A female rufous hummingbird surveys the surroundings Photo by Jimmie Zabriskie ©
Article by Marcy Scott | Naturally Speaking
Reprinted with permission from an August 2022 Las Cruces Sun-News article
In my 24 years of living in the Southwest, I’ve learned to anticipate certain times of year for their potential for interesting happenings in the bird world. The month of August ranks high, with seasonal migration beginning for a great many birds across the continent and the number of hummingbirds moving through our area usually peaking during this time. All is apparently not well this year, however, at least in our backyard. While I’ve tallied rough numbers of our feathered visitors over the years, I’ve kept especially close track of the hummingbirds, and though numbers from year to year have fluctuated, they have really plummeted this summer.
During our first years here, when our yard was newly planted, most hummingbird action was at our feeders, and the birds were relatively easy to count. Each year we were visited by more and more hummers, and we grew to anticipate dozens and then the crazy hundreds each August. As our plantings of native trees and flowering shrubs and perennials have matured, providing natural nectar sources and good habitat, we see somewhat fewer birds at feeders, but their buzzing around everywhere else in the yard is still quite evident — harder to count, no doubt, but still an astonishing spectacle.
Typical for late August is 150 to 200 birds each day, owing to our location on the vital Rio Grande/Southern Rockies flight path that funnels so many migrating birds our way. Black-chinned hummingbirds from parts north, along with broad-tailed hummingbirds from interior mountains and both rufous and calliope hummingbirds from the Pacific Northwest, have traveled this flyway for hundreds of thousands of years, but they are encountering considerable challenges on many fronts.
With the catastrophic fires this spring and summer in much of the state, I worried that the wildflowers in high mountain meadows, so critical for migrating hummingbirds, wouldn’t materialize. Perhaps there are productive pockets of fireweed that have been sustaining the birds, so fewer are now depending upon our feeders and plantings, but without reports of plenty of lush montane habitat I’m leery of that being the reason for our shockingly low numbers this year. The extreme drought, locally and across the West, has undoubtedly hampered breeding success in a big way. No water = no insects = no food.
These past couple weeks, bringing frequent sprinkles and occasional deluges of rain, have seen an uptick in birds frequenting the feeders, but at most I’m counting just 50 or 60 birds, including those visiting our various flowering plants. I tell myself that I’ve heard from a few others who are reporting lots of hummer activity in their yards, but in my gut I am fearful for the future of these amazing creatures.
One evening last week, after heavy rains had abated and hummingbirds made a beeline for the feeders, I sat out on our porch and quietly watched from just a few feet away. At first, I was overcome with sadness at the relatively low numbers, and silently apologized to them for the human race, but as I observed each individual bird, I gradually began to appreciate them more intimately: The young male black-chinned hummingbird, just a hint of black splotch on its chin, making its very first journey to west-central Mexico; the feisty female rufous hummingbird, buzzing the others away from her preferred feeder; the polite but persistent immature calliope hummingbird, which along with most rufous hummingbirds doubtless encountered multiple fire-devastated mountain habitats along the way; and the rich bottle-green and peach colors of a female broad-tailed hummingbird, which may or may not have found productive breeding habitat this year but nevertheless survived the summer. All of them, as are we who hold most of the cards for the future, survivors, and that thought made me smile.
Marcy Scott is a local birder, botanizer, and author of “Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest.” Along with her husband, Jimmy Zabriskie, she operates Robledo Vista Nursery in the North Valley, www.robledovista.com, specializing in native and adapted plants for birds and wildlife habitat. She can be reached at HummingbirdPlantsSW@gmail.com.