Coming Soon to a Hummingbird Feeder Near You

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Male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the most numerous of the neotropical migrant hummingbirds. If there is anything you ever wanted to know about Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, all you need do is visit Dr. Bill Hilton Jr.’s Operation Rubythroat pages on the Web.

Having said that, after following Bill’s posts from time to time on another of his main pages, This Week At Hilton Pond, for years through the Birdchat Listserv and then directly to my email, I became intrigued when I realized that he was leading trips to Costa Rica for volunteers to help with his bird banding project which specifically targets Ruby-Throats (“RTHU”).

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Female RTHU

Bill’s last Costa Rica trip coincided with my safari last November, so I explored his other options, and was intrigued by the idea of going to Nicaragua this spring. I signed up, paid for the trip, and then unbeknownst to me, the moment I landed in Nairobi I got a call from Holbrook Travel in Florida. My brain was not ready to process who I knew in Florida when I was trying to figure out Nairobi, so I didn’t return the call until I got back to the States. As it turned out, I had a delightful conversation with Debbie Sturdivant Jordan who inevitably told me that the Nicaragua trip was being canceled due to lack of participants, and would I be interested in Belize?

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Bill Hilton teaching visiting students

I had been in Belize before, but I said yes, because by this time I was simply intrigued by the whole idea of what it would like to assist a bird-banding operation and get to stay in one place, soak up the birds around the lodge and learn a few things. And the thought of seeing some birds again is very attractive to me: I am not obsessed with building my list. Maybe I’m becoming even more philosophical about this direction… (“How many birds have you seen?” “I don’t know, how many books do you own?”)

It’s a short trip by comparison to a birding tour, and just as you’re beginning to get the hang of it and start feeling like you could do it every day for the rest of your life, it’s over. I am not trying to sugarcoat it: it’s work getting down to breakfast every morning at 5:30 and onto the vehicle by 6:00 to drive to the banding location and start setting up nets. You’re out all morning monitoring or helping at the banding table. But you’re back for lunch and after that there are planned activities or you can relax.

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At the banding table

I have never been much of a spectator. I like to be doing things. So maybe from that standpoint this is a natural thing for me to be doing. But the other thing that really intrigued me was feeling like I was getting to know some birds really well, better than I ever could by simply going out and looking at them. It’s more like hanging out with birds to me, which is what I’m used to anyway at home, where they are my companions. Multiply this feeling a million times and you might know what Bill Hilton must feel like by now with all the intimate experience he’s had with birds literally in his hands.

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After-Hatch-Year RTHU

Suffice it to say that I learned more than I ever expected, and that left me only wanting to know more, and to be a better participant next time. I still have to get the hang of taking down the nets…

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Attaching the band…the feet are so small, and the bands so tiny, the only way to handle these birds is to stuff them in a little cardboard tube!

I could go on, and from time to time I will try to write more about other facets of the trip, but I do want to leave the presentation to William Hilton Jr. who has just published a wonderful and detailed recap of the entire trip to Belize, as only he can, at this link. And while I’m a bit embarrassed seeing all the pictures that have me in them, it’s not deterring me from going on Operation Rubythroat’s trip to Costa Rica this November.

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Bill is a born educator. He is a former high school biology teacher, and he has never stopped teaching, going on to win awards and an honorary doctorate. I learned so much in one week I am compelled to go back to learn more. Perhaps the biggest impression I got from the entire experience was the importance of the data that he collects from banding the birds. You might think he’s keeping track of individuals for purposes of counting or aging re-caught birds, but it goes far beyond that.

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Bill with the local school kids, at a net

Bill is on a mission to get local students interested enough in birds to become guides, so that they will have employment and in turn, habitat will be preserved for the birds. His data prove that birds have site fidelity and return to the same place year after year after year. If you have sometimes wondered whether certain individual birds that visit your yard every spring or fall are the same ones, your hunch is probably correct.

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A sheet of bands for RTHUs – each band has a different number, and the bands have to be cut separately, filed down, and bent into shape to fit onto the birds foot.

Bill told a story about going back to Belize one year and all the trees had been cleared from a particular location where he had banded the previous year, near the hurricane shelter. Loss of habitat is devastating to birds. Whoever cleared the lot probably thought they had a good reason for doing so, but loss of habitat due to human activity probably has the most negative impact on birds, particularly during migration when they need to fuel up for long flights. Bill has found another location (“Hurricane 2”) and he hopes to instill the importance of preserving it in the hearts and minds of the local students.

After the rigors of banding, which include weighing, sexing, assessing feather molt, measuring wing length, judging for fat deposits…

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Bill offers sugar-water to the Ruby Throated Hummingbirds before he releases them.

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I leave you with this thought: two male Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds weigh about as much as a nickel. And yet they migrate hundreds of miles every spring and fall. It boggles the mind. This is what keeps Bill going. And will keep me going back.