For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbirds!

Original Air Date: July 25, 2023

It’s time to pay attention to hummingbirds again!

Duration: 5′52″


This May, when Russ and I were visiting Naga-waukee Park in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, I noticed a hummingbird zip up into a tree, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but her nest, under construction. I studied her for about 10 minutes, thrilled to see her fly off for short periods, return with bits of lichens and strands of spider silk, work them into the nest, and use her breast and tummy to shape the inner cup.

Russ had never seen a hummingbird at a nest before this, and I’m afraid he was a little more impressed than he should have been with what seemed like my extraordinary birding skills when it was really luck, not skill, that led me to the bird. Any time I see a hummingbird in flight, I try to follow it with my binoculars. Usually within a few seconds I lose sight of it in foliage or behind other obstructions. This time there was a clear view all the way to the branch with the nest. In my entire birding life, I’ve seen only 5 or 6 Ruby-throated Hummingbird nests, and found, on my own, just 2 of them. So yes, this time my standing in the right place at the right moment to be able to track this female to the nest was pure, unadulterated luck.

Yesterday, July 24, I received an email from Lee Guthrie about his partner Diane finding a hummingbird nest using that same technique. He writes:

I chanced upon this hummingbird nest yesterday while canoeing a backwater on the St. Croix river about two miles north of Houlton WI, across from Stillwater. We paddled under the branch and my partner Diane noticed the bird fly away. We went back to investigate and found the nest. I stood up in the canoe(!)1 to get the picture of the inside of the nest. There’s an unhatched egg and a newly hatched egg. Feathers of the hatchling are visible. It looks like a ruby throated based on the make-up of the nest. It was difficult to see the color of the bird. There are better pictures out there but thought you would enjoy seeing these. Isn’t this late in the season for raising a brood of hummingbirds?

(Lee gave me permission to post his splendid photos on my blog.).

The bird is indeed a Ruby-throat. Lee Guthrie wondered about the lateness in the season. It would indeed be late if this were this Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s first nest of the year, but it’s almost definitely her second nesting. The latest she might have started building this nest so there’d be one hatched baby when Lee and Diane saw it was on July 6. Ornithologists have recorded nest construction and nests with eggs as late as mid-August in Ohio and the beginning of September in southern Ontario.

Those of us with feeders and/or hummingbird gardens see a surge of activity from mid-July through August. Local adults may visit more as some nectar sources dry up, especially during droughts. And local adult females may bring their fledglings to a feeder, one of the rare times we can watch three hummingbirds feeding side by side in a feeder without any squabbling. But as July progresses, the activity at our feeders becomes increasingly dominated by hummingbirds who nested or hatched further north.

Hummingbird migration is like a regular annual marathon except it’s not scheduled on a calendar. Each hummingbird takes off when its own body is at peak performance. For a short time in July, the number of adult males swells—even as local males load up on carbs and head south, males from further north keep passing through. They’ll be pretty much gone by early August. Fledglings move on whenever their bodies are ready—the first to hatch may be ready to leave as the first adult males go.

It takes adult females a while to get their depleted bodies ready for a long journey, but then they leave, even as adult females from further north continue to come through. The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds we see in early and sometimes even mid-September are adult females who needed extra time to recover from raising late broods or young who hatched and were raised later than most.

By October, there’s a more likely possibility—a vagrant hummingbird. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds may be the only species we expect in the Upper Midwest, but they’re exceptionally rare by October. Minnesota has records of 5 other species of hummingbirds, and a few others have been seen in Wisconsin. Just last week an adult male Rufous Hummingbird was seen and photographed for a few days in Clark County. So it’s important to look closely at these tiny jewels.

Most of the time, the healthiest sugar water recipe is 1/4 cup of sugar per cup of water. During very cold or wet periods, it’s perfectly safe and probably healthier to up the sugar to 1/3 cup per cup of water. Never ever use food coloring—it’s unhealthy! And be careful about any jelly you put into feeders for orioles, catbirds, and other species—hummingbirds have become mired in the sticky stuff and died. It seems unconscionable to invite birds to our yards to such a fate.