Birds Before the Storm

This has been such a weird year.

Earlier this week, we saw a female broad-tailed hummingbird feeding on the last of a neighbor’s Rose-of-Sharon flowers.

Then we had three more forest fires start in the mountains to the west. It’s October! It is time to cool off.

But this morning we woke to cold temperatures and even a little sleet on the ground. And that brought in the birds. House and goldfinches, a northern flicker, chickadees and a couple of red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches.

But among these frequent fliers, I saw two dark-eyed juncos.

Pink-sided form of dark-eyed junco.

Dark-eyed juncos have between four and five different color schemes — ornithologists have changed how they classify them. They used to all be called different forms of Oregon juncos, now just some are called Oregon-form juncos, along with slate-colored, white-winged and pink-sided. Very confusing.

Grey-headed dark-eyed junco.

But they all have the dark eye and yellow-pink bill, so they all go in the same species.

But as we were enjoying the all little birdies, we noticed one we couldn’t quite place.

Female or juvenile Cassin’s finch.

A finch that was striped all over, not just on her chest. After a flurry of thumbing throw bird books, we decided a female or juvenile Cassin’s finch — they look the same until the males molt. The clincher was the white ring around her eye. Cassin’s finches are usually found in the foothills or lower mountains. I have no idea why she decided to come visit us. But she is welcome anytime.

Snow in September

Colorado went from 93o on Monday September 7 to 32o Tuesday September 8, 2020 — a change of sixty-one degrees in 24 hours. Prior to that, On September 6, Denver reached 101o making it our latest 100o day. That gave us a 48 hour change of 68o.

This weather whiplash was a result of the fact that fast-moving cold weather fronts push in behind slow-moving warm weather fronts, compressing the warm air and making it even warmer. When the cold front finally arrives, the temperature drop is dramatic. Few are as dramatic as what we saw yesterday — this was almost a record-breaker for Denver (the record being a change of 63o).

The temperature drop gave us much needed moisture, first as rain, then as snow. Although we are all glad to be out of the forest fire smoke that has plagued us for a month, it has been hard on the birds.

Before the storm hit, my husband and I made sure to fill the bird feeders. The little cheepies appreciated it this morning.

The hummingbirds, almost totally dependent on flower nectar for food, were particularly hard hit. Hummingbirds rely on their incredibly fast metabolism to keep warm. If the night is too cold, they can literally starve to death.

But we had a plan! I have a hummingbird feeder that sticks to the sliding glass door, and so is under the house eaves and would remain snow-free. The little birds completely ignore if there is any other food source available. But this morning, nothing else was clear of snow.

Female hummingbird on sliding glass door feeder. The streak across the glass is not a symptom of my poor housekeeping, but rather is an ultraviolet marker designed to keep birds from flying off our many feeders and into the windows.

The picture above was taken with natural light, because I didn’t want to startle the starving bird and scare it off it’s energy sources. But for some reason, my camera used the flash for the picture below.

The resulting photo shows off the bird’s iridescent feathers. Bird feathers create color not with pigment, but with prisms in the feathers themselves, and so change depending on the angle of the light.http://Hummer colors

Hummer in Blue Spruce Tree

After an intense fast moving rainstorm yesterday, I happened to look out my front window to see something I’d never before seen — a female broad-tailed hummingbird zipping among the branches of our blue spruce.

Although she stopped at the end of new spruce buds momentarily, she never stayed in any one place for very long. Between the low light, and her constant movement, the photos are not the quality I usually like to put up here. But her behavior was so unusual, I decided to go ahead and post them.

The thing is, I have no idea what she was going after. At first I thought maybe she was getting some sap from the newly opened blue spruce buds.

But when I went out to confirm my hunch after she left, there wasn’t anything there — no sap, no water droplets, no tiny insects. Just newly opened blue spruce buds.

I’ll keep watching that blue spruce and see if she comes back.

Nectar Eaters on a Cool Spring Day

It’s a cool May day, and that has made animals cold and hungry.

White-lined sphinx moths are big, with flat triangular wings and a “white” line running from behind their heads to the corners of their wings.

My husband and I found a white-lined sphinx moth on the sidewalk as we were out walking the dogs this morning, slowly beating its wings as it tried to warm up. Once he gets airborne, he’ll be looking for nectar.

You can see a hint of pink on the body. If he were to open his wings, it would be a large pink wing patch.

And we saw our first hummingbirds! As usual, we heard their ringing zip first. Only the males make this sound. It is produced by special tail feathers. The males are heading into the high country to stake out territory before the females arrive.Spring storm brings cold, wet; hummers come to feeder

Male broadtailed hummingbirds have a red “gorget” or throat feathers. The feathers on their backs are iridescent green.

The problem for both these animals is that the very hard freeze we had a month ago killed a lot of early flowers.

We’ll have more flowers soon, but they need food NOW. I’m doing what I can to help by putting out my hummingbird feeders — 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, NO red food coloring — poured into hummingbird feeders that have been cleaned with boiling water. Hummers in Snowstorm

Hang in there nectar eaters! More flowers are on the way!

Spring storm brings cold, wet; hummers come to feeder

As a violent spring storm crosses the country, the temperatures along the Front Range of Colorado are hovering in the low 40 degree range, and may dip below freezing tonight, and the drizzle we’ve had all day may turn to snow.

Yet hummingbirds have been in the area for a month. These little guys have to burn through a lot of energy to survive a cold wet storm like this.

Fill up, little hummer! We’ll keep it coming for you!

Hummer colors

If you’ve read my blog for very long, you’ll know that hummingbirds make frequent appearances. I love those little guys. Even more, I’m amazed by them. How they fly, how they hover Hummers Are Back, how they eat Eyelashes and Hummingbird Tongues, the fact that they have to eat constantly when they are awake Hungry Hummer Can’t Wait. They are just generally cool.

One of the most interesting things about hummers is that the iridescent colors of their feathers aren’t created by pigments, but rather by the way the light shines through them.

male broad-tailed hummer-8

The red “gorget” on this male broad-tailed hummingbird is so intense that it is hard to believe that it isn’t a pigment.

Instead, iridescent feathers are built like prisms that only let red light through, and only from certain angles.

Here is the same bird when he turned his head:


male broad-tailed hummer-7_edited-1

All that changed was that this guy turned his head to give me a nice profile shot. But when he did, the angle of the light changed.

When this male broad-tailed hummer turned his head, the angle of the light changed, and his gorget showed that it had no pigment in it at all! It’s all just a pigment of your imagination! (Sorry, bad joke.)

Many hummingbirds have iridescent feathers on their backs tuned to green.


Female broad-tailed hummingbird.

The calliope hummer in Eyelashes and hummingbird tongues had a gorget of magenta, but I could never catch the light coming in the right way, so it looks like a ragged black collar.

This ability to show us colors without using pigments is a trait shared by a lot of birds. Blue then Black Magpie follows me on the trail.

Interestingly, although some dinosaurs may have iridescent (Microraptor Was A Glossy Dinosaur), no mammals ever developed the trait.

Calliope Hummingbirds

The last of the hummingbirdsare passing through my backyard this month. I happened to Calliope hummingbird & rosemar-05_edited-1get a couple of great shots of some tiny, charming female calliopes buzzing around my rosemary plants. Because the rosemary is in a planter on deck railing, the photos are looking up slightly at the hummers.

I love to watch hummingbirds (Eyelashes and Hummingbirds, Hungry Hummer Can’t Wait), and calliopes are some of my favorites.

Calliope hummingbird & rosemar-09_edited-1

Calliopes breed in the Pacific Northwest, and winter in Mexico; there are no reported calliope nests in Colorado. That means that my backyard is just a pit stop in their travels.

Calliope hummingbird & rosemar-03_edited-1

According to Birds of North America (Birds of North America), calliope hummingbirds are the smallest migrating birds in the world.

Calliope hummingbird & rosemar-14

Safe travels, little ones!

Eyelashes and Hummingbird Tongues

I learned some new things about hummingbirds this week. First, I learned that for years now, I have had two types of hummingbirds coming to my feeders.
I knew that I had broad-tailed hummers — they are the most common hummingbirds in the Western US. With a flashy red throat “gorget” and a metallic ringing sound when they zip by, it’s easy to know that they’re around.

Male broadtailed hummingbird gets pollen from a bull thistle.

Male broadtailed hummingbird gets pollen from a bull thistle.

But this week I discovered that I have even more delightful hummers visiting — a family of calliope hummingbirds.
Calliope hummingbirds are the smallest hummers in North America. The male isn’t as showy as his larger cousin. He has purple streaks on his throat instead of a red gorget.

Male calliope hummingbirds have dark collars.

Male calliope hummingbirds have purple collars. In this photo, the collar is grey, because the light isn’t shining on it.

Both sexes of calliope hummers have the charming habit of flicking their tails as they hover.

Female calliope flicking her tail while hovering.

Female calliope flicking her tail while hovering. Her beak is yellow with pollen.

And they seem to like to flick out their tongues after they have fed.


Male calliope hummingbird flicking out his tongue.  Notice that he has lower eyelashes.

Male calliope hummingbird flicking out his tongue.
Notice that he has lower eyelashes.

But the final thing that I learned about hummingbirds this week is that they have eyelashes.

Hummers Are Back

Hummingbirds are back!   I was alerted to a hummer at our feeder by a distinctive ringing zip overhead.  All hummers make a buzzing or humming sound that gives the birds their name, but only one hummer makes that metallic zip sound:  A male broad-tailed hummingbird.
A male broad-tailed hummingbird has an iridescent green back and wings with a throat patch (gorget) that is red in the sun, but blackish otherwise.  The green back and the red throat patch are iridescent, which means they have a rainbow effect.  His chest is white.  His broad, rounded tail is reddish, with the two central feathers green.Image
The female broad-tail, like many female birds, is a drab form of its mate.  Her back is iridescent green, her sides streaked with tan, and she is missing the throat patch.
The ringing sound is only made by the male broad-tailed hummingbird because only he has special feathers at his wingtips that vibrate.  The female, like other hummers, makes a humming sound when they fly.  The only other sounds hummingbirds make are “chips” or “tups”; hummingbirds do not sing.
Hummingbirds are an American exclusive.  There are over three hundred species of hummingbirds in North and South America – and none anyplace else.  Most species live in Central and South America.  We have just four species of hummingbirds common to Colorado: The Broad-tailed, the Rufous, the Black-chinned, and the Calliope.
Colorado hummingbirds make a bee-line (or would that be a hummingbird-line?) to the mountains in July, in a rush to claim the best nesting territory.  If you are lucky enough to see them there, watch them closely – you might get to see their elaborate courtship flights in which they fly straight up, then zoom down in a series of loops, trying to impress the ladies and keep away rivals.  Image
Hummingbirds lay two eggs about the size of a jelly bean.  Considering that the momma hummer is the size of about five jelly beans, this is a big egg. Females raise the young by themselves.  In fact, they may hide the nest from the males.
When their young can survive on their own, the hummingbirds come back down from the mountains to head back to Mexico or Central America, where all the Colorado hummers winter.  When the hummingbirds head south, they often stop at my feeder.  Every day it is a new batch and for every one that I see there may be ten that pass by.
Hummingbirds, are of course, tiny.  The ones we have in Colorado are about 4″ or 10 cm long, and weigh about 2-3 grams.  They can move their wings 180 degrees, and beat them 200 times per second, which lets them to fly forward, backward and hover.  This maneuverability allows them to sip nectar from flowers without actually needing to land.  It also means that they have to eat at least half their weight in sugar every day.  Talk about a sugar buzz!