Hummingbirds Are Back from Vacation

Photos by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted April 2010
by Clay and Pat Sutton

Late April and early May is a very special time of year for Cape May birders, as new birds arrive from the south virtually every day.

Each day brings new firsts or “first of the season – FOS” sightings in the vernacular of birders. Today a Yellow-throated Warbler. Tomorrow a Northern Parula. Next week a Scarlet Tanager or maybe the first Great Crested Flycatcher.

But if you are a Cape May birder who gardens for wildlife, one bird in particular makes all the gardening efforts worth while.

The long wait is over. Now is when Ruby-throated Hummingbirds return to the Cape.

Hummingbirds are found only in the Western Hemisphere, from Alaska to South America. Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia have no hummingbirds. So, aren’t we lucky!

Migrating Back from the South

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds now returning to our woodlands, meadows, and backyard gardens all wintered in Mexico and Central America. They eked out a living in marginal habitats since there they were the low man on the totem pole – smaller than many of the resident hummingbirds of these tropical areas.

From late February through the first week of May, waves of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds depart the Mexican peninsula and migrate north to their place of birth. On April 1st the first hummingbirds were reported in New Jersey, and by April 4th a few had already reached southern Canada.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds arrive first in the spring. They have a bright ruby-red throat (which can appear black if the sun isn’t shining on it). Females have a white throat and migrate north a week or two later.

What's to Eat

Our South Jersey gardens are pretty sparse in spring when the hummers return, not much more than dirt. Some native plants – Wild Columbine, Coral Bells, and Coral Honeysuckle – are just beginning to bloom.

Most backyard gardens are mere shadows of what they will become by summer.

Because spring gardens offer so little to newly arrived and hungry hummers, most wildlife gardeners hang hummingbird feeders.

Since one feeder will attract one territorial male whose goal in life is to chase off every other hummingbird that dares to enter his airspace, many of us hang five or even more feeders.

We hang them hither and yon, keeping each one out of sight from the others to thwart territorial males. This approach is likely to attract and benefit multiple hummingbirds and may even entice a female to nest in your yard or garden.

Filling a Hummingbird Feeder

Fill your feeders with the proper solution; one part sugar and four parts water is most like wild nectar. Avoid ornamental feeders. They’re difficult to keep clean and often attract bees.

Our favorite feeder is Aspects’ mini HummZinger because it is so well thought out. It's super easy to clean with nowhere for mold to hide, has a built in ant guard and bees can’t get to the solution. It's also marked with ounce fill lines so you can put in as little as two ounces in spring when activity is low or as much as eight ounces in late June through fall when activity levels sky rocket.

Keep the solution fresh as flower nectar. When the solution begins to get cloudy, it’s time to clean the feeder and fill it with fresh solution. When temperatures are cool, we clean our feeders at least once a week.

In summer, when temperatures are high, we clean and refill them every two to three days. We always make a batch of solution and keep it refrigerated to facilitate easy refills.

Hummingbirds can not survive on nectar and feeders alone. They get their protein from insects like yummy aphids, spiders, fruit flies, and other soft-bodied insects and would die without them, so again most wildlife gardeners we know avoid insecticides and have grown to love each and every critter.

Hummingbird Flowers

If you want to enhance your yard for hummingbirds, be sure to plant some of their favorite nectar plants and be sure to include a variety of plants that will bloom spring through fall:. Coral Honeysuckle is a native honeysuckle that blooms repeatedly through the year, begins with a fevered heavy bloom in spring.

Both Coral Bells and Wild Columbine bloom in Spring.. Cardinal Flower - a summer bloomer - is great if you have a wet spot. Trumpet Creeper will quickly cover a bare sunny arbor. Tropical Sage, Black and Blue Salvia, Bee Balm and Cannas are also summer bloomers that are irresistible to hummers.

If you'd like to see private wildlife gardens in Cape May County, alive with hummingbirds, the Nature Center of Cape May offers tours July 16-18, August 13-15, and September 10-12, all led by wildlife gardener Pat Sutton.

Save the dates and check Cape May Times for more information later next month.

In the meantime, look for hummers around any of Cape May and Cape May Point’s many gardens or at natural areas like Higbee Beach and the Rea Farm.

Somehow the gardens seem incomplete until they are graced by the flashy sights and twittering sounds of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

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

Read the Suttons’ Cape May book, Birds and Birding at Cape May.


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