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An August Blizzard of Hummingbirds

Photo: Pat Sutton

by Clay and Pat Sutton

No, we’re not talking about an early snowstorm in Cape May, but about the annual blast of late summer Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. They arrive in mid April and depart by mid to late September. A few may linger into November or very rarely December, attracted by Cape May’s mild climate and late blooming season.

But August is when there are so many hummingbirds in the garden that it’s risky to walk about. Not really, but what a wonderful excuse to simply sit and be dazzled.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz . . . one zooms to the back of the garden where a feeder hangs amidst blooming Cannas and Trumpet Creeper. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz . . . another chases the first. No, two others. Zzzz . . . another perches overhead on a tiny vine. Bill pointed skyward, it is constantly alert for others.

Guarding their Territory

Hummingbirds don’t share. They are very territorial and even territorial outside of the nesting season, staunchly defending favorite feeding sites. Hence the dashing about.

A small garden with one hummingbird feeder will support one bossy adult male and he’ll spend the day chasing all others away, including his own mate and hungry young.

Photo: Pat Sutton

So, in order to attract and support a number of hummers, we maintain five small feeders (plus our gardens, of course). We clean and refill the feeders nearly every day in August so the solution is as fresh as can be, as fresh as nectar.

Why You See Hummingbirds in August

Young hummingbirds from the first nest are flying now and feeding themselves. Local females are busy with their second nest and two more growing young.

Plus, migrants from further north are now passing south through the Cape May Peninsula.

How to Tell Them Apart

Sit and relax in your garden and try to tell them apart. Adult males are easy with their dazzling ruby-red throat – don’t be fooled when the throat turns black. The color red is seen only when sunlight refracts off the feathers.

Photo: Ed Solan

Females have clean white throats. Youngsters (the same size as adults once they’ve left the nest), have spotted throats. As young males age, gorget feathers grow in and may look like a dark blotch on a white throat. The blotch blinks red as the sun hits it.

If your feeder is crowded with hungry hummers, undoubtedly they are youngsters who have not yet become too territorial.

How Many in Your Yard?

Late July through August, hummingbird banders have found that you can multiply the number you see in your yard (at any one time) by 5 to learn how many are truly there. We’ve seen as many as eight at once in our garden and the CMBO Gardens in Goshen have counted as many as 25 at once in late August!

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will soon be on their way, so enjoy them now. The hummer blizzard won’t last long.

A bird that survives on nectar and insects (for protein) must migrate. They depart when gardens are still lush and feeders still full. Their destination: southern Mexico to northern Panama.

Will the Hummers Return?

Will they be back? You bet! Hummingbirds return to where they were born.

There certainly are blooming flowers and insects year round in southern Mexico but there are also many other species of hummingbirds there. Those hummingbirds, larger and very territorial, have staked a claim to the very best nectar sites.

Throughout winter Ruby-throated Hummingbirds struggle to survive in a land where they are no longer top hummer. Wish them well!

May they survive and return to add a blizzard of joy and entertainment to our gardens for years to come.

The Suttons' Garden

Garden Tour

Note: Pat and Clay Sutton's garden will be on the Saturday, September 8, Tour of Private Butterfly Gardens along with 23 other gardens that weekend, including the Cape May Times garden on Sunday, September 9. Tours last from 10AM to 3PM.

Call the Nature Center of Cape May for more info or to sign up: (609) 898-8848.

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and authors.

Click to read more about Clay and Pat Sutton's new book!


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