BASICS: "Hummingbirds.....where is the person, I ask, who, on observing this glittering fragment of the rainbow, would not pause, admire, and turn his mind with reverence..." (J. J. Audubon).
This is a blog about my summer life at the Baiting Hollow Hummingbird Sanctuary, at my winter garden, Calypso, in the Bahamas, and aspects of life in general.
This private sanctuary is now permanently closed to the general public, as a result of a lawsuit brought by a neighbor. Only my friends and personal guests may visit (

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

hummingbirds active from east to west; hummingbird article draft

Here at the sanctuary there's a lot of hummer activity - I'm sitting in the front cabin grading students' exam papers, and I can hear an almost continuous buzzing from the open window. And I just got a report of good activity in the far west of the Island, in Valley Stream, not far from JFK. Here are a couple of recent videos in Alice Paloma's back yard there (courtesy of Dave Paloma). Alice get visits from males and females throughout the summer, which means they are breeding nearby, possibly in Valley Stream State Park.

  the flower on the left of the feeder is Agastache

I've been asked to write a short (800 word) article for the Pine Barrens Society Newsletter. Here is a draft - I would appreciate any feedback (paul.adams&

Hummingbirds On Long Island

Hummingbirds are a remarkable and very large family of exclusively New World birds, with about 330 different species. They vary in size from the minuscule bee hummingbird of Cuba, the world's smallest bird,  to the Andean giant hummingbird, the size of a cardinal. They "hum" because their wings move very rapidly (typically around 50 beats per second) in a figure 8 pattern, generating lift on both upstroke and down stroke, like hovering insects. This motion is enabled by pivoting the wing at the shoulder joint, as well as other adaptations to the heart, metabolism, chest muscles and feet.  Hovering allows competition with insects for the sugar provided by flower nectar. The unique flight machinery also confers amazing agility and acceleration (up to 10G!).  They often have spectacular colors, generated by tiny prisms in the feathers. 

Only one species breeds in the Northeast US , the ruby-throated hummingbird. It succeeds here because it has evolved a suite of adaptations allowing nonstop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, avoiding competition with the many western species. The name comes from the iridescent red throat patch (or "gorget") of the adult male, made of about 100 tiny jewel-like feathers. Adult males also have a forked tail, while in females and juveniles the tail-tip is straight and white.  Hatch-year males can already have a few of these rubies. Although the gorget usually appears almost black from the side, in full frontal view and bright light it flashes brilliantly, and entices the females to mate. The suitor performs a "pendulum" dance, repeatedly diving rapidly from a great height down to the perched female, displaying his gorget, then swinging rapidly back up again. He may then switch to a "shuttle display", moving rapidly back and forth in a short horizontal trajectory in front of her. Simplified dances are also sometimes used as aggressive tactics.

Hummingbirds are territorial and pugnacious. Breeding males establish territories of an acre or more, which they defend against all other. They spend their day patrolling this territory and chasing out all but receptive females (which after seduction get chased out too). Breeding females establish smaller nesting territories. But hummingbirds establish small territories even during short stopovers on their migrations, spending hours chasing each other, while adding fat -  a  paper clip weight on a 1 cent body. Flower nectar supplies the necessary energy, but hummers quickly learn to use feeders supplying plain sugar water (20/80 ratio).

While rubythroats remain abundant in the northeast, and throughout most of their summer range east of the Mississipi all the way from Texas to southern Canada, they are no longer common on densely-built Long Island. Some excellent naturalists, such as the late great Paul Stoutenberg, have written that they are now only seen migrating, but they do breed successfully in wooded pockets almost everywhere on the Island, and even in Manhattan. Their small lichen-camouflaged nests can sometimes be spotted by following females. If you see a hummingbird in june, you can be sure it is a breeding resident. But you are more likely to see hummers in early may, or especially in august and september. Adult males arrive first, in late april, and females a week later. Females do all the nest building, incubation and chick care, and sometimes all 3 at once, in separate nests. Nestlings eat mostly insects, for protein, and during nesting  (late may to early august) female visits to flowers and feeders are infrequent. The last task of the season is to lay down fat for the southward migration, and this, combined with doubling of numbers, and the arrival of birds from further north, leads to more visibility.

Good native Long Island plants for hummers include columbine, jewelweed and cardinal flower.  However, nectar-rich exotic flowers in your backyard will increase chances of seeing these amazing birds, though many are not reliably hardy. Salvias such as "black and blue" (S. guaranitica) are easy to grow and deer resistant; see for other recommendations.  Add a few feeders with sugar-water, but keep  clean, fresh and insect-free. 

Although attracting hummingbirds  is more work on Long Island than it would be upstate or in New England, seeing them zoom around  your yard is all the more rewarding, and possible in many more locations than one might suppose. Locations near preserved woodland are best, but people get regular visits well into Nassau County, and you can reliably see hummers in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and Alley Pond Park (Queens), at wild stands of cardinal flower. Further east, Bayard Cutting Arboretum, Wertheim Wildlife Refuge, Mashomack (Shelter Island), Avalon (Stony Brook) and almost any wooded area (eg. Manorville) are good. But perhaps the most reliable place to see hummingbirds is the small private sanctuary I maintain in Baiting Hollow, where I allow visitation at specific announced times (see in the month of august. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article! If you would like me to point out some suggested edits, let me know...