2009 was a Good Year!

We ended the previous year on a roll.  By late summer new banding sites were being added to the project; foremost among them was a simply beautiful site in southern Brewster County, in Terlingua Ranch in the heart of the Christmas Mountains.  Carolyn Ohl-Johnson’s Christmas Mountains Oasis was the result of an ongoing life-long effort to create an island of lush habitat in an otherwise barren thorn-scrub desert valley.

Carolyn Ohl-Johnson's Christmas Mountains Oasis

The value of such a location was the added dimension of a new species that was regularly seen there—Lucifer Hummingbird.  We were happy with the 14 Lucifers banded by year’s end; 2009 would not disappoint us as we would catch that many in a single day!  There were many more surprises in store for us as the new year began.

The first bird captured for 2009, on 22 March, was already banded!  E14593 was well known to us, we had caught him twice in 2008, in March and again in August.  This bird was originally banded by Bob and Martha Sargent in August of 2006 as a hatching year male Broad-tailed Hummingbird there on our mountain property.

Bob and Martha Sargent banding in the Davis Mountains

However, that was only part of the story.  As an adult male it was clear that this bird was a hybrid, almost assuredly between Broad-tailed and Black-chinned.  His summer territory was in the middle of our mountain habitat.  We had him again in the trap on 29 May, but as the breeding season cranked up to its highest level in June and July just watching his antics was both entertaining and educational.  He was relentless in defending the feeders and displaying to both Broad-tails and Black-chins alike but when we would arrive for banding and set up the traps, he would just sit on a perch and watch.

E14593 a Broad-tailed X Black-chinned Hummingbird hybrid

The moment we ended a banding session and removed the traps, he was immediately back on a feeder for a long sip of sugar-water.  Who says hummers don’t have intelligence?

On the 10th of April there were a dozen or so Black-chins in my yard in Fort Davis so I thought it was a good day to band.  Turns out I caught 55 Black-chins that morning which clearly demonstrates a known hummer fact that what you see is not what you have!  By the end of May the numbers were starting to add up.  Sixteen banding sessions had produced 354 birds of 7 species.  Leading the pack was Black-chin with 308 followed by Broad-tailed with 21, and Magnificent with 16.  The first highlight of the month was a stunning adult male Broad-billed Hummingbird that was captured and banded on 8 May at the home of Marc and Maryann Eastman.  As it turned out Fred Bassett and the Sargents were there that day.  Thanks guys for my first Broad-bill—it was a special treat.  I was fortunate to catch another that month, an adult female in my yard in Fort Davis on 28 May.  Albeit, the event of the month came the very next day up at our mountain property.  We only caught eleven birds that morning but one very special bird provided new information to the ornithology of Texas.  At 8:29 am that morning we trapped and banded an adult female White-eared Hummingbird.  Turns out she was gravid (carrying an egg in her abdomen) providing the first conclusive evidence of nesting in the state for that species.  We would add to that evidence later in the summer.

In June we managed just six banding sessions but caught 139 birds of 5 species.  Two additional White-ears were caught, both beautiful adult males on the 9th and the 26th of the month.  With the arrival of July we knew that fall migration was upon us and the anticipation was high.  How dynamic would the southbound migration of hummingbirds be in the late summer and fall of 2009?  We would not be disappointed.  We started July with our annual family gathering in Fort Davis.  On Friday, July 3rd, we all trekked up to our property and I decided to set up the traps and band that morning.  Present were my kids and their families along with Donna’s brother and his wife, Dr. David Hampe and Robin of Frisco, Texas, and my daughter-in-law’s parents from Lubbock, Gary and Sally McCoy.  Another visitor that day was a good friend Dr. Randy Pinkston of Temple, Texas, who along with his wife Patty owns a cabin and property in the same area a few miles east of mine.  We trapped and banded 26 birds of 3 species that morning but one recapture was priceless.  R98805 was an adult male White-eared Hummingbird that was originally banded as a sub-adult male by Bob, Martha and me on 13 August 2007.  That was the day we trapped and banded 6 White-ears at this same location.  Another priceless event that morning was when my grandson, Rohan (almost 4 years old) released a Magnificent Hummingbird after it was banded.  The smile on his face said it all.

Rohan Lee Johnson releasing a female Magnificent Hummingbird

Nine banding sessions in July yielded 291 birds of 7 species.  Our first Rufous was captured and banded on 11 July; our first Calliope on 17 July.  By the end of the month, migration was in full swing and upon our return from the hummingbird research conference in Allen’s Park, Colorado we got back to business.  August was one of those months that you just hang on to the rope and enjoy the ride.  Fred Bassett came through for his annual “West Texas Fix” on his “exit from Idaho and return to Alabama” trip.  He was a whooped dog by the time I let him leave to continue east and vowed to claim worker’s comp for several ailments.  In the five days he was here from 18 to 22 August we banded 492 birds of 8 species.

Fred Bassett photographing a male Magnificent Hummingbird before release

In sixteen banding sessions for the month of August, 881 birds were captured and banded of 9 species.  Leading the pack was Broad-tailed with 266, Rufous with 265, Black-chin with 239 and Calliope with 54.  There were highlights for the month—boy was there highlights!  First, on 7 August in my yard I caught and banded an adult male Allen’s Hummingbird that had been hanging around for a week.

Adult male Allen's Hummingbird banded on 7 August 2009

After disappearing for about 24 hours after being handled, he returned to the feeder he was captured at and stayed until 21 November!  Second, on 9 August the second conclusive evidence of nesting in White-eared Hummingbird for Texas was obtained.  A newly fledged male was captured and banded.

Juvenile male White-eared Hummingbird banded 8 August 2009

The bird was in fresh juvenile plumage, likely less than 10 days out of a nest.  He still had fleshy gape and corrugations in the bill were 100%.  Proof of successful nesting in the species in Texas was in hand.

The third big event for the month occurred shortly after our return from banding in Cloudcroft, New Mexico while Fred was here.

Juvenile female Rufous Hummingbird photographed in Cloudcroft, New Mexico

In our Fort Davis yard on 19 August, among 51 birds of 5 species captured that day was an adult male Rufous that was already banded.  E72682 was not a band that either of us were familiar with.  That evening Fred put out feelers on the internet thinking that someone would claim the band.  I made the official report to the BBL and hoped that the reply would come shortly.  Unfortunately, we had a bit of a wait but one that was well worth it.  By-the-way, this was my first foreign recapture of a banded hummingbird.  Finally, on 2 November the news arrived.  The male Rufous Hummingbird was banded on 16 May 2009 in Dunster, British Columbia just west of Jasper National Park and very near the Alberta border.  Folks that is 1,750 miles from Fort Davis, Texas!

Finally, if that were not enough, on 21 August while banding at two locations in Terlingua Ranch with Fred manning the banding table and yours truly emptying the traps, we caught 62 birds of 5 species including 3 recaptures.  After the first of several Lucifer’s caught that morning, I would return to the banding table with a bird in a holding bag and say “guess what?”  Fred simply replied “what?”  I would say “it’s another Lucifer!”

Adult male Lucifer Hummingbird photographed at the Christmas Mountains Oasis

By the end of the session Fred banded 16 new Lucifer Hummingbirds and we recaptured one, likely the highest single day total ever for the species.

The southbound onslaught continued into September.  For the month, in 14 banding sessions we captured and banded 591 new birds of 10 species.  Broad-tails topped the list with 166 birds banded followed by Rufous with 127, Black-chin with 111, Ruby-throated with 80 and Calliope with 46.  Ruby-throated with 80 you say?  Yes, indeed it was an amazing fall migration for the species, the largest ever witnessed in the region.  In fact, on 4 September at my two study sites in Terlingua Ranch we caught and banded 32 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in a single day.  That was ten more than we banded the entire season in 2008.

On that same day, we outdid Fred on Lucifers, well sort of.  We caught 14 new birds and recaptured 4 for a total of 18 Lucifers captured; however, among the recaptures that day was a very important bird.  It was an adult female that was originally banded as a juvenile female on 19 October 2008.  On the day she was banded, I photographed her because she was recently fledged (late for the species) and had a very short, straight and soft bill measuring only 17.38 mm.  When recaptured, this now adult female had an adult bill that measured 20.61 mm!  The next highlight of the month came on the 8th when a second recently fledged juvenile male White-eared Hummingbird was banded at our mountain property.  That would be our last for the year but 5 White-ears banded since May and 1 recapture in July was a certainly a fine tally for this rare Texas bird.  The first Anna’s Hummingbird for the fall season arrived on 12 September and by the end of the month migration was starting to wind down in most species.  But there was still important data to be collected.

Late September delivered the most interesting bird of the year.  I first noticed this bird in my yard in Fort Davis on 18 September coming to our kitchen window feeder.  At first, I thought it was just an odd looking male Anna’s perhaps molting; however, closer observation revealed the wrong color in the throat and crown, a hint of rufous coloration in the flanks and and a lot of rufous in the tail.  Natural photographs were obtained before it was captured, banded, measured and examined on 24 September.  It was molting its tail and retrices 3, 4, and 5 were in pins.  After banding, it moved to the other side of the house into the main yard and was eventually recaptured on 27 October, this time with a full set of tail feathers.  My initial determination that this bird was a Anna’s X Allen’s hybrid has been tentatively agreed to by others.

Adult male Anna's X Allen's Hummingbird from Fort Davis, Texas

Details will be published elsewhere.

Hummingbird movements abate fairly quickly in west Texas in October.  Still, in 12 banding sessions we managed to band 93 new birds of 8 species.  Broad-tails topped the list with 47 birds banded followed by Anna’s with 21 and Ruby-throated with 11.  There were two highlights for the month.  First, 29 October was one of those days that you say to yourself “I think I will just stay home today”.  It was overcast, 34 degrees with light snow and sleet falling.  However, I have learned my lesson here in west Texas and the old saying “hummingbird banding is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get!” certainly applies.  I drove through Alpine and picked up Carolyn and we headed down to Terlingua Ranch thinking it would be warmer.  Ha! It was not and sleet was still falling intermittently, but at least the wind was calm.  On that day we visited a new site where a couple of hummers were reported.  At 9:11 am I caught what would be the last of the Black-chins for the year, an adult female.  At 9:45 am she went back into the trap, but not knowing for sure that it was the same bird I dropped the door and proceeded to retrieve her from the trap.  As I had my arm fully extended into the trap to remove her, a second hummingbird buzzed me and tried to enter the trap, with my arm still in it!  I cried out loud, “that’s a Costa’s”.  Quickly, I removed the recaptured Black-chin and backed off and the Costa’s went immediately into the trap. It was an adult female with a small triangle of purple feathers in the center of the gorget.

Adult female Costa's Hummingbird banded 29 October 2009

That was my second Costa’s; we captured and banded a juvenile male in 2008 at Carolyn’s CMO, eight miles north.

Two days later, on the 31st I drove over to Alpine to try for 2-3 birds.  First, at the Faust’s residence we went to check out a “female” hummer that was coming regularly to a feeder.  Shortly after setting up the trap, sure enough she went right in.  Turns out it was the last Ruby-throated for the year, an adult female.  Shortly thereafter, another bird appeared in the yard and it was captured in short order.  It was an adult male Allen’s!  See, you never know!  After catching two Anna’s at Carolyn’s house down the street, we closed the books on October.  We closed out the year on 10 December after managing only 7 banding sessions in November and December.  We caught and banded 23 birds of 3 species during this time including 21 Anna’s, 1 Magnificent (on 5 November) and 1 Rufous.  On 10 December up at our mountain property I observed a juvenile male Magnificent Hummingbird, without a doubt the latest record for Texas.  I tried in vain to capture him to see if he was the bird I had banded on 5 November, but he would have nothing to do with the trap.  I’ll bet a hundred bucks he was banded already.

The most significant data collected in late fall involved one species—Anna’s Hummingbird, in three subject areas including recaptures from 2008, numbers of juvenile birds captured compared to 2008 and migration patterns for the season.  Of 28 adult birds banded last year, 12 birds returned and were recaptured this year, a 43% return rate.  Additionally, very few juvenile birds were noted this year.  In fact, only 4 were caught compared to 30 last year, and not a single one of the juvenile birds banded last year was recaptured this year.  Finally, the influx of new Anna’s this year was restricted by early November compared to last year when large numbers of birds were still moving through in late November and early December.

So, the bottom line is that 2009 was a good year and we can only hope that 2010 will be as enjoyable and successful.  We invite you to come along for the ride, after all remember the box of chocolates!  Thanks, Bob and Martha Sargent, I have thoroughly enjoyed the ride too.  In 2009 we managed 80 banding sessions and logged in 7,530 miles to and from our banding sites.  Project totals to date among 12 species and 3004 individuals banded are:

  • Broad-billed Hummingbird – 2
  • White-eared Hummingbird – 11
  • Magnificent Hummingbird – 105
  • Lucifer Hummingbird – 87
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird – 127
  • Black-chinned Hummingbird – 1,071
  • Anna’s Hummingbird – 109
  • Costa’s Hummingbird – 2
  • Calliope Hummingbird – 124
  • Broad-tailed Hummingbird – 770
  • Rufous Hummingbird – 574
  • Allen’s Hummingird – 22