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.
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A Hummingbird Big Day
|A hummingbird "Big Day" in Arizona
might tally fifteen species, if it were done in the summer and if most of
the species on the state list could be found in a single day. But, how many
different hummers could you expect to get on a January excursion in southeastern
I posed that question a few years ago when, during the course of my studies of the hummers that spend the winter months in the lush subtropical gardens of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and the region along the Mississippi River between them, I began to find an increase in the number of individuals and in the diversity of species. In the early 1970s, reports of three hummer species were considered exceptional by knowledgeable birders. But, by the late 1980s, birders might expect to record as many as six species in an average winter season. And once, I had tallied seven species in a day on casual visits to several gardens.
Clearly, the threshold for hummingbird excitement had risen since I began studying the birds in the 1975. The winter of 1992-93 was well above average by anyone's reckoning. By late November, an unprecedented number of glittering birds crowded every locale with gardens or feeders. The state species list grew to ten after the mid-November appearance of an adult male Blue-throated Hummingbird in Baton Rouge.
By January 12, I was certain that a total of eight hummer species were visiting gardens within a single day's driving limit. The possibilities looked exciting! I decided to go for the record!
Allowing about a week to make all the arrangements, I selected Tuesday, January 20 to be the "Great Louisiana Hummingbird Big Day". Wednesday, January 21 would be a default day in case of a complete rain-out on Tuesday. And, so it would be more fun, I invited Birgit Berger, another hummingbird enthusiast, to join me. "I think that would be exciting!" she exclaimed, accepting the invitation. Together we would strive to set a mark for future birders to challenge.
A successful "Big Day" demands painstaking strategy, careful arrangements, perfect timing, and more than a little luck. Our "Great Louisiana Hummingbird Big Day" would require no less. Although most of the hummers were using feeders, we had no assurance that any individual would appear at the appointed time on the appointed day. The Blue-throated had departed after only two days and an adult male Allen's Hummingbird had disappeared after a couple of weeks. A tiny Calliope Hummingbird in River Ridge eluded me for several weeks before disappearing altogether. Only the Rufous Hummingbird seemed to be a sure bet! Every locale hosted one or more of that irascible species.
First, we made a list of the ten species of hummers known for Louisiana. Then, under each species, we listed all the locations where an individual of that species was known to be visiting. Next, Birgit and I laid out a schedule for a 250 mile route to find the maximum number of different hummers in as few stops as possible. We planned for a couple of backup localities in case we missed a rare species at the first planned stop. There would be no time in the schedule to visit out-of-the-way locales.
It would take time to drive from one locale to the next. Additional time might be wasted if our quarry delayed its appearance. If a target bird failed to show up within a reasonable period, we would have to stick to the schedule and move on, hoping to get another of its species elsewhere. On a "big day", every minute counts and the short day length of winter was our enemy.
I telephoned each hummer host to make sure that Birgit and I would have access to the gardens on the date and at the time we had arranged. Each of our hosts understood our mission and was excited to play a part in Louisiana hummingbird history. Each person understood that our actual schedule might be more variable than the one we had planned. We might be early or late in arriving and would not be able to enjoy an extended visit. Nevertheless, everyone graciously planned their daily schedule around our strategy.
On the eve of the "Big Day", I called each hummingbird host to confirm the schedule. Our luck was holding. Every target bird was still being seen. But, the prospect of stormy weather threatened to scuttle the entire effort.
Bedford Brown, a forecaster with the National Weather Service and host of the area's only reliable Calliope Hummingbird, warned that an incoming cold front raised the chance of dangerous thunderstorms to 100% and that 3-5 inches of precipitation was a genuine possibility. He strongly advised that we postpone our attempt until the following day. The suggestion made good sense, but I was reluctant to delay because any change in the weather could cause some birds to depart.
I went to bed early, but could not sleep. Instead, I tossed and turned while playing our planned scenario over and over in my mind. Finally, I drifted off with visions of hummingbirds zipping through my head.
I rose long before dawn and prepared sandwiches and drinks for the day. We could not sacrifice time to stop for meals. Binoculars, jackets, rain gear, a tape recorder with fresh batteries, all packed the previous evening, waited in the car. The pre-dawn air was cool and damp. Although it had rained all night, the sky seemed clear. Perhaps the cold front had passed already!
Birgit was waiting by the door of her River Ridge home when I arrived at 5:50 AM. Soon, we were on the way to our starting point in the town of Slidell, about forty minutes east of New Orleans on Interstate 10. Dawn broke at 6:30, just as we stopped in front of Bedford's house. A few sullen clouds on the western horizon failed to impress us with the weatherman's ominous predictions. It was going to be a GREAT hummingbird day!
Bedford led the way through overgrown shrubbery to the back yard where his immature male Calliope Hummingbird most frequently fed. With such wonderful hummer habitat, was it any wonder that this yard hosted several birds? We planned to get the little bird first, but an immature male Rufous Hummingbird was not to be ignored. Soon though, Birgit heard the soft chipping of our prime quarry from the dense greenery along the back fence.
A moment later, the tiny hummer darted to the feeder, then sped off before we could focus our binoculars. I knew this bird well, but it would be a "lifer" for Birgit so we waited for a better view. That didn't take long. Birgit noted, "tiny size, bright blue-green back, short bill, stubby tail, and three magenta feathers at the center of the throat."
On schedule, we arrived at the next stop at 8:45. In suburban River Ridge, Jan and Cornell Tramontana grow a wonderful garden filled with native and exotic hummingbird plants - orange flowering maple, red firespike, coral honeysuckle - and they hosted a fabulous assortment of glittering hummers. An immature male Broad-billed Hummingbird with a shimmering turquoise-blue throat and long, red bill and three obstreperous Buff-bellied Hummingbirds assured constant action. The Tramontanas also reported an immature male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a genuine rarity in Louisiana during the winter, an immature male Black-chinned Hummingbird, and an immature male Rufous Hummingbird, but these three birds were only seen intermittently.
A heavy shower was letting up as I rang the doorbell. The birds were feeding actively, and in no time, we had spotted two Buff-bellieds, the Broad-billed, and the Ruby-throated. Three more species in less than ten minutes! Birgit and I had now seen five different hummers!
Though we would have enjoyed a longer stay, we decided to try for a purple-gorgeted Black-chinned at Birgit's house a few blocks away. There a profusion of pineapple sage attracted several hummers. Birgit was hosting two Black-chinneds along with two Rufous and a Ruby-throated and her birds were being seen more regularly. Again, we scored quickly. The rather quiet male Ruby-throated and a female Rufous also appeared in the few minutes that we stayed.
Heading west on I-10 with the New Orleans metropolitan area behind us, we drove through a light shower but skies looked brighter ahead. At that point, 9:15, we were running ahead of schedule, having already scored six species. And so far, the weather had been to our advantage. Surely Bedford's forecast had been mistaken!
Tom and Eloise Sylvest were waiting when we drove up to their Gramercy home at 10:15. The large yard was beautifully landscaped with shrimp plants, tropical sages, and turk's caps. It had attracted a number of wintering hummers. An immature male Anna's Hummingbird, which had been holding a territory since late November, was the major attraction for us. A small female Selasphorus that I thought might be an Allen's Hummingbird also visited occasionally. We did not have a stake-out for that rare and difficult-to-identify species.
It was drizzling lightly, but the hummers remained active. Tom, Birgit, and I took up positions under the eave of the garage. By 10:20, we had gotten the Anna's with his glittering rose-red gorget and crown. It was our seventh species and another "lifer" for Birgit. And by 11:15, two Buff-bellieds and two Rufous had also put in appearances, but the bird thought to be an Allen's was not around. We decided to wait no longer. "Good luck!" Tom bade, as we waved goodbye.
Baton Rouge would be our next stop. Lily Edwards' exquisite tropical garden, filled with many colors of flowering maple, tropical salvias, and a profusion of gingers, had drawn an immature male Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Several other Broad-taileds were reported to be in Baton Rouge, but Miss Lily's bird was the only one that could be reliably found.
It was storming when Birgit and I arrived at noon, but Miss Lily ran out to greet us. She had seen the hummer earlier in the day. After a bit, the rain let up a little so my hardy companion and I donned rain jackets and found a semi-sheltered spot from which we could see Miss Lily's single feeder. We could hear the bird's distinctive "chirp" from the cypress tree nearby.
Birgit was eager to tally another "lifer." We didn't have to wait very long. The rain stopped momentarily and our eighth hummingbird species of the day dashed in for a sip. "Look for the bright green back, the long, ample tail, the delicate wash of cinnamon on the sides, and the large patch of rose-red iridescent feathers on the throat," I pointed out to Birgit as she focused on the hummer. Then, the deluge resumed with new vigor! At least our bird luck was good!
By half past noon, Birgit and I had accomplished our goal. Well, sort of! There was still a possibility to add one more species to our "Big Day" list! "Why quit now?" I asked.
Barbara Guglielmo had reported several birds frequenting her splendid garden. One young male Selasphorus had marks suggesting that it might be an Allen's, but exact identification would require that it be captured and the widths of its tail feathers be measured. I was prepared to do that - a federal bird banding permit and precision instruments were in a banding kit in the trunk and a hummingbird trap was strapped atop the car. This was, after all, part of my study! Now, if it would only stop raining!
It was still pouring and the temperature was dropping when Birgit and I parked in front of the Guglielmo house. Barbara was not home. Although she had given permission for me to band in her absence, Birgit and I decided that we would take the time to get a hot meal. "Surely, the rain will let up in a little while," I mused aloud while we lunched at a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.
An hour later, Barbara was still absent and it was raining harder than ever. But, hummers were using a feeder sheltered beneath an arbor so I put the trap around that feeder. Ankle-length waterproof boots were no match for the rising water as I waded through Barbara's elegant garden to temporarily remove several additional feeders. A protected vantage point allowed me to operate the trap without standing in the rain.
It did not take long to catch two immature birds. Birgit tried the door of the potting shed and found it unlocked. She turned on the lights. The room was dry and warmer than outside, a welcome retreat from the inclement weather Bedford Brown had predicted. I clamped tiny aluminum bands around the birds' legs and took careful measurements. Both were Rufous, a male and a female.
While I was banding the second bird, Barbara returned home. Every major traffic artery had been blocked by flood water. "I'll brew some hot tea," she called, hurrying into the house. I shifted the equipment so that the trap could be operated from inside the warm, dry house.
After a long while, I captured another immature female Rufous. Then, as the daylight began to fade, we saw a disheveled little hummer zip into the trap. Given the failing light, it was impossible to discern any field marks. But in the comfort of Barbara's cozy kitchen, I applied a tiny U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service band to the bird's leg and measured the critical tail feathers. This hummer proved to be an immature female Allen's Hummingbird, the ninth species for our "Great Louisiana Hummingbird Big Day!" Birgit and I were elated!
By the time we finished loading all the equipment, we were soaked to the skin. Our careful plans had not included packing a complete change of clothing. But, the thrill of setting a birding record dispelled all of our physical discomfort. Flood waters lapped the edges of I-10 as we returned to New Orleans.
That evening, warm and dry at last, I watched the late local news. The anchorman reported, "Baton Rouge experienced record-breaking rain today - 11.8 inches in less than 12 hours. I-10 is closed by rising water." I liked our story better - "Louisiana Hummingbird Big Day record set by two enthusiastic hummingbirders who braved the elements to find nine hummingbird species!"
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