Trumpet honeysuckle is native to the Eastern US and is a magnet for hummingbirds.
The hummingbirds have returned to our yard. The first one arrived at dusk last week and hungrily darted around at our native honeysuckle vine which had just begun to blossom a few days earlier. I wasn’t able to get more than a very dim passing glance – the sun was setting and the bird was moving very quickly. I wondered if it as migrating through on its way north or if it was here to stay in my yard for the summer.
In the last few years there has been a huge increase in the variety of hummingbird species seen in the Eastern US. Not all that long ago, seeing anything other than the Ruby-throated species would have been unheard of in the mid-Atlantic. Then, numerous anecdotal reports of the Rufous hummingbird were made up and down the East Coast.
This winter, while attending a showing of a film about birding at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge in Laurel, Maryland, I heard Bruce Peterjohn mention that bird banders monitoring mist nets east of the Mississippi River had reported a large increase in hummingbird diversity. Peterjohn is the chief of the Bird Banding Lab at Patuxent, which sits on an amazing piece of riverfront property just northeast of Washington, DC. Patuxent is a wonderful place to hike, attend lectures, and learn about the science being conducted by the US Geological Survey. But it is also a valuable asset in our efforts to learn more about our environment – as the website for the banding program states, “Bird banding is a universal and indispensable technique for studying the movement, survival and behavior of birds.”
When I recently asked Peterjohn for more details about hummingbirds, he explained via email that seven species of hummingbirds were found across the MD-VA-DE-DC region this winter and reported to his lab:
There have also been three additional species recorded in our region during other times of the year:
-Green Violetear Hummingbird
At the Patuxent site itself they have only seen the Ruby-throated species.
There are lots of theories, apparently, among birders about this change in species sightings. Some think the increase in winter landscaping across the US is attracting more species – all those pansies planted outside your local Target or gas station all winter are providing more food. Others think it might be a sign of climate change.
I used to wonder if we had just gotten better at spotting, sighting and photographing these tiny wonders; cameras with powerful zoom lenses are now the norm, and everyone seems to be a backyard nature photographer on the weekends.
But then I heard Bruce Peterjohn say that it wasn’t just photos and anecdotes but actual bird counts in mist nets which were recording the change, and it kind of blew my mind. I find that I am now looking even closer at the beautiful, feisty little visitors at my vines this year, hoping to see something surprising.
(To find out more about bird banding, visit the Patuxent site at http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/.)