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Returning Hummingbirds Delight Cape Cod Bird Watchers


It’s getting to be late April, which means backyards will soon be humming with an especially kinetic kind of ornithological activity.

  Everyone’s favorite April arriving migrant, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, generally arrives on the Cape and Islands during the third week in April. By early May, they will have fully returned from their Central American wintering grounds and will be saturating suburbia once again. While many other neotropical migrant birds seem to be on the decline, ruby-throat populations are on the rise. They’ve obviously made their peace with our fragmented, suburban landscape with its nectar-rich garden flowers and sugar water feeder offerings. Once described to me as “magical little fairies in flashy little outfits,” it’s impossible to watch a hummingbird for any length of time without being charmed.

What I love about hummingbirds is that everything about them is extreme – their extremely high metabolism, extremely small body size, extreme maneuverability, extremely long over-water migration across the Gulf of Mexico, and their extremely pugnacious personality. Weighing in at a whopping tenth of an ounce, a hummingbird fears nothing and no one. I’ve seen them chasing everything from hawks to kingfishers for reasons known only to them. I suspect they are just putting the rest of the bird world on notice that they can literally fly circles around them.

If you want to feed hummingbirds, I would recommend keeping it simple - a simple nectar recipe and the simplest feeder you can find. Most of the feeders you see at the home goods and hardware stores are pretty terrible. I’ve tried them all, and the designs are mostly way too complicated for their own good. They seem to be designed primarily for trapping mold in impossible to clean spaces. So get yourself a simple clear dish-style feeder – the round ones with a red top. And keep the nectar simple, too – one part sugar to four parts water, boiled for a minute. The red dyes in the pre-made stuff is pointless at best and potentially harmful at worst. 

Better yet, provide a variety of natural nectar sources in the form of flowers. Some of my favorite native garden plants from hummingbirds include cardinal flower, bee balm (otherwise known as bergamot or monarda), various agastaches, trumpet honeysuckle, and trumpet vine. Pineapple sage is a non-native but harmless container plant that blooms well into the fall and could attract one of the vagrant species of hummingbird that we see annually here on the Cape. Though the ruby-throated is the only breeding hummingbird east of the Mississippi, six different hummingbird species have been recorded on the Cape, mainly as off-course fall migrants from October through January.

Usually we see wayward Rufous Hummingbirds, a species that breeds from the northern Rocky Mountains up into coastal Alaska, and has been wandering east with increasing frequency during fall migration. But the weirdest may have been the Broad-billed Hummingbird that spent late August through mid-December of 2008 visiting a yard in Dennis. This is a Mexican species that barely gets into southern Arizona, so how it ended up in Dennis is anyone’s guess. So keep an eye on that hummingbird feeder or those garden flowers – you never know what sort of magical little fairy might turn up. 

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.