Hummingbird Banding with my Mom and Dad

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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.

Hummingbird Banding Cage
Hummingbird Banding Cage. Door is on far back right. Photo by Paul Daniel

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.

Hummingbird Banding Station - Photo by Paul Daniel
Hummingbird Banding Station. Photo by Paul Daniel

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.

Banded Hummingbird: first-year male M59752. Photo by Jess Yarnell

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…

Our First Banded Hummingbird. Photo by Fred Bassett

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!

Feeling the bird’s heart rate. Photo by Paul Daniel

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.

A pink mark to quickly distinguish “our” banded bird. Photo by Jess Yarnell

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. :)

Little Pinky in my mom’s hand. Photo by Fred Bassett

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.

Measuring the banded hummingbird. Photo by Paul Daniel

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!

Our second banded hummingbird: male M59753. Photo by Fred Bassett

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 ’65’ 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! ;-)

Off he goes! Photo by Fred Bassett

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

Hanging out with my Wintering Backyard Birds

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It’s been a while since I just hung out in the backyard with my camera. Since the yard is full of wintering birds, now is a perfect time of year to do that – especially when it’s cloudy or icky outside!

I’ve been noticing a Palm Warbler with a light-colored beak this year. Normally Palm Warblers have dark beaks, so this one is a little rare. I’ve nicknamed him “Blondie.” Having a Palm that I can easily distinguish from all his friends makes me realize how much I see the same bird in a single day. Where I’ve previously thought I might have, say, 3 Palms in the backyard because I see them in 3 separate places, I’m having to reconsider that counting philosophy. Blondie sure gets around!

Palm Warbler with Light Beak
Palm Warbler with Light Beak

My most colorful wintering birds are, of course, my Painted Buntings. This year we’re seeing more of them earlier in the year. Over the holidays, I was amazed to look out and see the feeder full with four males feeding together. At least five greenies were perched in the nearby bushes, waiting for a feeder port to become available.

Painted Bunting Male
Painted Bunting Male
Painted Bunting "Greenie"
Painted Bunting “Greenie”

I’ve seen a single American Goldfinch in the yard this winter. Normally the air is full of their cheerful calls – “potato chip! Baby!” But this year the small flock just isn’t here. The House Finches are eating the millet this winter.

House Finch
House Finch

The giant Coral Porterweeds are among the most popular plants in my backyard. Although I planted them for the hummingbirds, they are popular among all the nectar-eaters. Apparently the Painted Buntings have a sweet tooth. They like to bite off the porterweed blooms and then drink the nectar from the base. Yum!

Painted Bunting Male
Painted Bunting Male

Bluebird Housing Shortage

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Yep, it’s definitely starting to feel like spring. I had the pleasure of watching a number of Eastern Bluebirds court and begin the process of nest-building. The only problem was the housing shortage…

Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird

That’s right, it’s hard to fit three birds into a house built for two. The leftmost and rightmost birds above are males. The middle bird is a female. It was clear that the housing arrangements hadn’t all been sorted out as everybody eyed the best place in the neighborhood!

Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird

Everybody was checking out the bluebird house. The birds darted in and out of the small hole in the front. At times, the female would flutter nearby, flapping her wings to make herself attractive to her mate. Then she’d fly to a nearby branch and do a one-winged wave.

Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird

The males concentrated on getting the nursery reading. This one flew in with a bit of nesting material. I wished the nest box was transparent to see the nest being built inside.

Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird with Nesting Material

This female bluebird seemed to have a solution to the housing shortage. She found a cavity in a nearby dead tree. Both the male and female were checking it out, inspecting it from all sides. It looked bigger than the birdie mansion, so maybe it will work out better for them in the long run. Their babies are sure to have playmates with their friends down the path!

Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird