You’re not a hummingbird!?

One of the best ways to see hummingbirds is by putting up a hummingbird feeder. Feeders come in all shapes and sizes and can go from very cheap to un-necessarily expensive. Regardless of the feeder, so long as it attracts hummingbirds you can enjoy these amazing birds. I’ve been fortunate enough to set up feeders in a variety of locations, which has enabled me to see many different species of hummingbirds. Here are a few pictures of different species I’ve seen at feeders in Panama, California, and Arizona:


White-necked Jacobin in Panama


More white-necked Jacobin and a violet-crowned woodnymph in Panama


An Allen’s hummingbird in California


A male broad-billed and female black-chinned hummingbird in Arizona

While you might think hummingbird feeders only attract hummingbirds (hence the name), you will find out otherwise. Some of the common alternative attractants to hummingbird feeders are bees, wasps, and ants. My experience with wasps is mainly from Panama, where there would be one or two hanging around the feeder, but not enough to prevent hummingbirds from also drinking. I have also not had too much trouble with bees, however when they find your feeder they can cover it. I have come up to my feeders before to find 30-50 bees on it. In my experience, the best way to avoid bees is to make sure your feeder does not leak or drip sugar water. If bees do find your feeder, take it down for a few days and then move it to a different location and hopefully the bees will not find it again. Ants are a bit harder to avoid. They tend to be experts at finding feeders. Many end up dead inside the feeder, which can lead to some lovely mold growths if not cleaned quickly. But many ants will just hang out in a feeder and you will not necessarily notice them until you move the feeder and they come swarming out. The best way to avoid ants, is to use ant guards. The feeders I use for fieldwork (below) have built in ant guards, which kind of work. To better ensure the success of the ant guard, fill the top part with some water (which unfortunately will not last long in Arizona).


In addition to ants/bees/wasps, you can attract several other bird species to hummingbird feeders. I’ve seen woodpeckers, orioles, house finches, and tanagers all try to partake in the delicious sugar water from a feeder. While these birds can scare off hummingbirds, they will not stay at the feeder all day, so hummingbirds will still visit the feeders. The main issue with these birds, is that they tend to spill a lot of the nectar from feeders because they tip it over. Sometimes woodpeckers will also break feeders, trying to drill into them! I’ve been lucky in that most of these other bird visitors were just fun birds to watch and did not have any major negative effects on the feeders. Here are a few pictures I have of non-hummingbirds at my feeders:


A Scott’s Oriole waiting to jump on the feeder.


Two house finches sharing my feeder.


This acorn woodpecker was patiently waiting for me to fill up the feeder so he could have a drink


A known hummingbird feeder breaker: The Gila woodpecker!

Now you might ask what this post has to do with my fieldwork. Well I deal with hummingbird feeders at lot in my work, as that is the best way to catch wild hummingbirds. Here are two of my setups to trap hummingbirds using feeders:


My feeder drop trap. Easy to setup, but sometimes hummingbirds can be too fast and escape, or they are too afraid to enter the trap.


An open box made from pvc pipe and mist-nets with a feeder and caged female as a lure. Much more likely to work, but is a huge pain to set up.


The past several days, I have been working to capture the three males I filmed last week with Jess and Aly. This week, I finally managed to capture them all! It took longer than normal to capture these three males, partly due to some crazy winds, but in the end I succeeded. While I was using the mist-net method of trapping these hummingbirds (see picture above), I ran into other species going in my traps – mainly Scott’s orioles. Here is  one in my trap:


Also, I often had to deal with hummingbirds that were not the target male I was trying to capture not being able to get out of my trap, like this female broad-billed hummingbird who just clung to the side of the nets.


Anyways, now that I’ve caught all of my male hummingbirds, its time to finish analyzing all of the display videos and start taking pictures of each male’s feathers. I’ll provide the details and a better explanation in my next post. In the mean time, I would highly encourage all of you to put up hummingbird feeders in your yards so that you can also enjoy these wonderful birds! Just remember to clean your feeder to avoid mold and do not use red dye in the sugar water! It is bad for the hummingbirds. All you need is sugar (raw sugar is best) and water (I typically use 1 part sugar to 4 parts water) and you are good to go. Happy hummingbird (and non-hummingbird) watching!


A male black-chinned hummingbird waiting for this house finch to leave.

Hummingbirds, grasses, and snakes

What a first week of field work! I am currently at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch in Southeast Arizona (near Elgin, AZ) studying black-chinned hummingbirds.  While things definitely did not start off well, we’ve bounced back and things have been going really well since then, plus we’ve been having some fun while we are out here.


One of the many beautiful landscapes found at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch.


A male black-chinned hummingbird on his territory.

First, when I say we, I am talking about myself and my two undergraduate assistants: Jess and Aly. This is the first year I’ve had field assistants, and they have been just wonderful! They have been great help in the field, and I will definitely miss their help once this leg of fieldwork is over.


Aly (left) and Jess (right)


Aly and Jess trapping hummingbirds.

Second, the reason things did not start out well was entirely behind our control. For first several days, we were plagued by crazy winds; 20-35 mph winds from dawn to dusk. I was able to find a few black-chinned hummingbird territories before the winds got bad, but after that, it became very hard to find territories. However, once the winds died down, things really got rolling. We caught two females for captivity in the same day, which was nice. For those unfamiliar with my work, I present females in cages to males on their territories in order to film male courtship displays. Often, when male hummingbirds see a female, they will display to it (see my youtube channel for example shuttle displays). Thanks to Jess and Aly, these females also have names: Ginny and Lavender. Yes, they are named after Harry Potter characters, and the names were specifically chosen for a reason. Ginny has been a great female in captivity, while Lavender…. well she stressed me out quite a bit the first day we had her.


One of the females in her cage. Photo credit: Aly Apple


Lavender, one of our female hummingbirds. Photo credit: Jess Givens

Anyways, after capturing the two females, we spent the next three days filming males. We managed to successfully film three males shuttling as of today, which combined with the two male shuttle displays I filmed last year, brings me up to my sample size of five, which I am happy with. A sample size of five might not seem that impressive, but black-chinned hummingbirds, in my experience, have been very difficult to work with. Before I left, I had been telling people that this was a tough field site because there just are not many black-chinned hummingbirds here. After thinking about it more, it is not that there are not many hummingbirds here; it is that they tend to be very spread out and are not very dense. This means we have to drive or hike fair distances between male territories. The other reason black-chinned hummingbirds are difficult to work with is that it is hard to film their shuttle displays. First, a good portion of the males I found will not even display to a female in a cage – they just ignore her. Second, black-chinned hummingbird displays are very wide and are often not captured entirely within the view of my camera. So even if I get a male that displays, I have to make sure he displays directly over the camera for me to be able to use that display. But I now have displays filmed from 5 males that I can use!


Aly and I setting up to film. Photo credit: Jess Givens

That is the update on fieldwork, but we have been doing more than just working on black-chinned hummingbirds this week. The past two afternoons, we have gone out with the two people who run this research ranch – Dr. Linda Kennedy and Roger Cogan. They are both very knowledgeable about the natural history of this place, and specifically they know a ton about the grasses (Linda) and reptiles/amphibians (Roger).


Linda and I walking and discussing grasses. Photo credit: Jess Givens


Roger checking the sex of this mountain kingsnake I am holding, as Aly watches. Photo credit: Jess Givens

Yesterday we went out with Linda to learn more about the grasses on the property and grasslands in general. Amazingly, there are around 100 species of grass found on this ranch. Another interesting thing is that these grasses are very susceptible to overgrazing from cattle, which can greatly hurt these grasslands, because these grasses did not evolve with large grazing animals, unlike the grasses in the great plains, which co-evovled with bison. We also learned several unique properties about some of the different grass species on the ranch, and I have to say, grasses are actually very interesting! For example, the tangle-head grass has a self planting seed, because the seed coils and then when it gets wet it elongates and drills into the soil. Here are a few of the other species we learned about:


While this grassland might look fairly uniform, there are many different species of grasses here! Also something I learned is that most of these grasses are bunch grasses, which means they grow in clumps instead of continuous surfaces like most lawn grasses (sod grasses).


Here is a sideoats grama, a common native species in the area. It can be identified during the dry season by the wavy stalk tip.


This is Lehman’s love grass, which is an invasive species that is starting to take over these grasslands. It is very bad that it is taking over, because very few of the native animals eat it or live in it, so many of their populations are in decline where-ever this grass is dominant. It also out-competes all of the native grasses.


This is blue grama, another native species. This species is interesting because when it is grazed, it becomes a sod grass, but if it is not grazed, it is a bunch grass.


This is bear grass, which is very different looking from the grasses above. Actually, bear grass is not a grass; it is either in the lily or asparagus family, depending on who you talk to. It is tough and used to be used in Mexico for street sweepers.


This is curly mesquite grass, which can grown both from seeds and runners. It is a much shorter grass than the ones above.


This is sacaton grass, which has become rarer due to a lower water table and the conversion of floodplains to farmland. It is often found in ephemeral washes, as it needs more moisture than other upland grasses. When it is dry, it is several feet tall, but it can grow even taller after monsoon!

Then today, we went out with Roger to go herping, meaning we were going out to find reptiles and amphibians. This involved checking out many of the rocky outcrops found along the canyons and washes on the ranch. We also walked along riparian areas to look for different species of snakes and turtles. We managed to find several black-tailed rattlesnakes, which were grouped in twos as they were most likely breeding. We also found two mountain kingsnakes, a few Clark’s spiny lizards, an ornate tree lizard, a lesser earless lizard, and four mud turtles. Here are a few pictures from this afternoon:


An example of some of the rocky outcrops where we found snakes.


A Clark’s spiny lizard standing outside his home in a rocky outcrop and showing off his blue throat.


A mountain kingsnake – remember red on black, friend of jack! This snake is not venomous, like the similarly looking coral snake (red on yellow, kill a fellow).


Jess and Aly holding the mountain kingsnake we found, which had wrapped itself around Jess’s camelback tube.


Me holding the mountain kingsnake.


A black-tailed rattlesnake.


Two black-tailed rattlesnakes, possibly mating.


Two mud turtles, also possibly mating.

I would really like to thank Linda and Roger for taking time out of their busy days to share their knowledge of grasses and herps and take us out into the field. For all those who do research at field stations, I would highly encourage you to go out into the field with the managers/naturalists of those stations, because if they are anything like Roger and Linda, they are founts of knowledge and you can learn many interesting things.


Me, Linda, Aly, and Jess (left to right).


Roger, me, Jess, and Aly (left to right).

All-in-all things have been going really well here. We only have five more days, and still a lot to do, but hopefully everything goes well!


Fieldwork starts today!

Today is officially my first day of field work this summer! It is going to be a crazy summer, where I will travel to 5-6 different locations for hummingbird research, teaching, and presenting my work. My goal is to consistently post once a week with updates on what I am doing or random posts about places I am visiting.


Today and for the next two weeks I am back in Southeast Arizona, near a town called Elgin. I am staying at the Audubon Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch (picture above), where I stayed last year, working on black-chinned hummingbirds. It feels great to be back out in the field, and I am very excited for many new adventures and productive research this summer! Below is my travel schedule for a preview of some of the places I will be visiting this summer and posting about:

May 3-15 = Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch; black-chinned hummingbirds

May 17-31 = ???? (due to a snafu with permits, I am still not sure where I will be during this time….I’ll have a post about permit troubles later, I am guessing.)

June 3-24 = Panama; I am a teaching-assistant for an ASU study abroad field biology course

June 27-July 17 = Sagehen Creek Field Station (near Lake Tahoe in California); Calliope hummingbirds

July 20-25 = Flagstaff, AZ; broad-tailed hummingbirds

July 27-August 7 = Exeter/Penryn, United Kingdom; International Society for Behavioral Ecology Conference and Anti-predator Coloration Symposium (post-conference)