Nancy Newfield Nancy L. Newfield has been watching hummingbirds at her Louisiana home and lots of other places since 1975. Nancy lost her amateur status years ago, and now writes and lectures on hummers. She is co-author of Hummingbird Gardens, reviewed elsewhere on this site. Nancy is also a licensed hummingbird bander and a recognized authority on hummingbird distribution, behavior, and taxonomy.

September 1997

Return of a Junkyard Dogay. "Nancy, our junkyard dog is back!" I heard Susie Nowell's voice sing out.

It wasn't a big surprise. Tom Sylvest had leaked the news over the internet before my return from Arizona. Still, it was good to hear it in Susie's own voice. The junkyard dog is a Buff-bellied Hummingbird, all glitter and glamour and with a temper to make a Rufous Hummingbird quake. We had nicknamed members of this species thusly because they seem to take such pleasure at roving around the yard, kicking up the dust in other hummer's territories. Then, after the fight, they retire to their own territories to perch in peaceful seclusion—until some hapless hummer blunders upon the dog's well-guarded feeder.

I was glad to get that message. Susie's bird was a long term returnee, one I wanted to catch badly. He had evaded me the previous season so I'd been unable to document his longevity record. In fact, longevity had never been documented in this least-studied of North American hummers.

Susie's LaPlace, Louisiana, garden reflects her love of flowers and the hummingbird magic they create. Sultan's Turbans, Shrimp Plants, Mexican Cigars sprawl with abandon. New varieties are tested. Will they prove more cold-hardy? More floriferous? Easier to grow? Her hummer list isn't bad either—Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, Rufous, Broad-tailed, Calliope, and, of course, Buff-bellied—sometimes all at one time. I always enjoy a visit.

"I'll be over Saturday," I told Susie in a return call, "but don't expect me early, I'm still tired from my trip."

It was after 10 o'clock by the time I managed to gather my gear and drive the 25 miles to Susie's small brick home. She was puttering in the yard, but dusted off her hands to embrace.

"He's waiting for you!" she declared with a smile. It was meant as a challenge.

The junkyard dog was not happy to see me. He clicked menacingly from a huge Live Oak as I unpacked the car. I began rigging the trap as Susie went around collecting the feeders. If he wanted a feeder, he'd have to go into the trap. I had not actually seen the bird I'd gone to catch, yet I knew he was skulking in the shrubbery.

He blitzed past as I settled down in a lawn chair, trip cord in hand. "Chipper," as Susie's granddaughter had dubbed him, dashed from one former feeder location to another, clicking unhappily at each empty station.

Incautiously, he zipped up to the wire cage, then stopped short. Chattering, he circled around it twice, before perching above it in the oak. He gave a little whining sound several times, then flew off to test the nectar content of the Firecracker Vine.

Meanwhile, Susie and I made up for lost time. It had been too many months since my last visit.

After, perhaps, 20 minutes, "Chipper" returned and went straight to the trap. He hovered in the door opening momentarily, and then just as I tugged the trip cord, he jetted off again. Rats!

I settled down for a long wait. Susie and I chatted about the latest offerings from mail-order nurseries, visits to local plant emporia, my latest travels, my offspring, her grandchildren ... crime in the streets. I was getting hungry, so Susie went in to prepare sandwiches.

It was well into the afternoon when a wind kicked up and the sky darkened. A little rain would be welcome. Rainy Louisiana had been dry for over 6 weeks.

At first, the rain drops fell unenthusiastically. Maybe we wouldn't get much. Then, the shower started in earnest. I watched the thermometer reading drop.

The rain slackened after about 20 minutes. "Chipper" flew up to the trap again, and after only one cautious circle, he made a beeline for the feeder.

Snap. I had finally trapped this elusive bird. I could see the band on his leg as I gently retrieved him from the cage. He wasn't happy and squawked in outrage. I placed him in a small cloth bag to settle down before I performed the necessary procedures.

I knew the band number by heart—T79926. Though I'd recorded his age as unknown, I believe he was already an adult when I banded him on 19 February 1993, he had been easy to catch that chilly day. Though I had listed the sex as unknown, I was pretty sure this bird was a male. His brilliant colors and bold personality set him apart from a much more demure Buff-bellied I had hosted in my own garden.

In checking my records, I found that "Chipper" had been recaptured once during the interim—7 October 1995. On that date, he had been in heavy molt and looked a bit shabby. He was molting again, this time 6 September 1997. But, each time I had handled this very special bird, his weight had increased—must be Susie's good syrup or perhaps, old age.

Using the original banding date, we can calculate that "Chipper" hatched no later than the spring of 1992, which would make him at least 5 1/2 years old. A Buff-bellied Hummingbird we believe to have been this same individual initially set up residence in Susie's garden in the fall of 1991, but I was unable to catch the wily bird. Chances are that "Chipper" is a year older than his official age.

Shabby or not, this hummer was beautiful to me. As I opened my hand, "Chipper" flew up to a branch in the Live Oak, chattering loudly as he went. Welcome back "Junkyard Dog!"

Happy Hummingbirding!

Copyright © 1997
Nancy L. Newfield
Casa Colibri
Metairie, LA

Previous Hummer Notes columns: July 1996 | August 1996 | September 1996 | October 1996 | November 1996 | December 1996 | January 1997 | February 1997 | March 1997 | April 1997 | May 1997 | June 1997 | July 1997 | August 1997