HUMMINGBIRDS

A male ruby-throated hummingbird takes advantage of nectar at a feeder(Photo/Terry Johnson)

I am certain many Monroe Countians are wondering when the first ruby-throated hummingbird will herald the beginning of the hummingbird season in Monroe County.  While there is no way of knowing when this special bird will magically appear at a local feeder, after watching these amazing bird for many decades, experience tells me more than likely it will be during the third week in March.

Most years the earliest a hummingbird makes an appearance here at the Johnson Homestead is March 18. For some unknown reason, hummingbird enthusiast Debbie Menard seems to spot one a few days before I do. 

Last year proved to be different.  For the first time in many years, I saw a hummer in March before she did. Remarkably, a handful of hummingbirds appeared locally during the second week in March. I could not believe that I spied my first hummingbird of the year March 14. In fact, three other Monroe Countians reported rubythroats arrived in their backyard before March 18. The sightings were topped off with Carolyn Perkins seeing a hummingbird March 9. As far as I know, this is the earliest a ruby-throated hummingbird has ever touched down in Monroe County.

When these long-distance migrants arrive this spring they will find natural foods scarce. This is not breaking news. Most of the plants blooming at this time of the year will not win any contests for producing an abundance of nectar. However, a few plants do offer hummers some nectar. For example, wild azaleas are just beginning to bloom. Yellow jasmine vines are sporting their bright yellow tubular-shaped flowers. Redbud trees and blueberries are also beginning to bloom.

Also, iris is just beginning to bloom. While I dearly love this plant, I must confess I have never witnessed a hummingbird nectaring on iris. However, the iris is often listed as a hummingbird plant.

Most of the other plants that will be blooming in our yards such as daffodils, baby’s breath, forsythia and others produce little nectar. Even our beloved ornamental azaleas generate little nectar.

As such, you might be wondering how in the world the hummingbirds that first arrive in our fair county will find enough food.

One of their important sources of food is the tree sap that wells up in sapsucker holes excavated by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. This unusual woodpecker winters throughout the county. While here, one of the sapsucker’s main sources of food is the sap that wells up in tiny reservoirs the birds chisel into the trunks of trees, such as hardwoods.  These shallow cavities extend just beneath a tree’s outer bark.  The sap that collects in these holes is licked up by the sapsuckers using a brush-like feature on their tongue. Other wildlife, such as hummingbirds, chickadees, squirrels, butterflies, as well as a number of other insects and birds also avail themselves of this sugary liquid.

Keep in mind hummingbirds do not live on nectar and plant juices alone; they also eat a variety of small insects and spiders.  In fact, these tiny animals can comprise 50 percent or more of a hummingbird’s diet.

Consequently, hummingbirds will seek out insects drawn to early season blooming plants that are not considered major hummingbird nectar sources. For example, if you take a walk about your yard right now, chances are you will find a host of tiny plants that you probably consider weeds. Two such plants are introduced plants known as henbit and purple dead nettle. Hummingbirds do dine at the tiny purple blooms borne on these plants.  However, if you take the time to watch a patch of these plants, chances are you will see them visited by tiny insects such as native pollinators. These tiny critters are a source of food for hungry hummers.

Then of course there are our feeders. A hummingbird feeder containing a batch of your homemade nectar is a godsend for a hummingbird struggling to find enough food. A rubythroat can perch on a feeder and feed as long as it likes without burning a lot of energy flying about looking for a tiny amount of food here and there. This is important to a migrating hummingbird trying to refuel so that it can complete its migration to its breeding grounds.

If you want to help the vanguard of the hummingbird migration, offer them nectar in a feeder and nectar plants that bloom very early in the spring.

Lastly, let me know when you see your first hummer of the year.

Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at tjwoodduck@bellsouth.net.