Mean green flying machines: the hummingbirds are here!

Photo by JC Donaho. http://jcdonaho.com/

Photo by JC Donaho. http://jcdonaho.com/

What was that high pitched chirping and flash of iridescent green that just whizzed past at lightning speed? You just got buzzed by a hummingbird! The fall migration is passing through Houston, and these feisty little birds seem to be particularly abundant this year. Houston does not have (for the most part) any resident hummingbirds, but a few species pass through in spring and fall as they fly between their nesting grounds in the northern states and Canada, and their wintering ground in Central America.

The northward spring migration is much more diffuse than the fall event – you may hear a hummingbird or two in February or March, but they don’t linger. However, in late August through September and into early October, hummingbirds can be very evident in Houston. These marathon travellers will pass through our area for about 4 to 6 weeks, stocking up on fuel to take them over the Gulf of Mexico to their winter abode. They are particularly abundant on the Gulf Coast, where inclement weather can force them to stay put until a more opportune time comes to complete the migration. Rockport, Texas hosts a huge “Hummerbird Festival” every mid-September, with lots of talks on hummingbirds and other birds, butterflies, etc., and home tours to see gardens that are particularly full of hummingbirds. It’s over for this year, but put it on your calendar for future years and check it out!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Most hummers you see in Houston (and in Rockport) are Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Males are a metallic green with white bellies, and are named for the patch of dark feathers on their throat that glows a brilliant, iridescent ruby red when the sun hits it just right. Females and immature males do not have the spectacular throat coloring, and are white underneath. Some young males may have a fleck or two of red on their throat.

Two other species are sometimes seen here – the Rufous Hummingbird and the Black-chinned Hummingbird. Juveniles and females of these species are a little hard to distinguish from Ruby-throated females and youngsters, but the males are distinctive. Rufous males are a bright bronze color, with an orangey red throat. Black-chinned males are green with a black throat, below which, in the right light, a brilliant violet band will flash.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Farther west, in the Big Bend area and west into New Mexico, Arizona, and California, hummingbird diversity is much higher. About 15 or so species are known from the USA, and most of these occur in the western states. For the apex of hummingbird diversity, head to the highlands of South America (e.g., Colombia, with about 140 species), where dozens of different species can be seen, some of them truly spectacular. Most of these are residents in the tropics and do not migrate.

 

Male and Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, slow motion, August 2010 from Hummer Lover on Vimeo.

All hummingbirds behave similarly. Masters of speedy, controlled flight, they can hover in place, move backwards and forwards, dive and soar with incredible speed and precision. They can reach speeds of up to 60 mph, their wings whirring at 80 beats per second. Males in particular are territorial and aggressive, cheeping furiously as they drive off rivals from a good food source.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Hummingbirds’ main food is flower nectar, so they are important pollinators of certain species of plants. They especially seem to gravitate to red flowers, although other colors are visited. Their long thin beaks and even longer tongues allow them to reach inside floral tubes that are much too deep for most butterflies and bees. Since birds in general have a poorly developed sense of smell, flowers pollinated by hummingbirds typically have no scent.

Hummingbirds also eat small insects such as fruit flies and gnats, catching them on the wing or finding them inside the flowers they probe for nectar.

Bottle feeder with ant-guard

Bottle feeder with ant-guard

Because they love sweet fluids, it is easy to provide feeders for hummingbirds, and several designs are available. Hummingbird food is simple to make; you just need sugar and clean water. DO NOT use any other sweetener – including honey or other types of sugar –just your standard white table sugar. Use four parts water to one part sugar. Bring the water to a rolling boil, add in sugar and stir until it dissolves, then turn off the heat. Do not cook it too long or it will start to caramelize. Let the solution cool and you are ready to fill your feeders. Keep extra sugar solution in the refrigerator.

IMPORTANT! If you want to feed hummingbirds you must commit to regularly changing their sugar water food! Sugar water ferments and/or grows mold quickly, and when spoiled it can make hummingbirds sick. Since you will need to clean the feeders about every three days, do not fill them too full or you will waste a lot of sugar solution. Fill them from between ¼ to ½ full, at least until you see how fast the hummers empty them.

DO NOT add red food coloring, and avoid commercial solutions with food coloring. Coloring is not necessary, as most feeders have red parts built in to attract the hummers’ attention. Like spoiled sugar water, food coloring is bad for the hummingbirds’ health.

Every three days, even if your feeders are not empty, clean them thoroughly with hot water and refill them with fresh solution. At the end of the season you should sterilize the feeders either in the dishwasher or using a dilute bleach solution before drying and storing them until next year. I prefer to use glass feeders as these are easier to sterilize.

 

Perky Pet feeder

Perky Pet feeder

A few guidelines on feeder placement – hummingbirds are not at all shy, so you can put feeders near your house where you can enjoy watching their activity. I put one right outside my kitchen window, and hang others around my back yard, especially near trees or bushes where hummingbirds can perch between bouts at the feeder. If you put out more than one feeder (I recommend this!), don’t put them too close, and ideally place them out of sight of each other to avoid their being monopolized by one dominant male.

Salvia leucantha, aka Mexican Sage

Salvia leucantha, aka Mexican Sage

In a good season, you will have dozens of hummingbirds – and the more feeders, the more hummingbirds! I usually put out from 3 to 9 feeders, depending on activity. Of course, hummingbirds also visit flowers for nectar. The classic hummingbird flower is red with a long floral tube, but many others also bring them in. Some good choices are salvias (many varieties), hummingbird bush, coral vine, trumpet creeper, and russelia.

Salvia guaranitica, or Purple Majesty Sage

Salvia guaranitica, or Purple Majesty Sage

Of course, if you have outdoor cats, you should not put out hummingbird feeders or any other kind of bird feeder!

Did you know?

  • Hummingbirds are only found in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Hummingbirds’ jewel-like, glittering colors do not come from pigments, but result from the refraction of light hitting special structures on their feathers.
  • The Bee Hummingbird from Cuba, less than 2.5 inches long, is the world’s smallest bird.
  • The largest hummingbird is the Giant Hummingbird, from Patagonia, Chile. It is about the size of a cardinal, but only weighs half as much (about .65 ounces, or about 1/20th of a pound).
  • The longest hummingbird is the Black-tailed Trainbearer from Colombia. The male’s total length is about 10 inches, including its 6.5 inch tail!
  • The Sword-billed Hummingbird from Ecuador has a 4 inch long beak, almost as long as its body!
  • Check out the PBS Nature special on hummingbirds, “Magic in the Air,” for some amazing footage of these incredible creatures!

Tired from a long journey, faded monarchs seek homes for the next generation

My friends Bob and Bev photographed this very faded, tattered female monarch flying around the milkweed plants in their backyard near the Museum last week. The butterfly is a migrant from Mexico, looking for places to lay her eggs as a last hurrah before she dies.

Detail of a healthy monarch’s wing

The monarch we found with faded, damaged wings

The monarch we found with faded, damaged wings

She must be very tired!

Last fall, she flew from somewhere in eastern North America all the way to central Mexico, where she spent the winter mostly in hibernation. A few weeks ago, she and the other overwintering butterflies, sensing the lengthening days and warming temperatures, left the shelter of the sanctuary’s trees and headed back north to complete the journey. They are just now getting to Texas.

This old girl’s eggs will hatch and — if they have enough milkweed — the caterpillars will mature and pupate. Then, when they emerge as adult butterflies, at least some of them will continue the journey north. By July, monarchs will have reached the northern limit of their range. These summer generations don’t live as long, and don’t travel nearly as far.

P1070759If you see worn and faded monarchs at this time of year, they are almost certainly migrants returning from their winter in Mexico. You can help them to fulfill their “purpose” by providing nectar for their last few meals, and more importantly, milkweed for the new generation. These returning migrants will only last a few days now that they’ve gotten here — they are on their last “wings” after nearly nine months of life, and at least 2,000 miles of travel.

P1070760

A healthy Monarch Butterfly

Butterflies will blow your mind: A new Giant Screen Theatre film gives viewers new respect for migrating Monarchs

If you — like me — have long thought of butterflies as delicate, simple creatures, you have been sorely mistaken.

A new Giant Screen Theatre film, Flight of the Butterflies, opens tomorrow and frames familiar Monarch butterflies in a new light as masters of migration. The film follows the life’s work of Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife in stunning 3D as they tag and track the migratory patterns of Monarch butterflies. After 40 years of tracking and thanks to the  help of thousands of citizen scientists, the Urquharts were finally able to unlock the mystery of Monarch migration and identify their winter gathering place in remote mountaintops of Mexico.

Flight of the ButterfliesAnd it’s not just the visual spectacle that’s stunning. Did you know that a super-butterfly is born every third generation that lives longer and flies farther than its predecessors? Or that this Super Generation that makes the extended trek from Canada all the way to Mexico can fly as much as mile up in the air, catching rides on the wind? It challenges your perception of butterflies as erratic, delicate things, that’s for sure. They’re marksmen; weathering one of the longest migrations on earth to target an isolated mountaintop they’ve never even seen with incredible accuracy. Even our great state of Texas is featured, in all its bluebonnet-blanketed glory.

Make it a butterfly-filled weekend with the Semi-Annual Plant Sale and you can even establish a garden to help these guys along! For a schedule of showings, click here.

Tagging Monarchs at HMNS

Today Soni (CBC horticulturist) came down to my office and said “You should see all the monarchs in the outdoor butterfly garden. They must be part of the fall migration. Why don’t we tag them?”’

Surely by now most people are aware of the amazing migration undertaken each year by the fall generation of monarch butterflies. As the temperatures cool and the days shorten, monarchs emerging from their chrysalids are cued to head south. Somehow they “know” that their survival depends on it. Before winter sets in, millions of individuals – basically the entire eastern population – start to fly southwest, towards the remote mountain sites in central Mexico where they will spend the winter hanging on the branches of fir and pine trees.

Soni and net
Soni netting butterflies

The spring and summer generations behave very differently. After emerging from its chrysalis, one of the first things a new butterfly typically does is look for a mate (“nature abhors a virgin” as my friend Phil DeVries would say). Mated females search for milkweed plants on which to deposit their eggs; males look for more females! These fair-weather generations probably live for a month or so as adults. The autumn generation, however, does not mate, but saves its energy for the long journey ahead. As fall approaches, butterflies stock up on nectar, packing on fat for the flight and for several months of hibernation.

At the northern edge of the population (southern Ontario/northern Great Lakes area), the migration starts in late August, with butterflies flying on average about 50 miles a day and picking up more migrants as they travel south. By early to mid October, monarchs are streaming through Texas. Virtually the entire eastern population passes through our state – but most of the migrating butterflies pass to the west of us, through Dallas and Austin and San Antonio, then over to Del Rio and into Mexico. Since fewer butterflies typically pass this way, the coastal migration route is not as well known. All the more reason for us to get out there and tag!

monarch tag
How to tag a monarch

Monarch researchers began tagging monarchs back in the early 70s, even before anyone knew where the migrating monarchs were ending up (the roost locations were discovered in 1975). Tagging data collected over the years has enabled us to map the distribution of the population, and to understand that a single generation makes the long trip south and then heads north again after spending the winter, largely dormant, in Mexico. This is hard for some people to understand, especially given that most butterflies only live for a few weeks. The migrating/hibernating monarchs may live as long as eight or nine months.

tag instructions
Tagging instructions from Monarch Watch

The monarchs’ arrival at the overwintering grounds typically coincides with Dia de los Muertos (November 1, Day of the Dead), an important fall festival in Mexico. Some locals apparently see the orange and black visitors as the spirits of their dear departed relatives, returning to celebrate the day. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem; throughout history humans have used butterflies as symbols of the soul and/or reincarnation. Did you know that the word “pysche” in ancient Greek meant both “butterfly” and “soul”?

But back to the present, and Houston. It was a beautiful afternoon so we all trooped outside, armed with nets, pens, data sheets, and numbered tags purchased in advance from Monarch Watch, a non-profit organization based at the University of Kansas that coordinates monitoring efforts. Soni also took a roll of scotch tape and some microscope slides. She is checking the butterflies for OE (short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a sporozoan parasite. If present, the parasite spores can be seen under a compound microscope (they are much smaller than butterfly scales). If there are enough of them in a caterpillar’s body, these parasites can spell death for the butterfly. Luckily, parasite loads are typically low in migrating individuals – perhaps butterflies weakened by the parasites simply can’t make the long journey.

OEtest
Taking scale sample for OE test

Lots of monarchs were coming around the corner of the Butterfly Center, dipping down to our outdoor butterfly garden and stopping to sip nectar from the blooms (they especially seemed to like wheat celosia and purple porter weed). Then they’d head off towards the Sam Houston statue and on in the direction of Rice University (southwest of us!). We caught 11 butterflies in the garden (and missed many more), tagged them (noting whether male or female), took a scale sample, and released them. Off they flew!

We’ll send in our data to Monarch Watch, and of course we hope that someone will find one or more of our tagged butterflies on the roost in Mexico. It is highly unlikely – given the millions of monarchs at the roost – but tagged butterflies (usually dead ones) do get found and reported. If one of ours is found, Monarch Watch will contact us – and they/we will know that butterflies do migrate to Mexico from our area.

tag team
Tag team

Local butterfly gardeners know that a number of monarchs stay in Houston over the winter. We often don’t have killing freezes here, and the recent craze in butterfly gardening means that there is lots of Mexican Milkweed aka Butterfly Weed around.  This plant, Asclepias curassavica, is a perennial from Central America; unlike our native milkweeds, it does not die back in the winter months. Also, predatory wasps, which take many caterpillars during the summer, are mostly gone – so if it doesn’t get too cold, Houston is a good place for monarchs to spend the winter. However, these butterflies are taking the risk of dying should we have a strong cold snap as we did last year.

Here are two great websites with information about these amazing butterflies and about how to get involved monitoring their migration: Monarch Watch at www.monarchwatch.org and Journey North at www.learner.org/jnorth/.