It’s 7 a.m. on a brisk September morning at Land Between the Lakes, and the park is swarming with hundreds of hummingbirds.
They buzz and circle around feeders that hang inside custom metal cages. Cyndi Routledge, the founder of Southeastern Avian Research, and her team of volunteers are sitting a few feet away with a homemade triggering device.
When a bird goes inside the trap to feed, Routledge’s volunteer pushes a button, and the door drops. He gently collects the bird in a small mesh bag and carries it over to the banding station, where Routledge takes a series of measurements. Before it’s released, she carefully places a tiny numbered band on one of its legs.
That hummingbird will wear this number for the rest of its life, and if another bander catches it somewhere down the road, the banding lab notifies Routledge.
“Then,” she says, “I’ll do a little dance because that gives me data and then I can start to put dots on a map and follow the migration.”
Trained volunteers like Routledge band birds all over the country. They add their findings to a national database, which researchers mine for new information. This way, civilians and scientists are working together to find out more about these tenacious creatures.
But even less is known about “winter hummingbirds,” those that spend the cold-weather months in the United States rather than commute further south. In Tennessee, in particular, winter bird sightings have been especially rare — until now.
‘They’re real survivors’
To understand the fascination with hummingbirds, talk to Fred Bassett. He’s been banding hummingbirds for 25 years, mostly in Idaho, Alabama and Florida, and he says these little visitors are surprisingly tough for their size.
“We had a hurricane years ago, and I watched hummingbirds feeding at feeders in a hundred-mile-an-hour winds,” he says. “They appear to be delicate little creatures, but they’re not. They’re real survivors.”
Most hummingbirds migrate thousands of miles each year, from their breeding grounds all over the United States and Canada to winter homes as far south as Panama. Some cross over 500 miles of treacherous open water to get there. But not all hummingbirds make it that far south.
“These Yankee hummingbirds come down here to see the Gulf of Mexico and they go, ‘I’m not going across that thing. I’ll just stay here!’ ” Bassett jokes.
Still, these winter birds are elusive. Over the past 20 years, just 300 of them have been banded in the entire state of Tennessee.
So every sighting is a big deal for Tennessee banders like Routledge. And this year has been a record-breaker for her: She’s confirmed at least 13 winter hummingbird sightings so far here in Tennessee, more than twice as many as last year.
While it’s an exciting trend, she says it doesn’t necessarily mean the population is growing. Because of the pandemic, more people may just be home birdwatching.
Routledge’s first sighting of the season was in Thompson’s Station, at the home of Sharon Temple. She first noticed a hummingbird hanging around her birdfeeder at the end of 2019. She reached out to Routledge, who confirmed that he’s actually a western species called a rufous hummingbird. This tiny creature likely traveled over 3,000 miles, all the way from Southern Alaska, to spend the winter in her yard.
“We put his feeder in a tin pan and put Christmas lights all around it to keep the sugar water from freezing,” says Temple, “and he stayed all winter long.”
Hummingbirds are faithful to their feeding and breeding grounds and return to the exact same spots every year, so ever since he left last spring, the family have been waiting patiently for his return. Finally, after a 6,000-mile round trip, he’s back.
“All of our friends know about it,” says Sharon. “I’m privileged to have him.”
At the Temple home, Routledge takes measurements of the rufous. Then, she gently places the bird on Temple’s grandson’s open palm.
After a few seconds, there’s a flurry of tiny feathers, and their resident hummingbird flies back into the yard, where he’ll stay till spring.
Find out more about Routledge and her winter hummingbird study at southeasternavianresearch.org.