Save the Hummers
by Melissa Margetts
Jun 14, 2012 | 858 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The sun wasn't even up, and the air is already filled with the distinct buzzing sounds of hummingbirds dive-bombing the nectar filled feeders. There was a flurry of activity, and, like the hummers, our group of volunteers was busy flitting around too, getting the traps set, the scales, meaning equipment and clipboards out. It was day number one at the hummingbird banding and monitoring station that is set up near Dunton Hot Springs.

Every other Tuesday, June till September, volunteers will make the trek up the jeep road to the ranger guard station the night before, camping out so as to be ready to help with monitoring these fascinating and much loved avian species.

Tiny bird, important research. Yes, the words “global warming” seem to be creeping into conversations concerning all species nowadays, and the hummer is no different. Here in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, we are on the vital migratory corridors for certain species of hummers during their life cycle. The Broad-tailed hummingbird that works its way northward from Central America depends on the sweet nutritious nectar provided by the high altitude Glacier Lily and other wildflowers. Wildflowers like the Dwarf Larkspur depend, in turn, on hummers for pollination. But at higher elevations, where climate change is affecting weather patterns and snow melt-off, certain flowers are blooming early and withering away before the hummers arrive to drink their nectar.

The accommodating hummingbird is now migrating earlier, but not be soon enough, and if these patterns continue, the tiny birds may soon disappear from this northern migratory corridor altogether.

The hummers depend on these key nectar- providing plants while they are here to breed, nest and raise their young but the out-of-synch winter and spring weather patterns are affecting them. Climate changes on plant communities have a domino effect on many species, and that includes the hummingbird.

The San Juan region is the summer breeding and nesting grounds for the Broad-tailed hummingbird, and is also the migratory corridor for the Calliope and Rufous Hummingbird species en route to even more northern latitudes. Surprisingly, as popular as this tiny bird is, because of its size it is difficult to study, and there not much research has been done on it.

Because of this fact, the Hummingbird Monitoring Network was established in 2001 by founding scientists and ornithologists Dr. Susan Wethington, George West and Barbara Carlson to study these birds throughout North and South America.

The HMN set up the first Hummingbird banding and monitoring station in our region in Mesa Verde six years ago. The monitoring station at Dunton was added in 2009.

Darla Welty, a dedicated volunteer, is the “Queen Bee” at this particular monitoring research station, and she is the facilitator and coordinator for the other volunteers. She was part of that first group of volunteers at the Mesa Verde station, and she has set aside part of every summer, for the last five years, to help with this important research. Welty is a specially trained and licensed hummingbird bander.

This tiny delicate bird with legs smaller than the width of dental floss and a speedy metabolism (its heart beats up to 1,200 beats per minute during flight) needs to be handled with extremely gentle and observant care, to keep from injuring them or overstressing them. Darla is desperately looking for more volunteers who are willing to work during the trapping and monitoring sessions, and she is especially hoping to find someone in the Telluride region willing to take the training and get the licensing necessary to become a bander.

Two capture traps are set up, with several volunteers taking turns springing the traps, counting the visitors and “scout birds” that appear at each feeder, marking the hourly trap times and capturing and carefully removing the birds from the traps and delivering them to the folks inside the ranger’s cabin who are doing the actual data entry.

The birds are captured using a drop-netting system positioned over the feeders, then carefully placed in netted bags and taken inside the ranger’s cabin, where they are carefully removed from the bags, their wings, beak and tail feathers measured and their sex and age determined, as Darla carefully cups them in her hand, is looking through a lighted and highly magnified headpiece as she examines the birds. She turns them over in her fingers and blows through a straw onto the feathering near the vent of the bird to look for the visible signs of a developing egg in the breeding females.

Ah haa! One is already wearing a tiny leg band. She reads of the numbers on the band to the volunteer sitting next to her, who scours through his data. This is a bird that was banded back in 2009 at this site by Darla herself. The bird’s current size and feather condition is noted, as is the single egg that’s currently developing. Darla slips the bird into what she calls a “hummer taco,” a small piece of mesh netting with a clip on it to painlessly immobilize and restrict the movement of the bird, and I place it on a small digital scale and call out its weight – 3.3 grams –for data entry. I then carefully remove the bird from the “taco shell” with my fingers, and delicately hold it up to a feeder receptacle where it hungrily sucks up some nectar; I then place it on my hand, extended out the window of the cabin, and seconds later, this tiny hummingbird flies off with a buzz. This particular tiny bird has successfully traveled several thousand miles back and forth to Mexico on her migratory path over the last few years, and has come back to our beautiful mountains to breed and to raise her offspring yet again.

This research that we are gathering generates knowledge about hummingbird diversity, abundance, productivity and survivorship in a variety of habitats. Study sites occur in vegetation zones at different elevations, longitudes and latitudes. It is a systematic banding study that will detect movement patterns for many hummingbird species in western U.S., and eventually northwestern Mexico.

Banding occurs at multiple sites at different elevations, longitudes and latitudes in a variety of vegetation zones. Each banding session lasts five hours, beginning within one-half hour of sunrise. Because banding at each site follows a standardized methodology, changes in species’ occurrence and abundance patterns can be compared among years and among sites. Analyses of these data will help identify important areas for hummingbird migration and breeding. At the end of a season, results from each site are evaluated to determine which sites are in contention for long-term monitoring sites, or if a new site should be added and evaluated. Because hummingbirds have unique flight abilities, and because specialized permits are required for working with them, other avian conservation research programs such as Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship fail to adequately sample hummingbird populations.

Different species depend on specific habitats such as riparian zones, forests, and arid desert regions. Thus, when land managers and conservation professionals protect and preserve habitat for hummingbirds, they also protect habitat for many less visible but more threatened and endangered species.

To volunteer, contact Darla Welty at  HYPERLINK "tel:970-533-7231" \t "_blank" 970/533-7231 or  HYPERLINK "mailto:shepherdparty@gmail.com" \t "_blank" shepherdparty@gmail.com. This is a unique opportunity to experience this fascinating avian species – and to make a difference, at the same time.

Telluride’s Lissa Margetts, a lifelong animal and environmental education advocate, is the founder and former director of the much-loved Rocky Mountain Ark Wildlife Center, which closed its doors upon her retirement, five years ago.  

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