Sky Island Hummingbirds
Fort Davis opens gates to hummer heaven every fall.
by Madge Lindsay and photos by Larry Ditto
The tiny, iridescent speed bomb buzzes past with a loud hummm that inspires his name, stopping in midair, pivoting right and diving down to the bobbing blossom. As blurred wings keep the diminutive dandy aloft, he thrusts his long, slender bill deep into the flower’s corresponding shape for a drink of nectar and a dusting of pollen. Intent on gathering the large amounts of food needed to fuel his zippy metabolism, he pauses only to chase off a competitor. This avian favorite can turn on a dime, and he’s scarcely larger than one.
All 300 species of hummingbirds, some of the world’s smallest birds, occur in the Western Hemisphere; only a small sampling make their way to North America. Incredibly, most U.S. hummingbird species can be found in West Texas during the fall migration from July through October, so it’s no surprise that bird watchers trek to the mile-high mountains of Fort Davis for the peak-season festival that allows access to myriad viewing hot spots: the Davis Mountains Hummingbird Celebration.
Broad-tailed, black-chinned and rufous hummingbirds are common sights here at this time, but attendees can add new species such as lucifer, ruby-throated and tiny calliope, the smallest of all North American hummingbirds and, at 3 inches long, the smallest migrating bird in the world.
Davis Mountains Hummingbird Celebration
Location, location, location is the key to this festival’s popularity. Private landowners open up their hummingbird sanctuaries for peak viewing and photography. Public spaces like the McDonald Observatory and the 33,000-acre Nature Conservancy Davis Mountains Preserve stock feeders at bird-viewing stations during peak season, too. The area, populated with abundant wildlife in addition to hummingbirds, is known as a “sky island” because the higher elevation and special climate (with more rainfall) bring a mix of species different from the surrounding area.
Rain doesn’t dampen spirits at this event, as it actually brings more birds to the viewing sites. At a private garden outing during the 2016 festival, participants who were sheltered under a porch roof during a light rain had a fantastic view of a garden filled with hummingbirds, with Blue Mountain as a backdrop. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ornithologist Cliff Shackelford provided expert assistance and information.
“Be sure to keep your binoculars aimed and ready,” he advised. “These birds don’t like to stay still for long.”
Those who followed that admonition were soon rewarded with a rufous sighting, a bird he described as “shiny as a newly minted penny.”
Another group outing focused on capturing imagery of these wildlife-viewing moments with renowned bird photographer Larry Ditto, who leads the Christmas Mountains Oasis Hummingbird Photography Workshop.
“Most of our time is spent in the field learning the best techniques and equipment for capturing great wildlife images, mostly birds,” Ditto says.
While his personal goal for the 2017 festival is a “perfect” photo of the magnificent hummingbird, Ditto enjoys sharing his tips with those just learning how to catch the motion of the festival’s tiny jewel.
“For hummingbird photography, I use a special setup with four or five high-speed flashes that allow the camera to capture photos at almost 1/12,000 second,” he recommends. “Of course, that is plenty fast enough to stop a hummingbird’s wings and to get those unbelievable aerial acrobatics hummingbirds are known for. Some will be shooting at more conventional shutter speeds, but either way, the reward can be eye-popping.”
Back in town, activities include workshops on tropical hummingbirds, hummingbird gardening and proper feeding of these tiny nymphs. Linda Hedges, retired TPWD biologist, shared her experience with native plants and garden design in a session.
“If you want to have hummingbirds in your yard, you have to provide food, water and cover,” Hedges says. “The best way to accomplish this is by using native flowers and trees common to your area, especially those providing natural nectar and tiny insects.”
An opening reception and evening get-togethers at the Limpia Hotel offer a chance to socialize and discuss the day’s observations. Pre-session excursions provide additional opportunities. It all winds to a close with a Saturday evening banquet.
While the festival offers an entertaining, jam-packed schedule for visitors to view and photograph hummingbirds at feeders and gardens, there’s a chance to watch real science happening as well.
At the Davis Mountains Preserve, surrounded by field trip participants, retired TPWD biologist Kelly Bryan held a tiny bird in hand and called out size measurements, weight and condition assessments to an assistant, who recorded that data. Bryan attached a numbered metal band to one foot, then held the ruby-throated hummingbird up for everyone to see. He told the group that the hatching-year male bird fledged from a nest that summer somewhere within its breeding range and was now migrating south to Mexico for the winter.
“We are gathering valuable data about these birds,” says Bryan, who works this and several other West Texas Avian Research banding sites. “When banded birds are recovered or found by other banders, we have evidence of the bird’s flight path, recovery location and condition, which helps us better understand the migration and life cycle for these birds.”
Over the past decade, Bryan’s work has revealed where and when most hummingbirds occur in the region at the time of capture and, as banded birds are recaptured, their destination. The project’s banded hummingbirds have been found in Alaska, California, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana and several Texas locations. After banding almost 19,000 birds, Bryan (with help from wife Donna and experienced volunteers) has collected data documenting 15 species in the Trans-Pecos region; 13 of these are seasonal residents in the Jeff Davis County sky islands. Three additional species have been documented by photograph, bringing the regional total to 18 species. Only southeastern Arizona rivals West Texas for U.S. hummingbird diversity.
A New Species Documented
Two months after the 2016 Davis Mountains Hummingbird Celebration, there was something new to celebrate — a first U.S. record, the amethyst-throated hummingbird. The mountain gem arrived in October and perched right on the Cornell Lab’s West Texas hummingbird live cam (youtu.be/JAAXKSsKKPk). Bryan and others watched for nearly a day and photographed its amethyst gorget. This species normally occurs only in the mountains of eastern and south-central Mexico and is not known to be migratory, except for one other occasion when a male wandered all the way up to Quebec in July 2016. Texas now boasts 19 hummingbird species on its official state list.
The 2017 Davis Mountains Hummingbird Migration Celebration is August 24-27. For more information, visit www.fortdavis.com or call (800) 524-3015.