Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Lines blur between hummingbird seasons

For area hummingbird fans, the spring equinox has traditionally been a handy reminder to put nectar feeders back up and begin to keep a watchful eye out for the first spritely black-chinned hummingbird to appear in our yards. That connection is still valid, for the most part, but in the past couple of decades the seasonal movements of some of the other hummingbird species have become a little more fluid and less predictable.

With our winter night temperatures frequently below freezing, natural sources of nectar from wildflowers are scarce to non-existent, so it stands to reason that most hummingbirds depart for warmer climes in Mexico by November. Wintering destinations vary, ranging from Sinaloa south to Oaxaca, where birds must compete with resident hummingbird species for food resources until the changing day length prods them to head back north to their breeding grounds.

Marcy Scott is a local birder, and author of the recently published book,

The returning birds make a beeline to their nesting territories, fueled chiefly by some all-important native plants that both give them the sugary energy to migrate and largely depend upon them for pollination: ocotillo, its fiery, orange-red flowers offered even during extreme drought claret-cup cactus, a veritable wellspring of nectar; and canyon penstemon and crimson sage tucked into foothill canyons.

Our black-chinned hummingbirds mostly stick to this schedule, but some pioneering individuals of other species have been mixing it up in recent years. Rufous hummingbirds, which breed in the Pacific Northwest, have been pushing the boundaries for perhaps the longest, with a fair number now wintering regularly along the mainly frost-free Gulf Coast, where folks have created hummingbird havens offering feeders and flowering plantings. By doing so, the birds effectively lop off hundreds of miles each way from the traditional trip to Mexico.

Rufous hummingbirds are also one of the most likely species to overwinter in our area, with a few seen most winters in El Paso neighborhoods that flank the mountains. Just last week, the spunky female that we’ve hosted in our North Valley yard since October, departed for points northwest; I’d seen her doing some vigorous bathing and feather-preening a few days earlier and surprised she was likely preparing for her trip. Remarkable as her stay was, even more amazing is that it was her second winter with us!

While nectar feeders that can be kept from freezing are essential for wintering hummingbirds here, especially first thing in the morning and just before dark, the birds can usually find plenty of insects during the daytime and often bid their time warming in the sun. One particularly frigid day, our resourceful rufous hummer helped herself to some peanut butter suet bits to stoke her little furnace.

We’ve had one other repeat winterer — a broad-tailed hummingbird that developed his colorful plumage over the first winter and came back again the following fall. Another year an immature broad-billed hummingbird transformed over the winter into a glittering sapphire beauty by spring. These winterers may sometimes overlap by a week or two with the returning black-chinned hummingbirds, which I imagine must be started by the unusual interlopers on their territory.

And then there are the Anna’s hummingbirds, which are also major boundary pushers. Much more common in California and Arizona, they have had pulses of range expansion and have bred as far east as El Paso. The deep freeze of February 2011 sadly did in nesting pairs there and in Las Cruces, but this year at least two breeding pairs have been reported locally, so perhaps they are again pushing eastward. In our yard we’ve had a few overwinters, but depart in early February for unknown nesting grounds. Their unusual winter breeding cycle means that if they remain longer, and there’s a pair of birds, they’re likely working on a new generation.

Marcy Scott is a local birder, botanizer, and author of “Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest.” Along with her husband, Jimmy Zabriskie, she operates Robledo Vista Nursery in the North Valley, www.robledovista.com, specializing in native and adapted plants for birds and wildlife habitat. You can be reached at [email protected]

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