In the world of hummingbird lovers who live in the northeast, May is always exciting. For weeks, the excitement builds as we anticipate their arrival, and upon sighting the first returning males, we marvel at the miracle of migration.
But I have to vote for August as the best time for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in upstate New York. After a lull at the feeders as nesting progresses from late May through July, the hummingbird population just explodes when the young fledge in late July/early August. Just think - there are many million more hummingbirds in the world this month than there were in May! What an amazing thought!
Young hummers sport fresh feathers and look chubby from all of mom's tender loving care. They emerge from the nest just as big as adults. And they are quick to join in the fray at the hummingbird feeders!
Adult male hummingbirds can sometimes look a little ragged too, not from helping with the young (which they don't do at all), but from defending their territory. That's what it's all about for males in the summer - safeguarding territory. Resident males will leave any time now, so enjoy the adult males while you can. But don't worry - other adult male migrants may still stop by for a day or two at your feeders before continuing their journey south.
Despite all this activity at feeders, it will seem like you're seeing fewer adult male hummingbirds. Well, with roughly 1 adult male to every female and 2 young, you ARE seeing proportionately fewer males that sport a brilliant red gorget. At this time of year, only adult males - not young males - show their namesake ruby throat.
The majority of birds you're seeing now look more like the female, with the white throat and belly, white spots on the tips of the outer tail feathers, and a longer, more streamlined body. Admittedly, it's hard to tell mom and young apart at this time of year.
If you get a good close-up look, you may be able to pick out a young male by looking for a light striping on their throat (see our Focus on Fledglings post on Ruby-throated Hummingbird young). They might even have a bright red feather or two starting to peek out - just a teaser for the ruby throat to come.
It can be frustrating but fun to try to estimate just how many hummingbirds are in your yard. They move so quickly, it's like the old shell game. I try to look for distinguishing characteristics of individual birds (not easy to do), like this young male with a few ruby feathers versus the young male with only a solo ruby feather pictured above.
When all else fails, bird banders have given us a way to estimate the number of hummers in our yards: take the number of hummingbirds you can count at any one time and multiply it by 6. That gives you an idea of how many birds are visiting. The last couple weeks, I've been regularly seeing 5-6 individual hummingbirds in the yard - that means that there are 30-36 hummingbirds in my yard!
As the month progresses, hummingbirds are bulking up for their long migration. Look for signs of good weight gains on these little guys. Hummingbirds typically weigh about 0.1 to 0.12 ounces; during these pre-migration feeding frenzies, they can bulk up to 0.19 to 0.22 ounces (Source: Wild Bird Guides - Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Robert Sargent). That's like a 150-pound person ballooning up to 275 pounds!! I think I see some good "love handles" developing on this guy!
Here's another mind-boggling thought: young hummingbirds, most of them less than 3-months old, will soon begin a migration that will take them from their breeding grounds, south to the Gulf Coast, across the Gulf of Mexico, to their winter homes in Mexico and central America. They do it on their own, not in flocks like many other birds do, and certainly not on the backs of geese, which is an old wives tale that just won't go away.
As they depart, take note that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are amongst the migratory birds that we know benefit from the habitat provided in shade-grown coffee plantations. Please keep this in mind as you choose your coffee, selecting only a certified Bird-Friendly® coffee like Birds & Beans™ coffee.
So, enjoy the squabbles at your feeders and keep the feeders clean and filled with fresh nectar. August is a great time to observe hummingbirds in your New York backyard! Before you know it, they'll be gone!