¡Buen viaje!

Our wildlife series starts with the smallest, and the cutest. I can’t remember what exactly I was thinking the very first time I spotted these tiny creatures on the deck of a farm in the Catskills, but it was similar to the shock of noticing an elephant in your backyard–unless you are in elephant territory somewhere in Asia or Africa. “Are these hummingbirds?”, I asked the farmer in disbelief. “Yes, they visit every summer”, he said.

Back home, I learned that there is only one species of hummingbird in this part of the United States: the Ruby-throated hummingbird. For a description that’s worth a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature, I refer to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: “A flash of green and red, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is eastern North America’s sole breeding hummingbird. These brilliant, tiny, precision-flying creatures glitter like jewels in the full sun, then vanish with a zip toward the next nectar source.” If reading this doesn’t make you instantly happy, I guess you simply don’t give that much about hummingbirds. Fair enough. Well, not really.

A male ruby-throated hummingbird in flight.
Courtesy Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary.

I adore these little feathery bullets of joy and playfulness, and the next thing I did was buying a feeder. I discovered that every home improvement store sells these in many different styles and colors. For some reason, I initially didn’t give it much hope. We were already quite late in the season, and I doubted if these mini-helicopters would find our feeder in this vaste land of thousands of mountain ranges. I was wrong. Within a few days, we had a couple visiting. Probably they must have been all around us already, or the flashy yellow-red of the feeder must have caught their eyes from miles away. They became our pets for the rest of that summer, occasionally hanging in the air staring at us from just a few feet away, as if they were saying hello.

Hummingbirds usually show up in the Catskills in the beginning of May. By then, they have completed a quite spectacular journey. Some birds hibernate in the south of Florida, but their Spanish speaking friends come all the way from Mexico or places as south as northern Panama. Each year, thousands of Ruby-throated hummingbirds fly over the open water of the Gulf of Mexico rather than follow the longer shoreline route. They will fly non-stop up to 500 miles (800 km) to reach U.S. shores, which will take them approximately 18-22 hours to complete.

Red-ruby throated hummingbirds’ breeding (for the Catskills: beginning May-beginning September), migration and hibernating grounds.

This year, we spotted the first hummingbird on May 14. Hearing its humming, at first I thought a big insect was coming up on me. Then I noticed him –the bright ruby spot on its chest revealed it was a male– hanging in the air for a few seconds while observing me, and rocketing away as fast as he had come. Since we had a polar vortex on May 9, covering all the hills under a white snow blanket, the hello of our most loved friend felt extra welcoming this year. Winter was officially over! The day we realized they were gone, somewhere the first or second week of September, was not a happy one. We envy them for spending the winter in Costa Rica or Mexico. But we know they will be back.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds at the deck, May 2020.

Hummingbird tidbits

  • There are currently over 300 recognized hummingbird species, but only 12-15 will regularly migrate into the United States, and even fewer continue all the way north to Canada. The Ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species regularly spotted in NY state. Rufous hummingbird can be seen on the west coast of the US.
  • Hummingbirds are solitary animals. They do not travel in flocks during their migration. Instead, each bird follows its own instincts on appropriate departure times and routes.
  • Fill your feeder with a ratio of one part sugar to four parts water (for example, one cup of sugar with four cups of water) until the sugar is dissolved. You should start seeing some visitors soon!

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