Imagine sitting in the sun in a meadow where wildflowers grow in the shadow of the pines of Mount Graham. A high-pitched whirring pierces the stillness. Impossible to ignore, but impossible to see where it’s coming from, the odd buzz gets louder as is comes nearer. Suddenly, there it is. A bit of green and red glitter, a male Broad-tailed hummingbird, feeds at a Penstemon.
In the summer, the high mountains are breeding grounds for the Broad-tailed. They are common in the central and southern Rockies and in the Great Basin mountains. They range from almost to Canada, as far east as Texas, and south to Guatemala. They can also be seen in towns like Denver, Colorado in the summer. They are a highly migratory bird. There are records of Broad-tailed wintering in Tucson, but for the most part it winters in Mexico and Central America. Because of its migratory nature there are many records of the bird wandering out of its range. It’s been seen in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Oregon, Idaho and South Dakota.
The Broad-tailed hummingbird is a 3-3/4 inch long medium-sized hummer. It has a long, straight and thin bill. The male is bright green on his back and head and has a dark tail. If you know the Ruby-throated hummingbird from back east, you will notice many similarities with the Broad-tailed. Males of both species have green backs, rose-red throats, white bellies and green sides. The visual difference is most pronounced in the tails of the birds. The tail of the Broad-tailed is noticeably wider and rounded at the tip (not forked like the Ruby-throat). The Ruby-throat has a black chin not seen in the Broadtail.
The other major identifier of the male Broad-tailedl is the loud cricket-like trilling sound of his flight. His wing sound is louder and more like a cicada than the buzzing sounds of the display flights of the Rufous and Allen’s hummingbirds. This is produced in a unique way. The last two of his outer primary feathers are narrowed. The narrowing forms a slot in his wings that produces a whistling sound when the male dives in speedy steep display flights. When he is hovering to feed, he sounds like any other hummer.
The female Broad-tailed hummer wears a green back and crown. Her white chin and throat can have varying amounts of dark streaking. Her underparts are white. Telling the female and young Broad tailed from Rufous and Allen’s hummingbirds is a real challenge in the field. Calliopes are similar, but totally different in shape. The smaller Calliope is a little ball whose tail is so short that her wings extend beyond it when perched. The female Broadtail has a longer tail that extends beyond her wings when perched.
Hummingbird feeders are successful in attracting Broadtails. They eat nectar and gather many insects and small spiders from willow catkins and the flowers of agave, larkspur, penstemon, gilia, gooseberry, and ocotillos. An observation of Dr Linsdale describes another way of eating insects:
“On June 18, 1930, at 7,000 feet on Kingston Creek, a female broad- tailed hummingbird was watched which apparently was feeding upon flying insects caught in the air. It was in a small clearing near the creek. After a poise the bird would dart 3 feet after an insect, then poise and go after another. This was repeated half a dozen times, the bird being about 10 feet above the ground.”
The Broad-tailed hummingbird is a bold bird during nesting season. In early report from 1877 Robert Ridgeway observed:
“During the nesting-season the male is of an exceedingly quarrelsome disposition... All birds that approach the vicinity of his nest, assaulted with great force and pertinacity by this seeming insignificant little creature, the vigor of whose attacks, accompanied as they are by the shrill piercing noise we have mentioned, invariably puts to flight any bird assaulted. We have thus seen the Western Kingbird, the Black-headed Grosbeak, and the Sharp-shinned Hawk beat a hasty retreat before the persevering assaults of this Humming-bird. When thus teasing an intruder this little champion ascends almost perpendicularly to a considerable height, and then descends with the quickness of a flash at the object he would annoy, which is probably more frightened by the accompanying noise than by the mere attack itself.”
The female builds her tiny nest in a variety of places - saddled on twigs of willows, alders, cottonwoods, over a stream, or on the limbs of pine, fir, spruce, aspen, 4 - 15 feet off the ground. She uses plant down, covered on the outside with lichens, bark or leaves, and binds it all together with spider’s silk. From May to July, she lays two white eggs in her nest of no more than 1 to 2 inches diameter. The eggs hatch after the mother incubates them for 16 days. After about 23 days, the young fly.
All birds love a bath and this one is no exception. Last summer, we sat on a hill in the pines overlooking Rustler’s Park in the Chiricahua Mountains. Water spurted from a pipe and formed a tiny creek in the dappled shade of the trees. A Broad-tailed pair came to bathe. They chose a place where the water barely covered a flat rock. They got down in the very shallow water and fluttered their wings to throw the water up onto their backs. Once wet, they flew off to a bush to preen and dry their feathers.
If you should happen to go to the high mountains for a cool escape this summer, look for the Broad-tailed hummingbird. It often comes for nectar at the feeders on top of Mount Lemmon.