Today was a red-letter day in backyard bird photography. Fred Bassett, a hummingbird bander, came to my parents’ house to band their wintering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. I first met Fred in 2011 when he gave an excellent talk to the Lake Region Audubon Society. You can read my blog post from that day here. Fred knows so much about hummingbirds and his enthusiasm is contagious. Having him visit and successfully band two hummers was amazing!
When Fred arrives for banding, he places a cage over the hummingbird feeder. The cage door is attached to a fishing line, allowing Fred to drop the door remotely when a bird enters the cage. A piece of red tape helps the hummers find the door. Hummingbirds are known for being attracted to the color red.
You’d think the birds would be leery of a huge cage placed over their usual feeder, but no, not so much. Within five minutes of Fred’s arrival, our first bird is in the cage. Wow! Fred reaches into the cage and retrieves the bird, letting it sip from the feeder before placing it into a small bag.
Fred works out of the back of his truck, where his mobile banding station includes a small scale, a ruler, and a clipboard for his notes. The bird is surprisingly tame in his trap; instead of wasting energy struggling, the little hummer goes limp and waits for his opportunity to escape. But Fred is quick. As he told me, “he’s been doing this a while!” (Check his website and you’ll see that he has banded over 35,000 birds.) He slips a tiny numbered band on the bird’s leg and tightens it with a small twist of his tool. The band is small enough that it doesn’t bother the bird.
Fred quickly weighs the bird, measures it, and checks its feathers to age it. This first bird is easily identified as a first-year male by his emerging gorget (throat). This particular bird is in the middle of a molt cycle, and Fred spreads the wings to show us the partially-grown feathers. Then it is time for some glamour shots…
It’s such a cool experience to see one of these little fellows up close. While I see a lot of detail through my camera and Beast lens, seeing a hummer up close really emphasizes how tiny and fragile these birds are. Fragile, yet strong. Imagine that tiny ball of feathers, barely bigger than a thumb, flying across the Gulf of Mexico in one night. Nature is certainly amazing.
The glamour shots are for research, but they are equally fun for the birds’ host families. Then Fred rests the bird against our hands so that we can feel its tiny heartbeat. A hummingbird’s heart beats around 250 times per minute when he’s resting and averages 1,200 beats a minute while flying. No wonder the bird’s favorite food is nectar!
Next Fred applies a bit of pink paint to the bird’s head. He assures us that the paint will molt off long before the bird needs to look spiffy enough to attract a mate. In the short term, the pink line is an easy way to spot the banded bird. Otherwise you’d need a Beast-like camera and good timing to see the band, which is not visible on the bird’s feet in flight.
All of this takes place within the span of a few minutes. As we prepare to free the bird, Fred places it in my mom’s hand. The bird lies immobile for a few seconds. Then Fred gives my mom’s hand a quick tap and the bird zips off. The look on my mom’s face is priceless. :)
It’s a warm day when the birds are more attracted to the native plants than the feeder, and it is mid-day (not the most active feeding time). I’m ecstatic to have banded one bird. But our good luck isn’t over yet. Fred resets the cage, and a few minutes later, we have an adult male.
Fred works more quickly with the second bird, banding it, weighing it, and measuring it in the blink of an eye. It’s clear that the bird does not suffer unnecessarily during the banding experience. For this little guy’s glamour shot, Fred stands with the sun behind him so that the light reflects nicely against the male’s bright red throat, called a gorget. Gorgeous!
This time it is my dad’s turn to release the bird. This little guy isn’t as docile as the first. Fred barely places the bird in my dad’s hand before it zips off into the breeze. Fred anticipates the move and has his camera trigger finger ready, resulting in this rather unusual shot of the bird’s wings and tail splayed as begins to fly away. The ’59’ of his new identity is visible on his leg. Hopefully nobody will tell him that the picture of his half-molted tail is going up on the Internet. Really, how embarrassing! ;-)
While my mom asked me not to post it, my favorite shot of the day is her bright smile as she sees “her” birds up close. Imagine a cross between “the joy on a child’s face on Christmas morning” and an “adult’s delight at having her hummers contribute to important research on the fascinating topic of migration.”
Thank you so much, Fred!
All photographs published with the consent of the photographer. If these birds are re-captured, the data will give Fred and other researchers insight into the migratory paths of these amazing creatures. For more information about Fred’s research, go to http://www.hummingbirdresearch.net.