxation and reduces muscle tension. The peaceful ambiance of natural landscapes and the rhythmic sounds of bird songs trigger the relaxation response, lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of stress hormones like cortisol. 

Physical activity: At the same time, birding often involves outdoor activities such as walking, hiking, and exploring natural environments, promoting physical activity and exercise. Regular physical activity is essential for stress management and overall health, reducing the risk of chronic diseases and improving physical fitness.

Connection with nature: Birding cultivates a sense of wonder and interconnectedness with the natural world. Immersing oneself in natural environments promotes environmental stewardship and a sense of perspective, which can alleviate stress and promote holistic well-being. 

Community and social connection: Birding often fosters a sense of community and social connection among enthusiasts of all birding abilities. Participating in birding groups allows individuals to enjoy companionship with others who share a like curiosity about birds. Our social connection can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are common sources of stress. 

Mindfulness: And as I described, birding and bird song can capture all our attention, immerse us in the present moment, provide respite from worry and promote mental clarity. 

This benefit is well realized by Wildlife Biologist Phil Doerr too: “After many decades of birding, it’s clear to me that this activity requires focus that puts me ‘in the moment’. Closely watching a bird flit erratically through the underbrush to detect field marks and clues to the bird’s identity (wing bars, eye color, rump patch color) requires concentrating all my senses, releasing me from all other competing thoughts or concerns.”

“The bird of the moment captures my entire attention, that is, until the next bird of the moment captures my entire attention, and so the time plays out. All the while I’m surrounded by other birds singing and calling in the canopy above, providing a comforting cacophony that further immerses me in a nature ‘time-out’.” 

Benefits of birds are backed by research. 

A 2022 study involving nearly thirteen hundred self-selected respondents, primarily from the United Kingdom, but also from the European Union, U.S., China, and Australia, concluded that “Everyday encounters with birdlife were associated with time-lasting improvements in mental well-being. These improvements were evident not only in healthy people but also in those with a diagnosis of depression, the most common mental illness across the world.” 

The study indicated that “the effect of birds was greater than what would be expected by being exposed to green spaces. In other words, while nature, in general, has a salutary effect, seeing and hearing birds went beyond that of the outdoors by itself.”

A local mental health advocate knows the benefits first-hand.

I had the pleasure of meeting the new Executive Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Wake County Mark Simon, on a recent Wake Audubon bird outing. Mark is passionate about NAMI’s mission, mentioned above. He’s passionate about birding too, in support of his own mental health, and promotes it to others:

“My own journey with birding began exactly two years ago on April 24, 2022. The stress of graduate school, social isolation, a chronic ankle injury, and a particularly acute flare-up of a mood disorder were taking its toll on my health and wellbeing. Having read an article about the health benefits of birding, I bought a cheap pair of binoculars, downloaded eBird and Merlin, and went for a quick walk in the woods. The half-mile trip lasted just 30 minutes, but proved to be more restorative than any other self-care activity I tried since moving to North Carolina. As time went on, birding became an integral part of my ‘mental health toolkit,’ supplementing professional care and medication.”

“Birding for self-care is unique in its adaptability. It can be enjoyed solo or in group settings. During the day or in the evening. With just your eyes, ears, or both. Off the beaten path, from a car, or even the comfort of your own home. Having the flexibility to tap into this stress reliever no matter my schedule, physical ability, or state of mind, has been life changing. It’s why I’m so enthusiastic about sharing this activity with anyone who may be struggling with their mental health.”

When you’re next feeling stressed, take time – with birds – to decompress. 

The Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, also known as forest bathing, involves spending time in a natural environment, focusing on sensory engagement to connect with nature. If you’ve ever been in a forest, listened to the birds, and watched the sunshine filtering through the leaves, this practice asserts that you’ve already participated in one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental well-being.

While I’m thankful to my backyard mockingbird for having unexpectedly invited me to a much-appreciated mental health break, I’m striving like Mark to be more intentional in making time for my physical and mental health: to ease my stress each day with short breaks to glance or make my way outside, to forest bathe in a nearby greenspace, and make plans take part with others in nature. 

Might you pledge to do the same? 

Apps can be of aid.

If you choose to take technology along, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s free Merlin and eBird apps Mark mentioned are two we recommend. 

Answer three simple questions about a bird you are trying to identify and Merlin will give you a list of possible matches. Sound ID listens to the birds around you and shows real-time suggestions for who’s singing.

Use eBird Mobile to search for recent reports of species nearby and find new birds you’ve always wanted to see. When you’re ready, this resource can help you to create and submit lists of your birding activity, and receive lists from leaders whose outings you join. As an added bonus, all the data from everyone’s lists becomes openly available for scientific research, education, and conservation. Feel proud about your contribution to community science. 

Connect with birds, nature – and others, with Wake Audubon. 

Wake Audubon hosts numerous bird outings each month, and we warmly invite you to join us no matter your birding ability. Everyone’s welcome, as you are; members and non-members; free of charge. We have binoculars to borrow. Leaders and participants are eager to help everyone sight and hear what can be found. 

Delight in a slow-paced sensory excursion with others, all together, present with nature. Find outings listed on Wake Audubon meetup and our website calendar

If seeking time in nature on your own, you might choose among these local birding sites.

Here’s to all of us realizing the mental and physical health benefits of managing our stress – during Stress Awareness Month, and every month. Nature and birds are ready to help. 

Notes

In addition to being a Certified Wildlife Biologist, Phil Doerr is retired Professor Emeritus in the NCSU Fisheries and Wildlife Program, former Wake Audubon board member and conservation chair, and current Wake Audubon Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging committee member instrumental in our Beginner Birders Program. 

Mark Simon welcomes you to connect with NAMI Wake County to learn more about their range of advocacy, education, awareness, and support programs.

 

Sources 

National Stress Awareness Month. Link.

Feeling anxious? You’re not alone. NC ranks among ‘most stressed out’ states. Here’s why. Link

Stress statistics 2024: How common is stress and who’s most affected? Link.

How Bird Songs Improve Mental Health. Link

Bird and birdsong encounters improve mental health, study finds. Link.

Birding with Benefits: How Nature Improves our Mental Mindsets. Link.

The Surprising Health Benefits of Bird-Watching Link.

The Rubies Return

i Mar 31, 2024 No Comments by

By Brittany Richards

The pear and cherry trees have bloomed and leafed out. The eastern redbuds are glorious fuschia. Your yard is abuzz with chubby carpenter bees and flying insects of all sorts. But how do you know it’s really spring? The first hummingbird sighting of the season, of course! Our bird of the year, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, will be returning soon (if you aren’t already one of the lucky few to have welcomed an early visitor). While there is still much unknown about the exact mechanics of their spring migration, what scientists have been able to learn offers a fascinating glimpse at the remarkable feat these tiny birds undertake on their way to our backyards. 

Ruby-throat in flight. Photos by Mike Dunn

We know from our last blog post that our hummingbirds are preparing for their spring journey by fattening up in their wintering grounds and refreshing their beautiful plumage, and that male birds will leave first to establish their territory. Just as they did last fall, most birds will take an overwater route and fly 500 miles nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico before reaching the Gulf coast states to refuel while making their way to the North Carolina piedmont and beyond (and smaller numbers will hug the coast to migrate over land). It is believed that their overwater flight largely takes place at night, while their migration over land happens during the day and near ground level to take advantage of food sources for frequent feeding. 

But why do they leave their tropical paradise at all? Ruby-throated Hummingbirds evolved to take advantage of the seasonally available flowers in their two habitats, and that adaptation is now a hardwired instinct. Their northern summer breeding territory is six times larger than their winter territory (25 million square miles versus four million square miles), so when nectar-producing flowers bloom in abundance across eastern North America, hummingbirds migrate to feast on the bounty. They likely know when it is time to migrate because they are sensitive to changes in the photoperiod, or the amount of daylight hours in a 24-hour timeframe. So as spring days grow longer, hormonal signals trigger the instinct to head back north. 

Ruby-throat at Jewelweed flower. Photo by Mike Dunn.

When the Ruby-throats reach the southeastern United States, they will fan out across the summer range, as far west as Texas and as far north as Canada. Studies of banded Ruby-throats shows that birds will take astoundingly consistent routes: flying the same route in spring and fall and the same route each year, and even stopping over at the same places along the way, and in some cases stopping on the same day, until they return to their own birthplace where they hatched. So the birds you see return to your feeder are indeed likely the same birds you saw last year. With an average lifespan of three to four years, you can enjoy seeing the same birds for several summers. Scientists do not know precisely how they accomplish this amazing precision, especially considering Ruby-throats migrate alone without a parent or flock to guide them. Along with instinct, they may use some combination of sensing the Earth’s magnetic field, using the sun as a compass, and noticing landmarks to remember their favorite layovers and find their final destination. 

As we all anxiously await a familiar fluttering at our feeders, the National Audubon Society has a handy list of hummingbird feeder FAQ to help us prepare a tasty meal for our hungry migrants. Some general tips to keep in mind:

  • Not only is red-dyed nectar unnecessary, it’s actually harmful. A simple homemade recipe is one part white sugar to four parts water (and never honey, molasses, brown sugar, or artificial sweeteners). 
  • The hotter the weather, the more frequently the feeder needs to be cleaned. Placing your feeder in the shade is a good way to keep it from spoiling as quickly. Early in the season you also won’t need as much, so you can use less (and waste less!) at the start. 
  • In addition to your nectar feeder, native plants are a great way to attract and feed hummingbirds (and other pollinators). The National Audubon Society also provides tips for creating a hummingbird-friendly yard and a database of native plants based on your zipcode. 

Ruby-throat at feeder. Photo by Bob Oberfelder

Hopefully you’ll mark the true start of your spring season with a Ruby-throated visitor or two very soon. After their long journey north, your birds will be very grateful for your nourishing nectar! 

Embracing the Majesty of the Northern Cardinal

i Mar 26, 2024 No Comments by

Authored by Rick LaRose

This is the first of a series of blog posts to spotlight some of our native songbirds matched to the colors of the rainbow Pride flag, starting with the color red. Find more context here.

The Northern Cardinal, with its vibrant plumage and enchanting melodies, is a beloved symbol of beauty and vitality in North Carolina. Let’s delve into the captivating features and behaviors of this iconic bird, which graces our landscapes with its presence year-round.

Size and shape

– Cardinals are medium-sized songbirds, measuring around 8 to 9 inches in length.

– They have a distinctive crest on their heads and a sturdy, cone-shaped bill, perfect for cracking seeds.

Color and pattern

– Adult males are adorned with brilliant red plumage on their bodies, crest, and face, contrasting with their black masks and throat patches.

Northern Cardinal, male. Photo by Keith Kennedy.

Northern Cardinal, male. Photo by Keith Kennedy.

– Females are predominantly brown with red tinges on their wings, tails, and crests, while juveniles have a similar appearance to females but with a duller coloration.

Northern Cardinal, female. Photo by Keith Kennedy.

Northern Cardinal, female. Photo by Keith Kennedy.

Calls and songs

– The Northern Cardinal’s song is a series of clear, whistled phrases, often described as “birdie, birdie, birdie” or “cheer, cheer, cheer” which to me can sound like a rapid-fire ray gun.

– They also produce a variety of other vocalizations, including sharp chips and metallic chinks, used for communication with mates and warning of predators.

Habitat

– Cardinals are adaptable birds, found in a variety of habitats including woodlands, shrubby areas, parks, and suburban gardens.

– They prefer areas with dense vegetation for nesting and perching, as well as access to open spaces for foraging.

Behavior

– Northern Cardinals are primarily seed-eaters, feeding on a variety of seeds, grains, and fruits, as well as insects and spiders.

– They are often seen foraging on the ground or in low vegetation, using their strong bills to crack open seeds and extract the nutritious contents.

Migration and seasons in NC

– Cardinals are non-migratory birds, maintaining their territories year-round, and often remain paired with the same mate for several breeding seasons.

– They are most active during the breeding season in spring and early summer, when males sing to establish and defend their territories.

– Cardinals may also be more visible during the fall and winter months when food sources are scarce, often visiting backyard feeders for supplementary food.

Meaning

– In many cultures, the Northern Cardinal is associated with positive attributes such as vitality, renewal, and strength.

– Its vibrant red plumage is often seen as a symbol of energy, passion, and courage, while its melodious songs are thought to bring joy and happiness.

– Some believe that spotting a Northern Cardinal can bring good luck or serve as a reminder of loved ones who have passed away. For one of my cherished friends, they’re a symbol that her departed mother is near.

The Northern Cardinal is a revered emblem of North Carolina’s natural beauty, captivating us with its striking appearance and captivating melodies, providing color and song to our landscapes throughout the year. No wonder the NC General Assembly of 1943 named this unmistakable red, crested songbird as the official State Bird of North Carolina.

A common site in North Carolina, providing color and song to our landscapes throughout the year, the Cardinal is often credited as “the red bird” that first piques the interest of backyard birders. I find them to be the first birds at my feeders in the morning, and the last to visit at dusk. Have you seen the same?

So, let’s celebrate the Northern Cardinal for vibrantly representing the color red of our rainbow flag and captivating us with their beauty and symbolism.

Sources:

National Audubon Society (Guide to North American Birds | Audubon)

Cornell Lab of Ornithology (All About Birds)

Birdzilla (Bird Meaning & Symbolism)

And my own personal experiences

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Highlighting a Colorful Array of Birds and the Catalyst for It: Inclusivity

i Mar 20, 2024 No Comments by

Hi all, Wake Audubon board member and Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (EDIB) co-chair Rick LaRose (he/him) here.

Starting this month, you’ll begin to see posts to our blog about birds other than our bird of the year, which as you know by now is the glorious ruby-throated hummingbird. Here’s just a quick note to invite you to read those posts, and provide an explanation as to what they’re all about.

Last fall Wake Audubon partnered with local nonprofit Field Inclusive, Inc. to co-create and pilot a Beginning Birders Program that’s tailored for historically excluded and underrepresented groups, communities and organizations to build skill and confidence in their enjoyment of the outdoors. The LGBT Center of Raleigh, Outdoor Afro, City of Raleigh Parks and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission are partners with us too. Segments of our program speak to field and social safety concerns by those marginalized by others. I’m proud to say that our pilot workshops with members of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities were well received.

For those of you new to Field Inclusive, Inc. nonprofit, it was spearheaded by two amazingly impressive women at NC State University, Lauren Pharr and Murry Burgess. Learn more about them and Field Inclusive on their website.

Wake Audubon proudly sponsors Field Inclusive research and climate change grants, and champions their mission to amplify and support marginalized and historically excluded field biologists. Field Inclusive envisions a world in which the outdoors feels safe and welcoming regardless of personal identity. And so do we.

Wake Audubon pledges to advance our mission with EDIB at the center, and provide activities where all can safely access and celebrate nature as their authentic selves. Read more in our statement on EDIB.

This year Wake Audubon and Field Inclusive will excitedly continue to co-host programming for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ participants, as we also gear up to create offerings for Persons with Disabilities. We celebrate these efforts towards an inclusive outdoors.

Why be inclusive?

From a human perspective, every one of us is unique. What opportunity that poses for all of us. I’m constantly awestruck by all I learn, and the perspective and inspiration I gain from opening my heart and mind to receive the lived experiences of others. To be quick to pass judgement denies oneself of such riches.

From a conservation perspective, it takes the world to save the planet. Just as birds differ in color, size, behavior, geographical preference, and countless other ways, so is there equally remarkable diversity of the human species.

Protecting and conserving nature and the environment transcends political, cultural, and social boundaries. Respect, inclusion, and opportunity for people of all backgrounds, lifestyles, and perspectives will attract the best ideas and harness the greatest passion to shape a healthier, more vibrant future for all species who share our planet.

Now, back to those bird posts. As a way to promote a birding mindset, the executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh, Kori Hennessey, and I thought it would be fun to spotlight a few species of birds, and to correlate each to a color of the rainbow Pride flag. So, starting next week with the color red, I’ll familiarize you with a bird a month. This may provide new knowledge to the novice birders among you, with perhaps a nugget or two new for you seasoned birders too.

Thank you for supporting Wake Audubon in our mission to advocate nature and environmental conservation, and to lead education, conservation and advocacy efforts to grow our region responsibly and with concern for birds, wildlife and the places all of us live together.

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Welcome to the month of spring!

i Feb 29, 2024 No Comments by

Authored by John A. Gerwin

As I write this, in late February, there are many trees in flower, along with the usual spate of Daffodils and a few other early herb arrivals.  Speaking of early, I watched a pair of Carolina wrens gathering large clumps of moss, and begin constructing a nest in a shrub in the backyard, on February 21. It seemed amazingly early.  Soon, we will be seeing additional “early birds”.

Normally, we expect to see the first returning Purple Martins to Wake County in early March. That said, our colleague Courtney Rousseau recently reported one from Holly Springs, on February 24. Things are happening earlier and earlier.  Considering history, we expect to get a few reports of Ruby-throated hummingbirds in North Carolina in late March. However, most of us in Wake County are accustomed to seeing our first of the year hummers in the first two weeks of April.  You can follow along at this website: https://maps.journeynorth.org/map/?map=hummingbird-ruby-throated-first&year=2024

In most migratory bird species, males move through or arrive to a territory prior to the females. This makes sense in that males are racing to get back, get a prime piece of habitat, and establish a territory. Ruby-throats are similar in this regard.

In order to return to its breeding area, a given hummingbird will once again fatten up, the way it did when it was getting ready to head south. An individual that is not in migratory status or condition will weigh 3-4 grams. By the time it is ready to migrate it may weigh 6g. Note that in some cases, the bird has doubled its weight!

So, for most Ruby-throats, March is a month of gluttony as it were – they are still on the non-breeding grounds in a Mexican or a Central American locality. Many are also completing the body molt. Studies show that the head and throat (gorget) feathers will finish growing in by around mid-March.

Indeed, when you see your first males, try to assess the lower edge of the red gorget. A bird hatched in the previous year will often show a somewhat jagged edge whereas the older birds (greater than 1 year old) exhibit a more concise, straight-edge. It’s now always easy to tell with binoculars, but it can be with a digital photograph. That red gorget by the way will look black at certain angles and the way the light is hitting – but the edges are still edges.

Note that across the species broad range, we see quite a bit of variation from year to year in terms of “first seen” dates, and numbers visiting feeders. This is how nature is – there are various factors that affect the timing of movements of birds, and their subsequent distribution. And we don’t understand all of these factors.

As we are seeing more and more, plants are springing forth sooner in the season. Some birds are beginning to nest earlier than ever before. One way we discern these patterns is through the contributions of many amateur naturalists. So if you are so inclined, be sure to post your observations to your favorite website  – which may be eBird, or Journey North, or iNaturalist.  Here’s the map from 2023 for Ruby-throat observations submitted to Journey North. You can use the slider to see how things look by the week.

https://maps.journeynorth.org/map/?map=hummingbird-ruby-throated-first&year=2023

And now that you know some hummers may show up as early as late March, you can plan to have your hummingbird feeders ready to go.  In the early spring, I prefer to start out with very small quantities of my homemade nectar. I know that visits to my feeders, in early April, we will few and far between. If I put out a feeder full of nectar, it usually gets moldy long before it is consumed. So I wait and see how many hummers seem to be around before I put out a larger quantity.

And remember – these little tykes consume many small arthropods. Indeed these make up about 50% of their diet.

Attached are some pictures to get your ready. I realize this only makes the month of March feel that much longer….. but this year we have Easter Weekend to help with the waiting….. maybe your Good Friday will be super good when you spot your first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of 2024.

Photo legends:

All photos by Bob Oberfelder

#1: Here is a “classic” view with full light hitting the gorget of a male Ruby-throat.

#2: This male might be a younger male – the edge of the gorget is slightly jagged. Note the darker area of the throat due to the angle of light, which in this case is not refracting to allow the red wavelengths.

#3: The color on the gorget of this individual appears a bit duller. The color is derived from the interaction of light waves and the feather structures and the way they overlap. Small changes in the structures (wear) or overlapping (puffed up or not)  can yield slightly different hues to the red.

#4: A classic “I think I have discovered a new species of hummingbird!”.  I have received many such emails and phone calls. Many folks do not realize that the gorget color is the result of structural features of the throat feathers, and not pigments. If the light does not hit and/or refract back in a Goldilocks manner (“just right”), the color appears dark, or black, as in this individual.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird – February

i Feb 1, 2024 No Comments by

Author: John A. Gerwin

February is a chilly, darker month. In the Piedmont of North Carolina, we experience some of the coldest nights, and least amount of daylight. The Ruby-throat is a Neotropical migrant, similar to the warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers and more that breed in NC. Most of “our” hummingbirds departed months ago. In NC, some leave as early as late July, others follow as summer turns to fall, and most are gone by late October. They make their way to Mexico or countries in Central America.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, back view with tail spread. Photo by Mike Dunn.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, female. Photo by Mike Dunn

Most Ruby-throats migrate south. However, not all of them do. For years, folks have reported wintering hummers in NC. And for some of those years, Susan Campbell and colleagues have caught, measured, photographed, tagged, and released many. They have found a mix of species, but many were Ruby-throats. We do not know why this happens (but we have some opinions all the same. We’ll see if we can get Susan to chime in one month).

During the winter months in Mexico/Central America, a Ruby-throat will be in places with a handful of other species. Keepers of bird lists currently list 340+ species of hummingbirds – all in the western hemisphere.  “Neotropics” means New World Tropics.  I’ve seen a few Ruby-throats on the west side of Nicaragua for example. Where the Ruby-throat can be found in Nicaragua, one might also find two dozen other species of hummingbirds. I have included pictures of a few of these other species.

In the non-breeding season, the Ruby-throat prefers habitat in areas that are drier overall, and often a bit scrubby (forest openings with second growth, forest edges, and some agricultural settings; among others). They will nectar at flowers we might grow in our gardens – various Salvia species for example. They continue to feed on minute arthropods for protein, and have an inordinate fondness for small spiders.

We know that hummingbirds exhibit some extreme life history behaviors and physiological adaptations. One of these concerns the molt cycle and there are aspects of the molt cycle we do not yet fully understand. Hummingbirds, as a group, rely on flight for feeding. Due to their small size, they are subject to extreme “stress” in order to maintain their high body temperature and functions. All to say, they do not molt quite like other birds. I can’t get into all the details here but will note that adults undergo a complete molt (body and flight feathers) after the breeding season. What’s really curious is that recent research has shown that some individuals undergo a molt in summer and apparently another during the winter.

In songbirds the post-breeding season molt can be completed in 6-8 weeks. In Ruby-throats, it is reported to be slower and much more protracted, when compared to the migrant warbler or thrush.. An interesting aside: in 1936 a researcher counted the number of body feathers on some Ruby-throats; he came up with 940.

At the species level then (Ruby-throat), the molt cycle runs from late summer to mid-winter. Individuals will do things differently, and as mentioned some may begin to molt body feathers in late July. These Ruby-throats then migrate while they are molting (or, if you prefer, molt while they are migrating). The question is, when does that July-molting bird complete the molt? No one knows for sure. One researcher did a fairly thorough study of the molt of Ruby-throats, assessing individuals in Mexico and Central America. His data showed that many Ruby-throats began a molt of the flight (wing/tail) feathers in November and completed it by the end of February. Many (most?) individual Ruby-throats complete the body molt in March, when the males’ new gorget feathers grow in.  Still, other aspects of the molt remain unknown. To understand precisely which birds are molting what/when/where, we will need a lot of marked birds that can be followed, month to month.

In February, Ruby-throats are sharing time/space with a large variety of tropical hummingbird species. In addition, they are preparing for the northward migration and some will indeed begin to migrate north during February. Many aspects of their migration also  remain unknown – but we do know that some will arrive in the southern U.S. by early March.

Here we provide a link to Cornell’s eBird website for the non-breeding range of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. This is a page where the user can zoom in and do other ‘animations’ (note also options on the right-hand side).

https://science.ebird.org/en/status-and-trends/species/rthhum/range-map?season=nonbreeding

Finally, I have included photos a few species of tropical hummingbirds in Nicaragua, which ranges overlap that of a given non-breeding Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Crowned Woodnymph – male

Crowned Woodnymph – female

Long-tailed Hermit

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird – 2024 Bird of the Year

i Dec 30, 2023 No Comments by

Authored by Brittany Richards.  Goodbye. Hello! While this tiniest of feeder visitors may have bid backyards farewell months ago, Wake Audubon Society warmly welcomes as its 2024 Bird of the Year, Archilochus colubris: the Ruby-throated Hummingbird!

Even as the days grew shorter and pumpkins began appearing on porches, you replenished your nectar, just in case the emerald-backed and ruby-throated birds that enchanted you all summer needed a final sip of fuel before they began their long journey south. But as the maples and sweetgums turned crimson and gold, you realized your feeders had fallen silent, and you resigned yourself to the fact that even the last stragglers of the season had moved on, and you will have to await the ruby-throateds’ return in the spring. 

But where will the birds who nipped nectar all summer in your yard spend their winter? As improbable as it may seem, these birds, with an average weight of just about 1/10 of an ounce – less than the weight of a single nickel – will travel thousands of miles to reach their wintering grounds in Central America (extending from southern Mexico, throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, to as far south as Panama). A smaller population of birds will stay along the tip of Florida and the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the US to spend their winters stateside. So when our North Carolina days have become chilly and our flowers have all but disappeared for the season, the birds who flitted and fed around your yard all summer may be as far as 3,000 miles away enjoying a verdant, tropical winter.

Surprisingly little is known about the exact routes and duration of their migration, but research suggests that birds stopover throughout the Gulf coast, feeding and refueling for only a few days at most before continuing their journey to their final destination. It is believed that birds follow both an overland route, but also an overwater route that requires an 18-22 hour nonstop flight of 500 miles over the Gulf of Mexico. Just as amazingly, all ruby-throated hummingbirds make this trek alone, even first year migrants, who navigate on instinct alone without a parent to guide them. One study of ruby-throated hummingbirds showed that the southernmost birds of the summer range migrate first. So with our hummingbirds in North Carolina generally departing in late summer, those October feeder visitors very well may be birds from further north just passing through on their way south. 

Though it was once feared that leaving feeders out too late in the fall would discourage hummingbirds from migrating, it is now known that this is a myth. It seems a combination of hormonal signals, the availability of natural food sources, and the decreasing amount of daylight triggers the migration instinct. So while it is certainly reasonable to store your feeder when it has been two weeks since your last sighting of a hummingbird, it will do no harm to leave it out longer. And in fact, should you decide to provide nectar all winter, you might even spot a visit from a so-called winter vagrant. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the only species with a breeding range in the eastern United States, but with increasing frequency, species either beyond their typical range or birds overwintering between October 15 and March 15 can be spotted in North Carolina. In particular, eastern sightings of the western species, the Rufous Hummingbird, which usually winters in Mexico, are being seen at feeders in the southeast US. It is unknown if more birds are actually spending their winters outside their usual wintering grounds, or if more people are just monitoring their feeders throughout the winter and reporting these sightings. If you do spot a winter visitor, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has an ongoing project to track these vagrants, and you can report your own sighting on their website

Most of us may not enjoy this jewel-toned wonder again until the coming spring, but Wake Audubon Society looks forward to celebrating and exploring the beautiful and fascinating ruby-throated hummingbird all year!