Most days my 'chores' begin at 5 a.m., plus or minus thirty minutes. The Blue-throated hummingbirds that frequent the feeders at my corral and the VIC feed in the last light of day even as the long-nosed bats are already arriving, but they also seem ravenous before dawn is close to breaking. This morning I was up at 3 so I could replenish feeding stations at both locations, have a quick coffee, banana and shower, and drive seven miles on the dirt road on the other side of the canyon to Paradise.
Paradise was a mining boom town in 1902, with a school, post office, shops, German restaurant, saloons and a red light district, and may have once been home to more than two thousand people at its peak, many of them hopeful miners. But after the 1907 'Money Panic' it went bust. Today there is little remaining of the structures from more than one hundred years ago. Most were knocked down and the lumber hauled away to create structures elsewhere, and the lone full-time year-round resident has usually been Jackie Lewis who operates the George Walker House.
George Walker is a famous man in these parts from "back in the day" and sone of the stories of how the town "Paradise" got its name honored his wife Lulu and their honeymoon there. Today, the George Walker House is a famous birding destination and accommodations in the Chiricahuas with two houses to rent to those in search of solitude and an incredible array of wildlife. Jackie's bird feeders are second to none. Dozens and dozens of seed and nectar feeders are distributed through her bird sanctuary garden and the adjacent cabins, with oranges, glass pots of peanut butter and other treats accompanying them. There are many flowers and agave stalks and trees and shrubs for perches and a rocky, flower-lined stream flowing even during the drought of June.
This morning I arrived at the George Walker House to assist with hummingbird banding for the Hummingbird Monitoring Network (<- click link to get involved or donate). Lee Rogers has been banding the hummers of Paradise for many years, and I was part of a team of five that spent five hours (05:20-11:20) delicately handling tiny little feathered gems. Wearing an illuminated magnifier visor, Lee handles the actual banding, recording species, measurements, condition, and things like fat level and the presence of pollen. As he verbalizes a litany of these observations, Jackie records the data. But let's start at the beginning.
The other twosome of our crew were Bud and Debb Johnson who live in Portal, which is basically where I live even though I am in Cave Creek Canyon itself. Debb is the mayor of the small community and I first met her when I was obtaining a library card. After the Johnsons arrived, Bud showed me how to set up the net traps. We would have two traps and the other hummingbird feeders were removed. The two feeding stations where we trap are perhaps thirty feet apart and our position would form a triangle with the two traps. The net traps themselves are both simple and ingenious. A weighted ring laying on the ground holds the apparatus in position and beneath where the nectar feeder hangs is a rigid deck. Suspended above the deck is the net basket and heavy fishing line runs through eyelets and over a pulley. The fishing line is clamped to a stand where the trappers (Bud and I) sit. As the hummingbirds come in to feed, the trapper quickly releases the small clamp holding the taut fishing line from a sitting position some twenty feet away, thereby dropping the upper basket onto the deck and enclosing the winged jewels inside.
The early hours are cool and the birds are hungry. During our first hour we would occasionally trap five in one drop, especially at the upper trap located in a more open and sunny area. Bud told me he has caught ten at once. Once the birds are trapped, we walk up and reach our arm underneath the basket and gently cup the buzzing bird in hand. Words cannot describe how small and fragile the birds are. Even the large Rivoli's (formerly Magnificent) Hummingbirds that are extremely abundant at the George Walker house only weigh 6-8 grams, despite a five inch height and seven inch wingspan. The little Black-chinned Hummers are a third of the size. I am a large man with huge mitts and so is Bud, but I quickly learned how he deftly cupped them taking special care with their wings, and the tricks for getting them to release the grip of their minuscule feet. Of course, the two-inch bill of the Rivoli's is another concern. As I cupped the hummingbird in my right hand I would reach in with a a little netted drawstring bag held in the other. With right hand carefully enclosing the bird and its wings, I'd reach deep into the little bag and release the bird while pinching the bag shut at the top, pulling the drawstring taut and sliding down a closure on the string. With one, two, three or more birds bagged in this manner I'd then walk them down to a table set in the shade away from the garden where Lee, Jackie and Debb were stationed. There they have a carousel to hang the bird-filled bags individually so they can be processed in the order received. We'll come back to their work.
Our survey lasted five hours and each hour Bud and I saw that temperature, wind and cloud cover are recorded. A Kestrel 400 handheld weather unit is used along with an official digital clock. In addition to the trapped birds we recorded ESCAPEES (birds that were trapped but were able to get out while we had an arm in the basket), VISITORS (birds that entered the perimeter of the trap but were not caught) and CHECKERS (wary birds that investigate the feeder but do not enter the perimeter of the trap). The first couple of hours were hectic as hummingbirds waste no time fueling up as the sun begins to rise in the sky. Occasionally we would have to record stoppages where we would pause our trapping for ten minutes or so because the data team had too many birds to process. Let's get back to what they do.
As I wrote, Lee examines each bird and Jackie records the numerous comments he makes. Some birds have been banded before and the number is recorded along with data, others get banded for the first time. When Lee is done he wraps the bird tightly in a cloak of material (no clue what it is) that is held closed with a little clip. He then sets it on a scale and Jackie records its weight. The final step is what Debb does: revive and release. Debb removes the cloak and holds the hummingbirds bill to a little nectar feeder so it can get the meal it was after when Bud and I unceremoniously dropped a freakin' basket trap on it. They have been grasped, placed in bags, walked to the data station and hung like ornaments on a Christmas tree on the lazy Susan carousel, then held by Lee, cloaked and set on a scale. They need time to catch their breath and lap up sugar water. Debb moves her arm to simulate flight and they get their bearings. She blows on their faces as needed and ensures they are ready to return to the air. She lets them feed as much as they need. Often they lay motionless on the palm of her hand as if not realizing they are free to go. Then, with a burst, the acrobatic aeronauts return to Paradise. Some, lesson not learned, are trapped again the same morning.
We banded exactly one hundred "new" birds over the five hour survey. There were another forty or so "recaptures". Although there can be a dozen or more species of hummingbirds in Paradise or here in Cave Creek Canyon, I refer to the five most common as the "Big 5". That is, the small (normal) sized three: Black-chinned, Broad-billed and Broad-tailed, and the large two: Rivoli's (Magnificent) and Blue-throated. At my camp and 100 yards down canyon at the VIC Blue-throateds are abundant, but this morning in Paradise we heard a couple but trapped zero. The George Walker House is THE place for the magnificent Rivoli's. This brilliant bird with iridescent green gorget and purple frontlet was originally known as Rivoli's, then was changed to Magnificent, but recently was changed back to Rivoli's and again honors some Frenchman. But we still affectionately call them "Mags" for short.
In two weeks I will again be assisting with the banding. I hope I can rearrange my volunteer schedule to always be available to conduct the HMN work in Paradise. Bud and Debb won't be there next time, and I don't think Lee will either, so we'll be doing the best we can. I can't tell you what a thrill it was to help and to hold fifty or so 'colibries' in my hand, and to contribute to knowledge about them worldwide. The information we collected goes into databank so that populations, migration patterns and much more can be studied.
I'd like to mention one final thing as long as I am devoting a blog entry to hummingbirds. Attracting hummingbirds with flowers and feeding them is a wonderful thing. If you feed hummers please do not use any store-bought products other than the feeders themselves. Manufactured nectars and preservatives and such are dubious at best. Hummingbirds are attracted to the red color of the feeders, they don't need artificial dyes making the nectar red too. Use pure cane granulated sugar only - never brown sugar or sweeteners or molasses or anything else, almost always in a ratio of four parts good clean filtered water to one part sugar. This simulates the 21% sugar content of natural nectar. Heat the water but do not bring to a complete boil. You want the sugar to dissolve quickly but not be syrupy or overheated. I add the sugar when tiny bubbles first form at bottom of pot and stir for twenty seconds or so until completely dissolved and turn off heat, removing it from burner completely after a minute or two. I let my water stand out for twenty-four hours to dechlorinate, but boiling can accomplish this too and removes contaminants. However, some suggest that boiling (or at least overheating) changes chemical composition. Make only enough for one or two days and refrigerate excess. Completely clean feeders every couple of days and immediately if any signs of mold or other fouling is present. There is no need for "Nectar Fresh" or some other bogus preservative if you are militant about fresh nectar and feeder cleaning. You can get small bottle brushes wherever you buy feeders to clean the openings and soak scrub out the rest.