2014 – A year of more significant gains, but one irreplaceable loss

At our last banding session in 2013 (on December 17th) we arrived at Lajitas expecting to find our usual contingent of Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds, and perhaps an Allen’s or two.  What we totally did not expect that day was a male Blue-throated Hummingbird in the mix.  Alas, he would not cooperate with our trapping effort and we left for the Christmas holidays thinking, “what if?”  Carolyn took it upon herself to keep a check on his status there while we were gone.  Not only did the BLUH stick around, but on the 1st of January she also located another very rare winter species, a Broad-billed Hummingbird.  So, with the holidays behind us, a hurried trip down on January 8th would give us a shot at catching these rare winter species.  The second time around we nabbed the male BLUH and the BBLH (a female), and placed one of our bands on each bird’s right leg.  The following week Charles and Nancy Floyd came down to get some experience with Anna’s Hummingbirds and whatever else happened to be present.  A couple of the first birds in the traps that day were the BLUH and the BBLH along with Rufous, Allen’s, and Anna’s Hummingbirds to give us a five species day.  The BLUH and the BBLH did not hesitate to go into the trap this day and we were able to verify by the band they wore, that they were the same birds caught the previous week.  It was a remarkable January for ANHUs; we caught and banded 51 birds, our highest monthly total ever for the species.

BLUH M on 1:8:14

Male Blue-throated Hummingbird captured and banded at Lajitas on January 8, 2014.

BBLH F

Adult female Broad-billed Hummingbird captured and banded at Lajitas on January 8, 2014.

In typical fashion, February slowed down as almost all of the ANHUs departed.  March signaled the arrival of Lucifer and Black-chinned Hummingbirds in the lower desert, Broad-tailed, Magnificent, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds in the mountains.  Late in March we managed to catch 9 LUHUs at the Christmas Mountains Oasis, the most we have ever caught during the month for the entire study.  Eight of the nine birds returned wearing bands that were placed on them in previous years.  This included two five year-old birds—we were hoping for a six year old bird.  Spring hummingbird migration here in west Texas is really not very dynamic.  We typically see no big surges of birds and diversity is almost always predictable.  We did catch and band a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird in our yard in Fort Davis in April, a rare spring migrant most years.  All in all, however, we did very well for the first four months of 2014.  In 10 banding sessions we managed to catch and band 75 new birds and re-caught 34 previously banded birds.  The most outstanding statistic involving the above birds was the nine species that we banded, a remarkable number for this late winter/early spring time frame!

In May we usually look forward to a noticeable and large influx of LUHUs in the Terlingua Ranch area.  Just exactly what is going on with these newly arriving birds, we are not sure.  Speculation on our part has lead in several directions, including the arrival of the last spring migrants from southern Mexico, a major population shift from northern/central Mexico of birds that already attempted their first nesting cycles, an exodus of lower desert habitats to the mountains to escape the oncoming heat of early summer, and/or a simple shift in regional areas occupied in anticipation of the monsoon rains that will soon develop bringing renewed food resources.  Whatever the reason, LUHUs numbers will peak a second time in July when the population becomes mixed with juveniles, and adult birds will attempt to breed through early October if environmental conditions are suitable.  Yes, I said early October!  In May we caught 55 LUHUs, 36 of which were previously banded.  Several 4 year olds were recaptured as was another 5 year-old bird, but still no 6 year-old bird.  In June we caught 34 more LUHUs, 24 of which were already banded.  Finally, on June 9th we had our first 6 year-old bird; H47721 was originally banded on May 7, 2009 as an adult, making her at least that age.  For the months of May and June, in 8 banding sessions, we only caught 3 species of hummingbirds banding 189 new birds and recapturing 93 previously banded birds.

We were notified in May of two significant foreign recaptures of birds we had previously banded during this study.  First, Nancy Newfield’s crew caught a RUHU in Covington, Louisiana on December 27, 2013.  He was originally banded at the CMO on September 24, 2013, and flew almost due east 800 miles to reach Louisiana.  The second recapture also involved a bird that was originally banded at CMO.  This time it was a hybrid male BCHU X RTHU that we banded and photographed there on September 24, 2013.  He was caught in a late winter storm event in Cement, Oklahoma on April 15, 2014 and did not survive.  This important specimen was saved and passed on to a university collection, and to our knowledge was the first foreign encounter of a banded hybrid bird.  Cement is located a little less than 500 miles northeast of CMO.

RT X BC hybrid

Hybrid male Ruby-throated X Black-chinned Hummingbird when originally banded at the Christmas Mountains Oasis.

Speaking of hybrids, one interesting bird caught in early June (on the 6th) was an adult male hybrid BCHU X BTLH, a combination we encounter with some regularity in the Davis Mountains.  Turns out he was already banded the previous year as a juvenile male and recognized at that time as a hybrid by his off-colored two gorget feathers and unusual measurements.  As an adult, he confirmed his hybrid status.  Yet another interesting aspect of the June banding sessions that we completed at our cabin in the Davis Mountains was the condition of some of the birds we were catching, especially among Broad-tailed Hummingbirds.  They were very fat!  Many birds weighed over 4.5 grams and one bird even tipped the scale at 5 grams.  Fat is a good thing in hummingbirds.  Prior to migration, in both spring and fall, hummingbirds intentionally build up fat deposits in various parts of the body and use them as an energy source so they can keep moving across the landscape.  But in the middle of the summer (?)!  This was the first time we had experienced birds in this condition at this time of year in the seven years of the study and it simply does not make sense that these birds could be still migrating at this time.  After all, BTLHs arrive in early March in spring and linger in the Davis Mountains well into November before they finally migrate south in the fall.  So, if south bound already, they were moving almost a month before the arrival of fall migrant RUHUs and CAHUs in July.  Did they breed somewhere already and where; did they have time to breed?  If these birds were north bound, then these birds were really running late.  How far north would they go?  The more we study these birds the more un-answered questions we generate.  We admitted a long time ago, there is so much more we do not know about these creatures than we do know!

Several final notes for June include the following.  Marc and Maryann reported, and then photographed at their house a hybrid male BCHU X LUHU.  Early attempts to catch and band the bird proved futile, and then he disappeared.  Guess what?  He showed up at our cabin a couple of miles away and stayed about 10 days, during which my attempts to catch him also proved futile.  Then he was gone to, you guessed it, back to the Eastman’s residence where he finally messed up and went into a trap on July 15th.  He was a gorgeous bird, much like the previous hybrid of this same combination that we caught at CMO on June 25, 2013.  At least two BBLHs were in the area, a male down the hill at the Freeman’s residence and a female for at least 10 days at our cabin.  Also, a male White-eared Hummingbird graced us with his presence at our cabin for much of the month but would have nothing to do with our occasional trapping and banding sessions.  Finally, we were reminded yet again why we band these birds.  On June 24th, our female Rufous Hummingbird wearing band number P05173 was caught once again by Kate McLaughlin in Chenega Bay, Alaska!  That’s right, this is the same bird that was caught, also by Kate, at the same location last year (in 2013) on July 4th.  As a reminder, she’s the one we originally banded on August 27, 2012 at our cabin in the Davis Mountains.

Hybrid Hummingbird -4097

Adult male Lucifer X Black-chinned Hummingbird in June at the Eastman’s residence. (Photo by Maryann Eastman)

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Adult male Lucifer X Black-chinned Hummingbird at our cabin in June. (photo by Kelly Bryan)

July was here and fall migration for species like Rufous and Calliope (and now BTLHs too!) was beginning.  In fact, RUHUs were a bit early with the first bird for Texas being spotted in El Paso on June 29th by John Kiseda.  We saw them at our cabin on July 1st and a few males trickled in over the next week.  We had known from reports from other banders all across the species’ range that birds were leaving the breeding grounds a week or more early.  These early birds were not cooperative with our trapping and banding efforts; so none of them would continue their voyage to Mexico with a band on their right leg.  In fact, we would not catch our first RUHU until July 15th.  Marc and Maryann hosted a really neat adult male hybrid in July, and caught and banded him on the 25th.  He was a CAHU X RUHU hybrid and Maryann’s pictures were spectacular.  For the month, 20 banding sessions yielded 616 new birds of 8 species and 2 hybrid combinations.  Additionally, we caught 134 previously banded birds.  Top species included BCHU with 356, BTLH with 141, and RUHU with 79.  One other highlight for the month cannot go unmentioned; Marc and Maryann caught and banded a Ruby-throated Hummingbird on July 31st, our first of that species ever in July.  All in all, migration started early compared to previous years but volume was well below previous totals.  What would August have to offer?

Calliope X Rufous--4-2

Adult male Calliope X Rufous Hummingbird. (photo by Maryann Eastman)

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Another look at the hybrid adult male Calliope X Rufous Hummingbird. (photo by Maryann Eastman)

While August showed little change to the basic migration pattern for the region—slow, there were a few highlights.  In 21 banding sessions for the month we caught 568 new birds of 9 species and recaptured 48 previously banded birds.  Numbers were down across the board for all species with only 270 BCHUs, 169 RUHUs, and 90 BTLHs as the top three totals.  However, on the 18th the banding lab notified us that yet another foreign encounter of one of our banded birds was turned in, this time in Idaho.  A Rufous Hummingbird originally banded at our cabin on July 28, 2011 was discovered deceased in the town of Shelley on July 25, 2014.  Two more hybrids were caught for the month, first a RUHU X ANHU on the 8th and then a RUHU X BTLH on the 22nd.  Standby, the hybrid rush was not over for the year.  Without a doubt, the best bird of August was an adult male White-eared Hummingbird that was hanging around for more than three weeks prior to August 20th.  Based on distinct differences in the pattern of red in his bill, this was a different individual than the one present in June.  An inconsistent feeding pattern allowed this bird to evade our capture until that day.  When caught and banded, this was our 17th WEHU for the study.  After being trapped he would continue to come into the feeders until the end of the month.  This was also our third different WEHU for the summer period giving us hope that the species would return to its pre-2011 status when it was documented breeding in the canyon.

WEHU1 8:10:14

Adult male White-eared Hummingbird at our cabin in August. (photo by Kelly Bryan)

September is always a transition month during fall migration.  Numbers start to wane at some point in the month but sometimes diversity can be really high.  Also in September, we take a break and attend the Rockport Hummingbird Festival where we entertain the crowds of festivalgoers by banding RTHUs.  When we return to Fort Davis after a week off, either migration is still going or its over.  This year it was over.  Earlier in the month we were privileged to host visiting banders, first Lee Rogers and Susan Wethington from Arizona and then Brainard Palmer-Ball from Kentucky.  Lee and Susan saw moderate activity from our usual contingent of migrants, but mainly came to get a chance to see LUHUs in hand.  We caught none!  It was totally their fault, of course. (LOL)  When Brainard came he wanted to see all of the western species that he needed to gain experience with, but not necessarily RTHUs.  On the 8th and 9th down in Terlingua Ranch, we caught 44 RTHUs, the most we have ever caught in a two day period.  That was his fault as well!  For the month, we caught and banded 405 new birds of 7 species, including 4 hybrids all of the same species combination.  Amazingly, we recaptured only 4 previously banded birds for the entire month.  Top species for the month of September were BCHU with 178, RTHU with 76, BTLH with 72 and RUHU with 64.  Indeed the hybrid rush continued this month with the capture of four birds that were all RTHU X BCHU hybrid combinations.  The first two were caught on the same day (Sept. 9th) at two locations in the Christmas Mountains, then one on Sept. 10th at the Davis Mountains Preserve, and finally one on Sept. 26th back at CMO.

September was significant for another reason, one that we wished never happened.   Martha Sargent notified us on the 7th that Bob passed away early in the morning.  Our only comfort was knowing that Bob was not suffering anymore.  Even though we were expecting this news, the reality of it was overwhelming.  This was a great blow to the banding community.  Bob was driven by his love of the birds and all issues involving them got a comment, or a dialogue, or a lecture from the big bald one.  Whether or not you agreed with Bob, he always put the welfare of the birds first.  His legacy remains through all of the banders he trained over the years, including me.  Bob will forever be in our thoughts and “his way” continues through more people than you can count.  For me, he is still here sitting on my shoulder whispering words of encouragement in my ear! 

October used to signal the time for Anna’s Hummingbirds to arrive in numbers from the west coast of the US.  Early in the study this was the prevailing pattern—not anymore.  Not a single ANHU was caught for the month, a first for the project.  In 5 banding sessions for the month we caught and banded only 33 birds of 6 species and recaptured 5 previously banded birds.  The only highlight worth mentioning was the capture of 4 Magnificent Hummingbirds at our cabin.  This doubled our total for the year, a pale comparison to pre-drought times when we thought we would eventually catch 100 in a year (67 was our high in 2009).  Drought, fires and pine-bark beetles killing ponderosa pines have combined to just about wipe out the MAHU population in the Davis Mountains and render the habitat there poor quality for migrant birds passing through.

Each year in November and December, the holiday season arrives and time away with family and grandkids is mandatory.  Therefore, we try to band when we can.  We did manage nine banding sessions for the two-month period, catching and banding 29 new birds of 5 species (18 new ANHUs was the high total).  We recaptured 11 previously banded birds.  There were three highlights.  First, we caught 4 LUHUs in early November, our first ever for the month.  Three were juveniles but one was a very recent fledgling, once again substantiating the fact that females are still attending nests in October.  Three birds were caught on November 2nd and one of the birds caught was a bit later on the 9th.  Second, a previously banded ANHU caught on November 2nd was wearing band number R99063.  She was originally banded as an adult on October 30, 2008.  Yes, the math makes her at least seven years old.  Finally, we were surprised to see an adult female BCHU at Lajitas on December 8th, adding another winter record to that species resume.

It is very hard for me to believe that 2015 marks the beginning of our 8th year of our current banding study.  Time has really gone by in a flash.  However, we are starting to see the project results work for us.  Two publications are ready for press and a third is in preparation.  The first, The Breeding Status of Broad-billed and White-eared Hummingbirds in Texas will appear in the next issue of the TOS Bulletin and the second, Sexing Techniques on Juvenile Lucifer Hummingbirds will be submitted to the North American Bird Bander journal in spring.  One additional MS on the seven-year results of Lucifer Hummingbird banding data is in development and will be submitted when completed.  Once again, none of this would be possible without the help and support of our “team”.  New helpers this year were Raleigh Darnell, Rich Gatchell and Brenda Gatchell, coming on board to assist at the Davis Mountains Preserve, and occasionally elsewhere.  I cannot thank enough the rest of the team that includes Carolyn Ohl-Johnson (head trapper!), Donna Bryan (data recorder), Marc and Maryann Eastman (banders), and our hosts at various locations.  This includes Bonnie Wunderlich, Laura Gold-Brainard, Far Flung Outdoor Adventures, and Terry Ervin and Suzy Ervin in the greater-Terlingua area.  In the Davis Mountains we acknowledge the staff at the Davis Mountains Preserve and Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center for supporting our efforts.

2014 results and project totals are as follows:

Species

2014 new banded birds

2013 returns/recaps

Project totals

Magnificent

8

0

202

Blue-throated

1

1

4

Lucifer

93

126

575

Ruby-throated

86

0

515

Black-chinned

929

124

5,892

Anna’s

75

17

436

Costa’s

0

0

5

Broad-tailed

383

39

3,308

Rufous

345

23

3.989

Allen’s

7

0

121

Calliope

15

0

473

Broad-billed

1

1

11

Buff-bellied

0

0

1

Violet-crowned

0

0

1

White-eared

1

0

17

BCHU X BTLH hybrid

0

1

7

ANHU X ALHU

0

0

1

CAHU X RUHU

1

0

3

RTHU X BCHU

4

0

6

BTLH X CAHU

0

0

1

LUHU X BCHU

1

0

2

ANHU X BTLH

0

0

1

ANHU X RUHU

1

0

1

RUHU X BTLH

1

0

1

TOTALS

1,950

334

15,564

Project totals reflect banded birds only; recaptures reflect totals only and are not adjusted for number of different individuals.

Anna’s Hummingbird numbers.  Note the shift in abundance from late fall to winter.

 

July

August

September

October

November

December

January

February

2008/09

0

0

0

23/2

32/9

3/12

0

0

2009/10

0

0

8

21/10

18/2

3/3

1/1

0

2010/11

0

1

11/1

42/12

19/3

7/1

3/1

0

2011/12

0

0

8

16/2

9/3

12/3

0

0

2012/13

0

0

2

4

22/6

19/2

37/7

8/3

2013/14

1

2/1

4/1

5/1

8/3

12/11

51/12

1

2014/15

1

0

0

0

7/4

11/1

15/12

1/2