2012 – Answering Questions about the Drought

2011 was truly an unusual year but an interesting one considering the scope of our hummingbird research project.  We started the previous year in the throes of a historic drought that never relinquished its grip when the summer monsoon season failed to produce adequate moisture across the region.  Add to that a harsh winter event in late January accompanied by sub-zero temperatures (resulting in widespread damage to vegetation) and historic fires in April in many areas of the region.  The most devastating wildfire was the 315,000-acre Rockhouse Fire that swept through Fort Davis in early April burning 26 homes.  So, how would 2012 stack up?  To start with, the winter season was not near as cold as in 2011 and monsoon rains returned in June and July with above average moisture; however, it was clear early on that hummingbird numbers were not normal based on the data collected.  Such was the value of conducting a study of this scope and magnitude during this post-drought era.  Albeit, wildfires once again reared their ugly head in 2012, and we came precariously close to having one sweep through our mountain property in April.  It started as a lightning strike southwest of Mount Livermore, then swept uncontrolled north and east threatening the subdivision and prompting an evacuation order.  It was finally controlled a mere one-half mile from our cabin.  The bottom line result of these continuing adverse natural factors—resident and migrant birds alike were noticeably in reduced numbers in all habitats.

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Livermore Ranch Fire as seen from just south of Fort Davis on the evening of April 28th. (Kelly Bryan)

Hummingbird trapping efforts from January through April produced very disheartening results.  Birds were already few and far between at feeders at most all locations due in part to lack of reproductive success the previous year.  We caught and banded only 10 new birds and on five occasions in March and April attempted our normal banding efforts at various sampling sites only to come up empty—zero birds!  Even at our cabin in the Davis Mountains few birds were observed at our feeders.  In the past there had always been decent volume at that location.  However, there were two bright spots to mention.  First, in late March at our cabin we noticed the return of a hybrid male Black-chin X Broad-tail hummingbird.  A bit of close examination with binoculars revealed he was already wearing a band on his right leg.  Although we could not conclusively identify him as to which individual he was, his behavior, perches used and feeders defended indicated that he was E14593.  If so, he was originally banded as a juvenile back in August of 2006 by Bob and Martha Sargent.  That confirmation came on May 23rd when he finally entered a trap and was caught.  We are looking forward to his return in 2013, which will be his seventh year at our cabin.  Second, we caught a Ruby-throated Hummingbird on March 30th, our first ever for the month.  Carolyn had already spotted this individual at her oasis the previous day and suspected it was that species.  However, it turned out to be a SY (second year) male that was still basically in juvenile plumage instead of adult plumage.  This can happen when a bird quits molting at some point in their development—sometimes called an arrested molt.  We are not sure if these events are influenced by environmental factors or genetics.

So, May had arrived and we were hoping that spring migration would peak during the month since March and April had shown very little hummingbird movement.   Early in the month we had a great experience at Hummer House in Christoval south of San Angelo.  Dan and Cathy Brown hosted their first Camp Discovery for Christoval ISD 4th graders.  We banded hummingbirds, Charles and Nancy banded songbirds, Tony Gallucci showed off his collection of reptiles and amphibians, and several other venues were offered that day on a rotational schedule.  This allowed each and every child to experience nature up close and personal.  If you have never been to Hummer House, you must add it to your bucket list!  Dan and Cathy are great hosts (see www.hummerhouse.com).

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Charles Floyd and crew banding songbirds at Camp Discovery at Hummer House on May 5th. (Nancy Floyd)

Here in west Texas increased volume did not come until the last half of the month.  On May 23rd at our cabin we finally managed to catch 27 birds.  Furthermore, all sampling locations were reporting increased numbers about that same time.  For the month in five banding sessions we managed to catch 84 birds including 36 new birds of four species and 48 returns/recaptures.  The latter included 21 Lucifer Hummingbirds and 25 Black-chinned Hummingbirds.  Any return of a banded bird is a very important aspect of this study.  Site fidelity and longevity are the two most important factors gleaned from the recapture of birds that were previously banded by us.  Point-in-fact, on May 25th we recaptured Lucifer Hummingbird #R98948.  This was the second Lucifer we ever banded way back on the 17th of August, 2008.  Since she was an adult when originally banded.  Therefore, she was now at least five years old—likely a longevity record for the species.  We hope to see her or any of the other seven Lucifers we banded that day again in 2013.

Increased volume continued into the month of June.  It was a “normal” month for us compared to 2011 when hummingbirds had concentrated in large numbers at feeder stations struggling to survive the drought.  The first bit of good news was received on June 9th from the bird banding laboratory.  A female Rufous Hummingbird we banded on August 31, 2011 was found in Northridge, Los Angeles County, California on April 13, 2012.  How you say?  After a storm, she was discovered upside down, presumably dead, in a puddle of rainwater.  The folks that found her blew her dry and warmed her with a hair dryer and she eventually took wing continuing her migration north!  Thanks, caring folks!  Also, as stated above, monsoon rains began a few weeks early and on June 15th a heavy downpour at the Christmas Mountains Oasis filled all of Carolyn’s tanks and ponds for the first time since the fall of 2010.  Christmas had finally arrived in the Christmas Mountains!  You can follow the CMO saga at www.cmoasis.blogspot.com.  Environmental conditions were finally showing improvement region-wide.  For the month, in only 4 banding sessions, we caught and banded 65 birds of four species and trapped 28 previously banded birds.  Unfortunately, in the Davis Mountains there was no sign of Broad-billed, White-eared and Blue-throated hummingbirds.  Also, the impact of the drought on Ponderosa Pines on our cabin property was unimaginable.  At least 40% were dead!  Magnificent Hummingbirds seemed to be few and far between as a result.  How would their numbers compare at the end of the year?

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View of our canyon in the Davis Mountains showing the extent of drought killed pines. (Kelly Bryan)

So, half a year was behind us and the post drought blues were holding strong.  What effect would that have on early migrants that normally arrive in good numbers by mid-July?  Would the early onset of monsoon rains continue into late summer and fall?  Would Rufous and Calliope hummingbirds move through the area in normal numbers, or would they somehow know to circumvent this drought stricken region during migration?  Would Broad-tails coming down from the central Rockies follow suit?  Through June, in 15 banding sessions, we had managed to catch and band only 111 birds of 6 species, less than 30% of the total for the past three years (481 in 2009, 371 in 2010 and 385 in 2011).  Our banding efforts continued per our normal rotational schedule so the data collected could provide some of the answers.

How did July compare?  In 20 banding sessions we caught and banded 425 new birds of six species and recaptured 65 birds.  There were some good days (such as 87 birds on July 8th) but mostly there were just mediocre days when we struggled to catch more than 20 birds.  By the end of the month only 1 Calliope Hummingbird had found our traps.  Compare that to 22 in 2009, 8 in 2010 and 10 in 2011.  Our Rufous tally was down as well to 35 birds; compared to 47 in 2009, 59 in 2010 and 79 in 2011.  Starting on July 26th we hosted Dr. Chris Butler and his students from Central Oklahoma University.  Chris conducts research on hybridization between Black-chinned and Ruby-throated hummingbirds, among other topics.  Bird numbers were down during their stay but overall the class had a great experience with west Texas hummingbirds.  On a positive note we were catching some juvenile Lucifer Hummingbirds, a good sign they were having reproductive success this year compared to very little last year.  At the end of the month, Charles and Nancy Floyd were scheduled to come from San Angelo.  At the last minute we decided to put that off two weeks hoping for higher volume.  Also, Sandy Lockerman was flying down from Pennsylvania on August 5th to gain some banding experience with our western species.  I was really worried that her experience would be less than anticipated.

August started out like late July but soon incoming migrants were starting to swarm at the feeders.  For the month, in 23 banding sessions we caught and banded 945 new birds of eight species and recaptured 59 previously banded birds.  Sandy had a quality experience with adequate numbers of birds, but was not overwhelmed.  She was able to handle six species—unfortunately, we saw but did not catch any Magnificent Hummingbirds.  The highlight of her week here in west Texas occurred on the 8th.  That day at the Davis Mountains Preserve we captured a Rufous Hummingbird that was banded by someone else.  She was originally banded by Ned and Gigi Batchelder near Spokane, Washington on May 17, 2008.  This was our second encounter of a Batchelder banded Rufous Hummingbird (the other from Montana) and now our sixth Rufous recapture from the greater northwest region of the US and Canada.  Coming in a close second was the return (recapture) of an adult male Allen’s Hummingbird in Alpine on the 11th, Sandy’s last day here.  We had originally banded this individual on October 11, 2010 at the same location.  August was busy for the remainder of the month as were the four days that Charles and Nancy came.  It was fun watching them sort out species, age and sex among dozens of birds; something I now do on a routine basis.  It takes time and repeated experience to get really comfortable with that task.

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Sandy Lockerman banding hummingbirds in the Davis Mountains; yours truly trapping. (Maryann Eastman)

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Charles and Nancy Floyd banding at our cabin in the Davis Mountains on August 17th. (Kelly Bryan)

How did Calliope and Rufous hummingbird numbers for August compare to the three previous years?  We caught and banded 34 Calliopes compared to 54 in 2009, 32 in 2010 and 94 in 2011.  For Rufous the numbers were 432 in 2012 compared to 265 in 2009, 490 in 2010 and 605 in 2011.  For the most part numbers were still running lower than the previous three years.  The totals for the month followed a similar pattern since Rufous Hummingbird is usually the most abundant species.  The 945 birds banded in August compared to 881 in 2009, 1303 in 2010, and 1248 in 2011.

September is always a busy month for us.  In addition to our regular banding schedule here in west Texas, we take off seven days in the middle of the month and travel to the Texas coast to participate in and band hummingbirds at the Rockport-Fulton HummerBird Festival (see www.rockporthummingbird.com).  It is a great experience to see and band large numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds during this event and greet the thousands of attendees wanting to learn more about hummingbirds.  Also, the crafts fair is one of the best!  In 2011 we left west Texas with large volumes of birds still migrating through but when we returned, nothing!  It was like something just turned the valve off.  Not so in 2012.  We returned to large numbers of birds still moving through the region.  For the month in 16 banding sessions we caught and banded 539 birds of nine species and recaptured 10 previously banded birds.  We have been tracking the differences over the past three years of banded Calliope and Rufous hummingbirds.  For September 2012, we banded 17 Calliope Hummingbirds compared to 46 in 2009, 16 in 2010 and 61 last year.  For Rufous Hummingbird we banded 167 new birds compared to 127 in 2009, 149 in 2010 and 241 in 2011.  So, the latter species was only slightly below the three-year average.  I mentioned earlier that we were catching some juvenile Lucifer Hummingbirds in contrast to last year.  Let’s see how those data compare over the past five years.  The total number of juvenile birds banded and the percentage of new birds banded by year are as follows:  2008 – 6 (42.9%), 2009 – 42 (57.5%), 2010 – 45 (44.6%), 2011 – 10 (5.3%), and 2012 – 26 (81.3%).  Two clear conclusions jump out from these figures; first, the impact of the drought in 2011 on reproductive success in this species and second, it is clear from this year’s total that we have managed, over the past five years, to band almost all of the available adult birds at our study sites.

What could we expect in October?  Better hold on tight, it was an exciting month!  Fall migration continued and volume was about normal compared to the past three years.  In 14 banding sessions we caught and banded 133 new birds and recaptured 14 previously banded birds.  However, diversity was amazing as we caught ten species during the month!  Broad-tails Hummingbirds are always our most common species in October.  For the month we caught and banded 83 birds.  This number compares to 47 in 2009, 121 in 2010 and 50 in 2011.  Broad-tail numbers for the period July through September are as follows; 60/168/184 this year compared to 66/266/166 in 2009, 102/254/156 in 2010, and 198/122/87 in 2011.  Our string of foreign recaptures continued but this time it was one of our banded birds that was found as per our notice from the banding lab.  R99005 was placed on a female Black-chinned Hummingbird at our cabin in the mountains way back on August 18, 2008.  She was an adult when banded that day and my partner in crime was Fred Bassett.  Much to our surprise she was recovered April 7, 2012 on a ranch just north of Mason, in the heart of the Texas hill country.  Folks that is just about 300 miles due east of where she was originally banded!  We really do not expect these birds to move east west.  Unfortunately, she met her demise by hitting a window on a recreational vehicle; the lady that picked her up just happened to be a birder.

Our next surprise of the month raised the bar really, really high.  On the afternoon of October 19th I had arrived back in Fort Davis from my normal banding sessions down south in Terlingua Ranch.  The phone rang and I noticed on the caller ID that it was Carolyn—she never calls.  She announced that she had spotted a rare hummer not long after I left down there, managed to get a few pictures and very shortly was sending them by email.  I asked her what she thought it was and she stated, “I think it is an Amazilia species but not Berylline”.  Boy did that get the juices flowing!  I looked at the pictures, called Mark Lockwood, and told her we would be back down there at sun up the next morning.  The bird started feeding before sunrise in the habitat there at Carolyn’s Oasis.  We attempted a few pictures but light conditions were not good in the woodland.  After about an hour, I set up one trap on the feeder it was coming to and despite seven other feeders still hanging nearby, the bird went right into the trap on the next visit.  Although we had already concluded what species it was, in hand we were able to confirm the bird was a juvenile female Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a first record for the entire region.  Furthermore, this occurrence represents the western-most record for the United States.  She stayed at the Oasis the rest of that day but, unfortunately was not present the next morning.  She is now wearing band number L40971 and it is my hope that she finds her way back to the Texas Coast.  Just how she wandered across several hundred miles of desert habitat to find that location is certainly a mystery.  BTW, while looking for her that evening, Carolyn found and photographed a Varied Thrush in her oasis.  I wonder how many Varied Thrushes and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds have ever shared the same location before?

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Juvenile female Buff-bellied Hummingbird banded at the Christmas Mountains Oasis on October 20, 2012. (Kelly Bryan)

November was here and it was time for Anna’s Hummingbirds to reveal their migration pattern for the fall season.  So far we had encountered very few.  Their numbers peaked in October in 2010 but later the past two years.  Also, early in the study they were equally abundant north in the Davis Mountains and south to the lower desert country.  The past two years they have been noticeably scarce in the Davis Mountains.  Here is what the combined Anna’s Hummingbird banding data (new birds banded only) show for the past five years:

August September October November December
2008 0 0 23 32 3
2009 0 8 21 18 3
2010 1 11 42 19 7
2011 0 8 16 9 12
2012 0 2 4 22 19

So what do you see in the above data?  Is there an obvious abundance shift to later in the year?  Are we documenting a major status shift in this species or is it just a short-term trend?  Only time and continued effort will answer those questions.  For the month of November, in 7 sessions we caught and banded 43 birds of seven species and recaptured 10 birds.  The best bird of the month was a Costa’s Hummingbird, our third of the study.  We caught and banded him on November 7th at Carolyn’s CMO, one of the first birds to enter a trap that morning.  He was in full adult plumage except for the gorget and crown, which contained a lot of pinfeathers but just a few purple ones.  This will be the thirty-third record for Texas if accepted by the Texas Bird Records Committee.

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Sub-adult male Costa’s Hummingbird at the Christmas Mountains Oasis on November 13, 2012. (Kelly Bryan)

December was bringing closure to an interesting year, one that started out with lingering effects of the severe drought from the previous year but ended on a productive and exciting note.  There were still good numbers of birds at several of our study sites.  For the month in 5 sessions we caught and banded 40 new birds and recaptured 5 previously banded birds.  The past couple of years we had noticed a changing trend in Allen’s Hummingbirds.  Several birds were staying into the winter season, primarily in Alpine.  This year we banded two new birds, one in Alpine and one in Terlingua Ranch.  However, it was a return of a previously banded bird that you might find interesting.  Carolyn’s daughter-in-law, Annie Faust, who lives just down the street from her in Alpine, noticed her cat bring something very small into the house on December 10th on a very cold morning before daylight.  It was an adult male Allen’s Hummingbird and it was banded!  We had banded him, as a juvenile bird, back on October 27, 2010.  Now, here is the rest of the story.  Since the bird was still in torpor and did not move any, the cat did not harm the bird.  After being rescued, warming up a bit and being fed some sugar-water solution, the totally revived bird was released back into the wild, apparently none-the-worse for the experience.

2012 is now behind us.  This was our fourth complete year of sampling on a rotational basis at our study sites.  We strive for consistency and try to maintain a schedule; however, life is just not that rigid.  With aging parents and grandkids, it is a time in our life where banding sometimes takes a back seat to family matters.  In 2012 we saluted the arrival of new granddaughter, Laura Beatrice Bryan, born on May 23rd in Austin, Texas.  In the 100 banding sessions that we completed we captured 2,477 birds of eleven species including 2,236 new birds banded and 241 recaptures of previously banded individuals.  The eleven species captured was the same as last year and was three fewer than in 2010—this year we did not see or catch any Broad-billed, Blue-throated, White-eared or Violet-crowned hummingbirds.  However, with the addition of Buff-bellied Hummingbird, we have now caught and banded 15 species, an achievement we did not predict when we started this project.  In the above narrative we have made an effort to make comparisons to previous year’s results so that you can understand the importance of our expanding database.  Next year will mark the end of five years of comprehensive data collection.  It will also be time to start thinking about publishing some of our results.  The highest priority will undoubtedly be our Lucifer Hummingbird database.  There is not a lot out there on the species.  We look forward to 2013 and to continuing this effort.  Birding is a sport—when you go into the field in search of birds you never know what you are going to find.  That is a major contributing factor to the popularity of birding.  Bird banding, in reality, is not much different with respect to expectations; however, the task must be project oriented and data collection must be absolute.

Thanks to the banding team including Donna Bryan (recorder), Carolyn Ohl-Johnson (trapper), Marc Eastman (bander), and Maryann Eastman (bander).  Special thanks to our cooperators who support us by providing some of our study sites including the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center (Cathy Hoyt), Davis Mountains Preserve (Shawn Benedict), Terry and Suzy Ervin, Annie Faust, Far Flung Outdoor Center (Valyndia Henington), Lajitas Resort and Golfclub (Kaci Fullwood), and Bonnie Wunderlich.

In February of 2012, the IRS approved our newly formed non-profit corporation—West Texas Avian Research, Inc.  WTAR, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) organization eligible to apply for grants and receive tax-deductable donations.  This project is now funded, in part, by WTAR.  For more information on our non-profit organization go to: www.westtexasavianresearch.org.

2012 results and project totals are as follows (project totals reflect new birds banded only):

Species 2012 new banded birds 2012 returns / recaptures Project totals
Broad-billed  0  0 10
White-eared  0  0 16
Buff-bellied  1  0 1
Violet-crowned  0  0 1
Blue-throated  0  0 3
Magnificent  12  5 189
Lucifer  32  65 410
Ruby-throated  62  1 352
Black-chinned  804  101 4,295
Costa’s  1  1 3
Anna’s  47  8 285
Calliope  53  1 399
Broad-tailed  521  34 2,496
Rufous  691  13 2,984
Allen’s  12  3 96
BCHU X BTLH hybrid  1  1 5
ANHU X ALHU  0  0  1
CAHU X RUHU  1  0 2
RTHU X BCHU  0  0  1
BTLH X CAHU  0 0 1
TOTALS 2,236 241 11,542