Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

This morning I stopped by the Eagleson Ponds to see if any new migrants had arrived. Other than one unidentified flycatcher and one vireo – possibly a Philadelphia Vireo – it was quiet, with no warblers seen. The Green Heron had returned, and I heard a Gray Catbird again, but there were fewer shorebirds and migrants than there had been the day before. The day was mild, with a thick, damp overcast sky, so looking for insects was out. I decided to head over to the Beaver Trail, which can either be fantastic for migrants this time of year, or very quiet. After a disappointing visit to Mud Lake yesterday, I was hoping the woods and swamps would be more productive.

As soon as I got out of the car I heard a few chip notes issuing from the shrubs in front of me. I spent about 15 minutes right beside the car, and saw two American Redstarts, a Black-throated Green Warbler, two Chestnut-sided Warblers, two Magnolia Warblers, a Gray Catbird and a couple of cardinals. This parking lot is consistently one of the best spots along the trail for migrant warblers and songbirds and I wasn’t disappointed.

The woods were quiet, although I heard a Common Yellowthroat sing briefly in the marsh and saw a Pileated Woodpecker high up in a tree right beside the trail. There was no water at the V-shaped boardwalk, and no birds other than a single robin calling in a tree. I thought I might see a few Swamp Sparrows but they were absent.

The best spot for migrants is undoubtedly the large boardwalk by the lookout at the back of the trail. I am not sure why this edge habitat attracts large flocks of songbirds year after year, but it is definitely worth checking in the fall. I heard a Swamp Sparrow, another Common Yellowthroat, and a Great Crested Flycatcher here, and saw a Gray Catbird and three immature Chestnut-sided Warblers in a single group. Four Wood Ducks were in the swamp, and I saw a Green Heron perching in a tree, recognizable by its long-necked silhouette alone. Then a hummingbird darted by, visited a couple of Spotted Jewelweed flowers, and landed on the branch of a dead tree next to the boardwalk. I tried to take a picture, but then a second hummingbird flew in and chased it! I heard the thrum of the wings and their soft squeaking noises as they rushed by overhead, then nothing for a few minutes. Just as I was about to give up one flew over and landed on another branch in front of me.

We only have one breeding hummingbird species in the Northeast, making identification simple despite the lack of a brilliant red throat – the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Females have an iridescent green back, white underparts, and a few dark flecks on the white chin. Adult males have duskier underparts, as well as the red throat which can look black when the sun is not shining directly on it. Both have a white post-ocular spot behind the eye.

Males and females stay together long enough for courtship and mating, then live separate lives. The males do not take any part in raising their offspring, and are the first to migrate south in the fall in August or even late July. Females leave after the males, in mid-August to early September, when cooler, shorter days trigger to the urge to migrate. Juveniles who are undertaking the journey for the first time are the last to leave. I wasn’t sure whether the birds I saw were females or juveniles, as they look identical. In time the immature males will develop red streaks on the throat that will help identify them as young males.

At one point I saw three hummingbirds chasing each other, and then a bit later I was watching a single hummingbird and saw (the same?) three hummingbirds chasing one another over the boardwalk, so there were at least four individuals present. Hummingbirds migrate singly instead of in flocks, as single birds do not attract the attention of raptors and other predators the way a large flock would, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds generally do not tolerate the presence of other individuals of the same species. This part of the Beaver Trail is abundant in Spotted Jewelweed, a favourite nectar plant of hummingbirds, as well as Joe Pye Weed and Purple Loosestrife, which may be why hummingbirds stop by this area year after year in late August or early September.

When not chasing one another, the hummingbirds either perched on a branch or fed on the flowers growing below the boardwalk. I mostly saw them feeding on the orange flowers of the jewelweed, although I also saw one sipping from the Purple Loosestrife and then stab a red berry with its black bill as well. For protein hummingbirds feed on small insects and spiders, catching them in midair, pulling them out of spider webs, capturing them from sap wells, or gleaning them from leaves. Such insects may include caterpillars, mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, aphids, or small bees.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate by day and sleep at night. Upon awakening they spend their time feeding in the early morning, then continue their journey south in the middle of the day. They then stop to feed again in the late afternoon before finding a suitable place to rest. By leaving their breeding grounds well before the first frosts kill the insects and flowers they depend on for food, hummingbirds ensure that they are migrating when food abundance is greatest.

Once the migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds run out of land they gather in Florida, Louisiana and the South Texas coast in September in order to fatten up for the next leg of their journey. Some fly overland, following the Gulf coast southwest through Mexico, while others fly directly over the Gulf of Mexico – an 800 km (500 mile) trip from Florida to the Yucatan Peninsula. Although the latter route is shorter, it is more difficult as it is a non-stop 18-to-24 hour flight for a hummingbird which normally travels about 35 km in a day over land. This means starting during the day and flying through the night, with no place to rest or refuel. The birds crossing the Gulf of Mexico must double their body weight and wait for favourable weather before resuming their journey. However, hummingbirds are skilled at using tail winds to help speed up their journey while using less of their energy stores.

Not all Ruby-throated Hummingbirds winter south of the U.S. border – more are overwintering on the Gulf Coast than ever before, particularly in mild winters where many have been observed at feeders in South Texas and South Louisiana. There are risks as well as benefits in staying in the U.S. over the winter – they may have a shorter distance to fly when returning to their breeding grounds in the spring, but they are at the mercy of a random cold snap or homeowners who may not consistently put out their hummingbird feeders.

The four hummingbirds at the Beaver Trail weren’t conserving their energy, as they were constantly chasing one another and spending less than half their time feeding. Perhaps these birds are juveniles with no idea of the long journey and difficult water crossing to come.

The hummingbirds were faithful to their perches, often returning to the same area or the same branch after spending time chasing each other or sipping nectar from the jewelweed. I was able to get closer to these tiny birds than I ever have before, resulting in my best images ever of this species! I was thrilled and happy to be able to spend so much time with them, as I only see them sporadically while they are here in the summer, and never so many at once!

Because of the heavy overcast I wasn’t expecting to see any dragonflies, butterflies, amphibians or reptiles, and indeed the insects were keeping a low profile. However, Spring Peepers were peeping throughout the trail, and I heard a couple of them during my time at the boardwalk. Now that we are approaching the fall equinox, there are roughly the same amount of hours of daylight now as there are in the spring when frogs are calling for mates. The length of daylight triggers this calling in frogs in the fall, particularly among Spring Peepers and Gray Tree Frogs. I saw movement in the leaves below the boardwalk, then saw a couple of legs peeping out. I thought that they probably belonged to a large insect – a wasp or a spider – and was surprised when I saw a tiny Spring Peeper emerge on top of the leaf. I very rarely see Spring Peepers as they are so small and secretive.

Spring Peeper

The only other creature of note was this young water snake I found underneath a rock I turned over searching for salamanders. This is the second young water snake I’ve found under a rock in the area beyond the boardwalk, which is why it disturbs me to see so many people using the flat rocks here to build inukshuks instead of leaving them for shelter for the local wildlife. Thankfully I didn’t see any on this visit.

Northern Water Snake

The Beaver Trail is one of my favourite trails close to home, and almost every time I go there I see something interesting. Today it was the Spring Peeper and the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, making this a visit I won’t soon forget!

6 thoughts on “Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

    • Hi MS, I had to look this up as Black-chinned Hummingbirds don’t breed in the northeast and I’ve never seen one before. I compared the two species on Cornell’s All About Birds website, and by looking at females/immature birds it appears the best way to separate these birds where their winter ranges overlap is by looking at the tail length….the tail is longer than the wings in Ruby-throats and shorter than the wings in Black-chinned Hummingbirds. You can see the longer tail in a few photos above.

      Hope this helps!

  1. Dear Gillian,

    Another great post. It was very accommodating of the hummers to let you get so close this time. I always have some jewelweed in my garden, so I shan’t be quite so quick to weed it in future.

    The noisemakers I would like to see are the snowy tree crickets. I hear them all around my house at night, but I’ve never managed to actually see one. Wasn’t it a great year for fireflies, though!

    I also wanted to pass on something I saw while I was cycling home along the Ottawa River a month ago. I was photographing dragonflies (among other things) along the way. I noticed what I think was a female white-faced meadowhawk munching on an eastern forktail (checked for rough IDs). She was in the undergrowth on the south side of the bicycle path going through Britannia. I told my husband when I got home, and he just said he thought it was normal for dragons to eat damsels.

    I’m not sure if it’s possible to send you any photos, but if you’re interested I can try. I might put one or two of them up on Flickr, if I get around to it. I think ‘Dragon eating a damsel’ should make a good title!

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