photograph courtesy of the author
Tracking ruby-throated hummingbirds
The Adirondacks, with its varied forests and numerous lakes and streams, is an ideal habitat for the only hummingbird species that breeds in eastern North America, the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). The region’s wide array of flowering plants provide essential nectar for their diet, along with protein from abundant insects and spider silk for nest building.
The annual arrival of hummingbirds at my Jenny Lake camp, in northern Saratoga County, is a rite of spring. They readily come to feeders filled with sugar-water, where they put on unparalleled displays of aeronautic prowess—including flying backwards, as no other bird can do. They passionately defend their feeding territories and conduct their mating displays, with aggressive males drawing attention for bullying behavior.
The ruby-throat is one of 340 known hummingbird species distributed across the Americas, from southeastern Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Chile. Despite being the only eastern breeding hummer, the ruby-throat’s breeding range is the largest of any North American hummingbird species.
I began banding ruby-throats at Jenny Lake in 1973, using bands supplied by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). They arrive as a sheet of aluminum with each band individually numbered. After cutting and forming to create split rings, each is applied loosely to a bird’s leg using special tools. Data gathered go to the USGS’s Bird Banding Lab as part of its massive database that tracks migration, longevity, nesting-site and wintering-area fidelity, as well as many other aspects of the birds’ life histories.
Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate many qualities of hummingbirds. Despite their size—weighing in at only 0.1–0.2 ounces—ruby-throats are quite persistent. In mid-May 2002, I witnessed them survive a record late-season snowstorm with temperatures dropping into the 20s. Repeated recapture of individuals year after year also attests to the phenomenal navigation system built into their tiny brains, guiding them back from their Central American wintering grounds to the exact feeder they used a year or more before. It’s staggering to contemplate the survivorship of these little birds during their more than 2,000-mile migration from the Adirondacks to Central America, then back to the Adirondacks again, facing hurricanes on the trip south and tornadoes on their return.
Hummers have voracious appetites and wide feeding ranges. I’ve tracked them moving between Jenny Lake and a local sawmill, nearly two miles away, both within a season and as little as an hour. Feeders at the sawmill were managed for many years by Gussie Ulrich, an intrepid Adirondacker who passed recently at age 93.
The annual recapture of these birds also sheds light on their longevity, which differs by sex. While males outnumber females at first arrival in May, females outnumber them and outlive them through the remainder of the season. In fact, one Jenny Lake adult female I banded on July 19, 2001, was recaptured 25 times over the next eight years, at least once each year, equaling the then–North American record for the species of nine years old. In addition to her holding an age record, she was a remarkable example of breeding-site fidelity.
The story for males is not so rosy. None of the Jenny Lake males that I’ve banded have lived beyond five years. A prior study conducted in Pennsylvania concluded that the testosterone-driven, frenetic lifestyle of these bullying males is not conducive to longevity.
Another hummingbird bander, Ted Hicks, banded hummers with me at the former Gooley Club, on Third Lake in the Essex Chain, and at the Schroon Lake residence of Allan and Ginni Campbell. When we started banding there in 2012, I asked Allan how many hummers he thought he had coming to the 10 feeders on his porch. His reply: “About 20.” Our banding provided a more accurate count. Using one trap for three and a half hours, we captured, banded and released 86 ruby-throats, which blew his mind!
Two of the 30 females I banded on that momentous July day have provided spectacular recapture histories. One of them was recaptured in 2013, 2018 and 2019, at age eight. We eagerly sought her in 2020, but without success. The other female was recaptured in 2013, 2014, 2018 and on June 7, 2020, at age nine years and zero months, becoming a celebrity known locally as “The Old Lady” of Schroon Lake. We sought her recapture again during our August banding sessions, but without success. If she had been recaptured, her age of nine years and two months would have tied the current North American age record for the species.
Ted also bands Adirondack hummers at a relative’s camp on Okara Lake, in Thendara, as well as at the Stillwater Hotel on Stillwater Reservoir, assisted by Gary Lee, a retired Department of Environmental Conservation forest ranger. Ted schedules visits to the hotel in May, August and Labor Day weekend, and visitors can gather to observe the banding while eating breakfast or sipping coffee on the deck. Some folks come back year after year, just like the hummers, to enjoy the extraordinary experience. Hand-releasing a tiny banded hummer is a thrill to those willing to try it, a tense moment of elation.
If you’re lucky enough to live in the woods or along lakeshores within the Blue Line, try putting out a feeder in May. You may be surprised at the adventure that awaits you.
Bob Yunick, a retired organic chemist from Schenectady, is licensed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to band birds. Since 1962, he’s banded nearly 221,000 birds from 205 species, including more than 6,000 hummingbirds.