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Hummingbird Migration

Spring is the time of year when most hummingbirds migrate north from their winter ranges. In Arizona, we see it start in January when the Costa’s arrives. Black- chins, Rufous and Broad-tails come up in February. Broad-billeds, Calliopes, and Blue-throats arrive in March. The rare Lucifer shows up in April. May brings Violet- crowns and White-eareds. Allen’s passes through in July. Anna’s takes up residence in September, and stays around until mid-May. When they return south, they do so in a similar, staggered manner. See the table at the end of this article for approximate arrival and departure times for our impressive list of hummingbirds that can be found in Arizona. You can see that we have hummingbirds in southern Arizona year round.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Migration Map
Lanny Chambers of hummingbirds.net presents a very cool migration map where you can watch the northerly progress of Ruby-throated and post your own first sighting for the species' range and earliest arrival dates.

The birds ride the flower bloom northward out of Mexico, feasting on the nectar and associated insects. Banding records indicate that the same hummingbirds follow the same route each year. Apparently, they learn a way as juveniles and don’t risk going a different, unproven way. In years of near perfect rainfall, most hummingbirds in our area stay out in the desert, eating a totally native and natural diet. They seem to prefer it to manmade nectar solutions. If this happens at your feeder, we advise that you ‘keep the faith’ and make sure that your nectar feeder is stocked with fresh, clean nectar even if fewer hummingbirds than normal are feeding at it. The hummingbirds will return to it when native food sources dry up. Planting native hummingbird flowers and blooming cacti will also help attract them to your yard. Last month’s newsletter contained a list of native plants that hummingbirds like.

Sometimes migrating hummingbirds make stopovers along their long migration routes. Average layover time is from one to two weeks. If they find what they need in the spring, they may extend their stay into the summer. Around here, if your hummer feeder is always stocked and ready to go, you have a better chance of keeping the hummingbirds around longer. Besides, hummingbird feeders attract more than hummingbirds. Other birds and bats readily feed at hummingbird feeders. Orioles are coming in during the spring and one just might investigate a quiet nectar feeder, If conditions are right, it could nest nearby.

Along with following the flower bloom, hummingbirds also use tail winds to their advantage. The average speed of a migrating hummer in still air is 25 to 30 miles per hour. A good tail wind could double that. When tail winds are present on the southward migration of Ruby-throats through Texas, their numbers reported by birders dramatically increase. On the east coast, they often time southern migration with the hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico. A favorable tail wind could make their 600 mile journey across the gulf much easier.

Mature males invariably arrive before the females and young. One theory as to why this happens is based upon the high energy requirements of the hummingbirds. Since a hummer may feed thousands of times a day, it cannot survive unless it is close to a food source. Migration forces hummingbirds into unknown territory, where finding new food sources along the way is a risky business. The males take on this difficult task. If a bird dies trying to find the next feeding source, the species loses only a male bird. On the other hand, if he is successful, his twinkling iridescent markings serve as a guide to the rest that will follow.

Before starting migration, hummingbirds are known to feed voraciously. Long distance travel requires extra fuel. Observers in Georgia and Florida note that the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds begin to feed heavily on flowers in the fall. They eat so much that they add 50% to their weight in the form of fat layers underneath their skin. The extra weight sustains them on the southward flight across the Gulf of Mexico well into Mexico and Costa Rica.

Many hummingbirds begin to migrate to their winter ranges in the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and Central America between June and August. Fall can be as good as spring for spotting hummingbirds as they move through going south. If they find suitable flowers, insects or feeders, they are likely to stop to rest and refuel. It seems that if one hummer lingers, others gather. We probably see fewer total numbers of hummingbirds in the fall versus the spring migration, but we see more different species in the autumn.

Hot air balloonists have seen migrating hummingbirds at altitudes above 200 feet. Crews working on shrimp boats have seen Ruby-throats skimming the waves 60 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. They occasionally see sparrows that far from land as well. Off the west coast of Mexico above Puerto Vallarta, fishermen see hummingbirds 50 to 75 miles out. Both balloon pilots and boat operators have hung hummingbird feeders on their vessels to aid the sometimes exhausted hummingbirds.

The mountain ranges and rivers in the Americas lie roughly along a north and south axis. It is possible that they act as guiding lines for hummingbird navigation. The continental divide provides a dependable source of flowers and insects for sustenance, as well as favorable winds in both spring and fall. The summer monsoon that we have in the southwest brings heavy rains to the mountains, allowing a second flower bloom. This is a near perfect condition for fall migration and brings in a great variety of hummingbirds.

The longest hummingbird migration documented by banding records that we found was that of a Rufous. It flew 1,414 miles from Ramsey Canyon outside of Sierra Vista, AZ to Mt. Saint Helens in Washington. There is a theory that the Rufous may follow the winds that surround the Great Basin dome of high pressure that tends to hang over Utah. If true, this would account for the rare Rufous that shows up as far away as Newfoundland and Maine. Not all hummingbirds migrate long distances. Some tropical hummingbirds move only a few thousand feet up or down a mountainside, moving up to flower bearing grasslands in the spring and down to the warmer lowlands before the cold weather sets in.

The times of year when hummingbirds migrate can provide us with many sightings and hours of enjoyment watching them feed and display. Often you will see just one bird at a time at your feeder. That one aggressive bird will defend it from all others. Migration, and its heavy energy demands, provides the best opportunity to see several hummingbirds at the feeder simultaneously.

Hummingbird Migration in Arizona
SPECIES
ARRIVAL
DEPARTURE
Costa’s mid-January late May (a few winter over)
Broad-tailed early February late October
Rufous early May, again in early June early November
Black-chinned mid-February mid October-December
Magnificent March 1 mid-November (a few winter over)
Broad-billed mid-March late September-November
Blue-throated late March mid-October (a few winter over)
Calliope March-May July-October
Violet-crowned early May mid-October
White-eared (rare) mid-May mid-September
Berylline (rare) April September
Lucifer (rare) April mid-October
Allen’s July late August
Anna’s early September early May (a few stay year round)

Fall is as good as spring for seeing migrating hummingbirds. Before migrating, hummingbirds feed voraciously. Long trips require lots of extra fuel. Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrating from Florida and Georgia across the Gulf of Mexico into Mexico and Costa Rica add 50% to their weight by adding fat layers under their skin. Banding records show that many hummingbirds follow the same route year after year. Sometimes the travelling hummingbirds make one to two week layovers when they find a reliable and consistent food source. Keeping your hummingbird feeder full, clean and fresh increases your chances at getting them to stick around a little longer. Landscaping with hummingbird flowers can help too.

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