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!

Digging in the dirt: Getting to know the Dimetrodon of the Texas Permian Red Beds

I love my job. Not everyone can say that. My avocation and vocation are as two eyes with one sight (paraphrasing Robert Frost). Part of that job was taking a group of 15 patrons up to the Museum’s dig site outside Seymour, Texas. There, under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Bakker and David Temple, the group learned how to properly excavate bones of ancient animals —  in this case, Permian synapsids, amphibians, and fish.   

I got to go through a spoil pile (the pile of debris and castoff that others have thrown aside), and found several bits of our very early ancestors, the synapsid Dimetrodon.  I also worked on removing the overburden (the rock and dirt that is over a site we want to excavate), and found bits from a dorsal spine of a Xenacanthus, an ancient shark. It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream (as I child I played paleontologist rather than fireman and my first Deinonychus is still buried out back at my childhood home).

But I’m not the only one who dreamed of finding fossils in Texas.

Noted Swiss naturalist Jacob Boll came to Texas in 1869 to join La Reunion commune that is located in the current Reunion District of Dallas. (The Reunion Tower is named in honor of that small settlement.) La Reunion commune was responsible for the first brewery and butcher shop in the Dallas area. It also helped Dallas become the center for carriage and harness making.

Jacob Boll came over to set up high schools based in scientific inquiry. Through the late 1870s, he searched for fossils for Edward Drinker Cope, the noted “Bone Wars” paleontologist. Boll found over 30 new vertebrate species from the Permian period, which can be seen in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History.  Unfortunately, on his last trip, he was bitten by a rattlesnake, wrote some final letters to his family, composed a short poem in German, and died.  

In the Permian period, Texas was very different from today. Near Seymour, there were rivers and seasonal flood plains. However, even with this picture, there are still unexplained factors about the life of Dimetrodon — one being that there was not enough prey to sustain the population that we have found in the fossil record. While the Dimetrodon were making sushi out of Xenacanthus and chewing on some Trimerorhachis legs (like frog legs, only much shorter), there was not enough food to go around.

Now add to this case the curious fact that almost no Dimetrodon skeleton found has an intact tail. Anyone who has been to a good Cajun restaurant will know that the best meat on an alligator is the tail. And Dimetrodon would agree — hence the lack of tails.

But even this does not account for all the food necessary to keep all the predators alive.  Where is the missing food?

Dr. Bakker gave us a couple of hints as to what he thinks is the answer. 

 A few miles away from the site, there is an old Permian river basin where we find Edaphosaurus, a large Dimetrodon-like herbivore. Was it possible for Dimetrodon to walk a few miles, ambush an animal about its size, then walk back for a rest? This would provide food for the population.          

If you are interested in learning more about the Texas Red Beds, join us for our Fossil Recovery Class on May 20. You can go through some of our collection from the trip and learn about fossil collecting and identification techniques.

Click here for more information.  

The Pecos pictographs: River rock art shows why Texas is an archaeological oasis

Quick: What do Texas and France have in common?

Actually, I should rephrase that: Who do Texas and France have in common?

The answer? Dr. Jean Clottes, a leading French prehistorian.

It makes sense that a Frenchmen would love his country, but what is Dr. Clottes looking for in Texas? It turns out the answer is down to earth: rock art. In Dr. Clottes’ opinion, Texas rock art ranks right up there with rock art in La Douce France.

Anyone interested in rock art is most likely familiar with the famous painted prehistoric caves in France and Spain. Sites like Altamira and Lascaux are household names in the world of art history. Dr. Clottes has been heavily involved and invested in the study and preservation of Lascaux Cave. We were very lucky to have him as a speaker at the museum recently. He elaborated on cave art in general, and Cosquer cave in particular. Earlier in the day, he took a group of art history students from the University of Houston through an exhibit on Lascaux cave, currently at the Museum. He regaled us with stories about his own work at the cave. He patiently addressed recent newspaper reports of “another Lascaux” that allegedly exists near the original Lascaux cave.

What brought him to Texas, though, was rock art — to be more precise, rock art from the Lower Pecos. This art has been studied extensively, among others, by the Archaeological Institute of America, the Rock Art Foundation, SHUMLA and, of course Dr. Clottes and his Texas colleagues.

On Feb. 7 and 8, HMNS organized a trip to the Lower Pecos area to see this wonderful rock art. SHUMLA staff members Andrew Freeman, Jeremy Freeman, and Vicky Munoz led a group of 25 people to see two sites: White Shaman and Painted Shelter.

Del Rio 4

HMNS travelers listen to Jeremy Freeman and Vicky Munoz at the White Shaman rock shelter.

Del Rio 2

L to R: Vicky Munoz (adjusting her cap), Andrew Freeman, Jeremy Freeman.

Even though we were on the Texas-Mexico border, there was a thin coating of frost on the windows of our van. As the day progressed, however, we enjoyed a beautiful blue sky with plenty of sunlight.

Del Rio 1

“Severe winter conditions” in Del Rio, Texas.

Our first stop was Seminole Canyon State Park, located 9 miles west of Comstock on U.S. Hwy. 90, just east of the Pecos River bridge. In North America, this is an area with a long history of human presence. The park’s website informs us that:

“Early man first visited this area 12,000 years ago, a time when now-extinct species of elephant, camel, bison, and horse roamed the landscape. The climate at that time was more moderate than today and supported a more lush vegetation that included pine, juniper, and oak woodlands in the canyons, with luxuriant grasslands on the uplands. These early people developed a hunting culture based upon large mammals, such as the mammoth and bison. No known evidence exists that these first inhabitants produced any rock paintings.”

Over time, climatic conditions changed, and humans had to adapt. Some 7,000 years ago, the landscape looked much like today.

Del Rio 7

Landscape looking toward the Pecos River with modern bridge crossing. With the exception of the bridge, this is what early Texans would have seen as well.

There is a reason why archaeologists and art historians are drawn to this area. One can find more than 200 pictograph sites here; they contain rock paintings ranging from single images to caves containing panels of art hundreds of feet long.

This is where we visited the White Shaman site. This is a rock shelter, rather than a cave. It contains a pictographic panel measuring four by eight meters (about 13 by 26 feet). The panel depicts more than 30 anthropomorphic (human-shaped) figures. Some of these are impaled, some are even shown as skeletons. We also saw zoomorphs (animal-shaped figures): red deer, all impaled. Finally, our guides pointed out images that defy interpretation, such as more than 100 dots, occurring all over the panel. A serpent-like figure divides the panel in two. Crenelated lines are present as well.

The name of the rock shelter, White Shaman, is derived from the white figure appearing in the center of the panel.

The name of the rock shelter, White Shaman, is derived from the white figure appearing in the center of the panel.

This rock art, commonly dated back to the Middle Archaic, about 4,000 years ago, is among the oldest known in North America.

After a delicious barbecue lunch, we went on to visit a second rock art site — this one on private property. After a bumpy ride, we got to see Painted Shelter.

Painted shelter, which has water at its base.

Painted shelter, which has water at its base.

Known since at least 1937, the art here shows human figures (including one with a bow), as well as animals (deer-like figures, a bird, and a catfish).

Del Rio 6

This is Painted Shelter, showing representations of deer-like animals as well as two human figures, one of whom is holding a bow.

The Pecos River rock art has been studied for many years. As early as 1849, Captain C. French reported on Indian paintings he saw near the mouth of the Pecos River. In the 1930s, a systematic effort to record and study Pecos Rock Art started. These efforts continued into the 1950s. The construction of Lake Amistad spurred on further research in the 1960s.

The role of museums in the scientific study of ancient Texas, and subsequent dissemination of scholarly knowledge, should not be underestimated here either. In the early 1980s, the Witte Museum in San Antonio brought together archaeologists, paleobotanists, art historians, and anthropologists to investigate the lifestyle of the ancient inhabitants of the Lower Pecos region. Rice University started their Pecos Project around the same time, drawing on different fields of study to help decipher Pecos art. By the late 1980s, it was possible to date rock art using AMS technology, an advanced form of radiocarbon dating.

Recently, one person has been in the forefront of Pecos Rock Art research: Dr. Carolyn Boyd. Since her graduate student days in the 1990s, she has spent most of her career exploring and studying rock art. Author of Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, Dr. Boyd is currently working on a new publication. On Feb. 25, she will give a lecture on her latest research at HMNS. For more information, click here.

Until Mar. 23, you can also come see our exhibit Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux. If you are interested in early expressions of art from both the Old and New World, make sure you catch both events.

Labor Day! Fun For The Long Weekend At HMNS

Monday is Labor Day – and you know what that means, right?

LONG WEEKEND.

In case you’re wondering how to fill the long hours between Friday afternoon and Tuesday morning, here’s a list of the top ten weekend experiences you can have with the family at HMNS all weekend long.

That’s right – we’re open MONDAY! Because we’re here for you. 

10. Come And Take It!

A look at the stunning variety of fascinating artifacts from Texas’ rich history, that is.

Come And Take It
The Come And Take It Cannon!
See a full set of photos from the exhibit on Flickr

Texas! The Exhibition closes at 5 pm on Monday, Sept 5 – so don’t miss your last chance to see Santa Anna’s spurs, Davy Crockett’s violin, the Davis Guards Medal and many other objects from a huge swath of Texas history – from prehistoric cultures to the Spindletop oil gusher.

Preview the exhibit with our blog series on Texas History! (And see how you can win free tickets to see the exhibit closing weekend!)

9. Ramble through Borneo with Orangutans

And while you’re at it, explore Tsavo with young elephants.

Born To Be Wild
The cuteness! See it this weekend in Born To Be Wild 3D at HMNS!

Born To Be Wild 3D is a fascinating, entertaining and heart-warming film chronicling the efforts of two pioneering women to save orphaned animals.

Time Out New York says “The kids will squeal with delight.” We think you probably will, too.

8. Discover The True Meaning of Mayan Prophecies 

2012: Mayan Prophecies
2012: Mayan Prophecies in the HMNS Planetarium

Worried about 2012? Explore the Mayan culture in this new planetarium film. Learn why Dec. 21, 2012 will be just another day, but the Mayan culture’s true contributions to civilization are unique and fascinating.

7. Solve A Crime!

If watching CSI makes you think you think “I could do that!” – this exhibit is for you! Study fingerprints, chromatographs, DNA, insect lifecycles, tire marks, hair analysis, thread comparison, and handwriting analysis to catch the culprit!

Crime Lab Detective opens at the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land on Saturday, Sept. 3!

6. Watch A Butterfly Enter The World!

Cockrell Butterfly Center

Our butterflies flit through a three-story, glass enclosed rain forest habitat – and it’s a showstopper of the large-scale variety. But you shouldn’t miss the Hall of Entomology on the upper level – where you can watch butterflies emerge from their chrysalides daily. It’s a quiet moment of tranformation, rebirth and wonder that everyone should experience.

5. Discover a Modern-Day Dragon

Think all dragons breathe fire? Some just flash it – including The Dragon, one of the world’s most famous mineral specimens.

The Dragon | HMNS Mineral Hall

It just so happens to be part of our collection – on permanent display in the Hall of Gems and Minerals, along with literally hundreds of the world’s finest gems and minerals. Hundreds. 

4. Develop An Intense Desire To Wear This.

Ancient Ukraine Exhibit at HMNS
Preview the entire exhibition in this set of photos on Flickr.

If you’ve followed our advice on #4, you’ve likely whetted your appetite for gold. And our Ancient Ukraine exhibition (closing Sept. 5!) could be called: Gold! Oh, And Some More Gold. (Except that it also features fascinating artifacts made from many other materials, from the entire 6,000 year history of Ukraine.)

Get an idea of what you’re in for in our curator’s blog series on Ancient Ukraine.

3. Spend Saturday With The Stars!

George Observatory

Long weekends are the perfect time to make the long drive out to our George Observatory. It’s an hour outside Houston, but that means light pollution is at a minimum – and stars are at a maximum.

If you’ve never been, you will marvel  at the number of stars you can see with the naked eye – and the astronomical detail you can view through our Gueymard telescope, one of the largest in the country that’s available for public viewing.

The Observatory is open every Saturday night from 3 – 10 pm. Get Directions and information on Admission.

2. Explore Two Continents

Hall of the Americas

Our Hall of the Americas features cultures from the Inuit in Alaska to the Inca of Peru – go on an expedition through hundred of years of American history and over 2 continents this weekend!

1. Take The Science Fun Home!

The HMNS Museum Store has a metric ton of science ideas and activities to take home – and your purchases always support our science educational programs! Grab the Pocket Starfinder for your Big Bend camping excursion, take the Encyclopedia of Texas Shells on a seashore expedition, or identify what’s fluttering around your own backyard with the Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas Guide.

From a Galileo Thermometer to track the summer heat to a Dinosaur Hunter Field Canteen, we’ve got everything you need to close out the summer right!

Here’s to a great long weekend – hope to see you here at HMNS!