SHOULD I STAY or SHOULD I GO?

by Sharon Pegany, Winter 2019
Artwork by Catherine Whalen
Artwork by Catherine Whalen

SHOULD I STAY or SHOULD I GO?

by Sharon Pegany, Winter 2019

 

turn of time

rustle of feather

echoing songs of beak and bill

listen afresh to the voices among us

Winter may be a quiet season in the Salish Sea region, when nature slips into a shallow sleep, but for those of us who love birds, it is sublime. The rapid freefall from warm, sunny summer to dark, misty winter has once again triggered a massive global shuffle, when thousands of birds worldwide change their living arrangements seemingly overnight. They suddenly appear in our skies, fields and waterways. We hear new voices—thousands of them. Most of us are very familiar with honking geese flying overhead in their tidy pointed arrowhead. We marvel at their comings and goings, and might even pause to wonder how they do what they do, but at the end of the day, we know very little about the mystery of bird migration.

U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service Flyways Map, 2016. Credit: North Dakota Game and Fish Department

As a child, I was told that birds need to fly south for the winter because they were cold. I imagined little winged vacationers in search of a good place to relax and bask in the sun. In truth, birds make arduous journeys to follow food and conditions suitable for reproduction. Imagine having to travel thousands of miles because your grocery store keeps relocating!

Migration journeys are unique within species and most depend on the presence of ancient pathways and rest stops to successfully make their flight connections. One of those paths is known as the Pacific Flyway, which stretches from Alaska and western Canada to South America. Much like the network of aircraft routes that crisscross the globe, the Pacific Flyway is a system of passages used by birds to safely move from one place to another. Due to traditionally rich habitat, as well as reliable access to food and water, the Salish Sea region is a major hub in the system. Huge flocks of birds will descend there and share the same space—foraging, feeding, and resting for the next leg of their journey or settling in for the season.

Animation from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For more about migration, see the Find Out More section below.

tiny travelers

Hundreds of bird species of all shapes and sizes use the Pacific Flyway, from eagles and egrets to swallows and flycatchers. Even tiny hummingbirds can be found coursing along in the diverse mix of sojourners. During the spring and summer, Western Washington enjoys four hummingbird species but by late summer, three of the four have made their getaway to southern fields and flower beds even before the hint of autumn begins to chill the air.

Most of us would love to see hummingbirds remain in our region year-round for they are graced with beauty and equipped with mind-blowing design. They are the only birds known to have the ability to fly forward and backward as well as hover. These tiny birds zip to and fro, finding food to feed their voracious appetites and courageously chasing off territorial intruders. Their little hearts beat 1,260 times per minute and their wings flap an astounding 40-50 times per second! They burn through so much energy that they are literally hours from death at any given moment, needing almost constant access to high energy nectar or insects to survive.

Photo by Catherine Whalen

Many species of hummingbirds can live and feed in warm or cold weather, but even they need a well-earned time-out from their feeding frenzies. That’s precisely when a stunt known as torpor comes in handy. Torpor is a short period of very deep sleep or “mini” hibernation. Unlike animals that hibernate for weeks or months, torpor allows a hummingbird with a limited food supply to enjoy a period of deep sleep every day. Hummingbirds can temporarily enter a state of torpor, a time in which the heart slows dramatically, and the bird can appear dead. Body temperature drops and only a fraction of its awake time energy is needed. Although it is fairly unusual, if you ever come across a lifeless hummingbird, be careful not to disturb it as it may just be in a state of torpor. 

Anna’s Hummingbird by Lee Tenneboe

year-round resident

Of our local hummingbirds, there is only one species that seems determined to defy winter bird protocol: the Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna). The historic range of this species is centered in southern California and the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. Anna’s were not even seen in the Salish Sea region until the 1960s. Now, they are regularly spotted in areas as far north as southeastern Alaska. After hummingbird cousins Rufous, Calliope, and Black-chinned are long gone from our region, many Anna’s daringly stay in the region hedging their bets that winter flowering plants will bloom and sugar water feeders will remain stocked.

Anna’s Hummingbird

Photo by Catherine Whalen

Anna’s Hummingbird

Photo by Catherine Whalen

Anna’s Hummingbird

Photo by Lee Tenneboe

Anna’s Hummingbird

Photo by Lee Tenneboe

So what would cause a southern California bird to brave the challenges of northern climes during winter? Again, the answer is food-related. One hypothesis links the winter-time presence of Anna’s to the steady northward march of one of the Anna’s favorite foods: the blue gum eucalyptus, a winter flowering tree indigenous to Australia, but introduced to California in the 1880s. These fast growing trees took off in temperate coast regions. Where they grow in abundance, Anna’s thrive. Along that line of reasoning, it is thought that as human populations expanded in the Pacific Northwest, so did the quantity and variety of nectar-rich flowers in fields and gardens all the way up the coast, not to mention the plethora of colorful sugar water feeders seen hanging from outdoor beams everywhere. A 2017 study found that Anna’s tend to colonize areas with higher housing density where supplementary food is often more readily available. In short, human activity has altered food sources and actually allowed Anna’s Hummingbirds to expand their winter range.

Anna’s are resourceful little birds, making efficient use of every available source of energy they can lay their beaks on. Although the casual bird watcher might assume Anna’s prefer the fast energy that nectar-producing flowers provide, they also eat a surprising number of insects and spiders, especially during the breeding season, when nesting females need protein for healthy development of their young. Interestingly, Anna’s catch more insects and spiders than any other hummingbird species in North America—up to 2,000 a day by a nesting female—and can even be seen hanging around spider webs to steal the insects caught in the silky trap set by the orb spider. Some ornithologists believe that insects and spiders make up the majority of the Anna’s diet.

Their ability to size up not only the availability of food, but also the means of attaining food gives them a reputation as fast thinkers as well as fliers. Anna’s can pluck insects mid-flight out of the air (known as hawking) or snatch them from resting places and webs. When flower nectar is scarce, they often drink sap from holes drilled in the bark of trees by other birds, and are not too proud nor fearful to indulge in food sources provided by people. They are master improvisors.

Cross spider and its prey becomes easy prey for hummingbird. Photo by Sharon Pegany
Photo by Dan Hershman

too good to be true?

In an era of invasive species and disruption to native habitats, it is perhaps prudent to ask if the expanding territories of the Anna’s hummingbird have negatively impacted the ever-shifting balance of food for native plants and animals. Have our actions tipped the scales in favor of a beautiful bird we love to see, perhaps with unintended consequences to native species who might initially escape our notice?

At the moment, it would appear that hummingbirds contribute so much to local ecosystems here in the Salish Sea region that it is hard to imagine a downside to the presence of wintering Anna’s. In fact, bird research organizations encourage the practice of setting up feeders for winter hummingbirds. In a time when native pollinators are at risk, Anna’s are excellent pollinators and their voracious appetites keep them on the job. Like all hummingbirds, Anna’s eat insects including those considered pests such as gnats and mosquitoes. Wintering Anna’s also play a part in the larger food web, providing larger animals and birds with food at a time when food can be scarce. Even spiders and large insects such as the praying mantis can capture a hummingbird now and then. Although the benefits seem to outweigh any challenges, it is sobering to remember that simple actions can and do alter the behavior and migration patterns of a species.

 

Photo by Dan Hershman

 

Photo by Dan Hershman

 

Photo by Dan Hershman

 

Photo by Dan Hershman

 

Photo by Catherine Whalen

For now, consider studying some of the hummingbird’s amazing design features by setting up a feeder near a window where you can watch these amazing birds zip through the air, hover, perch and feed. Learn how to make hummingbird nectar properly and keep the feeder clean and full. Once birds come to your feeder, remember that they quickly grow dependent on the secondary food source you are providing, especially when nectar and insects are hard to find in the frosty landscape. Their lives depend on your diligence, so commit to it through the winter months. Make it a point to observe hummingbirds in areas where insects tend to gather and resist sweeping away the last spider webs of fall. Another way to help hummingbirds in winter is to cultivate native plants with nectar-rich blossoms that can withstand winter temperatures. See FIND OUT MORE below for more about this.

 

Photo by John F. Williams

Photo by John F. Williams

 

Photo by John F. Williams

 

Photo by John F. Williams

 

Photo by Dan Hershman

Video of a male Anna’s Hummingbird by Lee Tenneboe

Winter is a time to search our surroundings and welcome newcomers as well as those who have made this special place their year-round home. It is also a time to reflect on how the natural spaces in our yards, neighborhoods, and communities connect and contribute to the vast system of pathways utilized by countless creatures to survive and thrive. The meaningful connections and communities we create overlap with those that already exist and directly impact how well they function.

Anna’s Hummingbird—Photo by Catherine Whalen

Sharon Pegany is an educator and citizen scientist who loves to indulge her insatiable curiosity for the natural world. After teaching inside elementary classrooms for over 30 years, she now spends her days outside exploring, learning, and encouraging others to wonder about sky, sea, and land through shared hikes, writing, photography, and art. Wander with her through the contrasting naturescapes of desert, ocean and forest at pacificwondertracker.com

Table of Contents, Issue #6, Winter 2019

Birds of Bufflehead Pond

Birds of Bufflehead Pond

by Adelia Ritchie, Winter 2019Painting by Adelia Ritchieby Adelia Ritchie, Winter 2019  Such big ideas we had when we first set out to inhabit Bufflehead Pond Farm! The place had not been properly tended for years and the local ecology (mostly blackberries and...

Purple Martins

Purple Martins

by Gene Bullock, Winter 2019Photo by John F. WilliamsPhoto by John F. Williamsby Gene Bullock, Winter 2019  Native Americans learned long ago that if they hung hollow gourds around their villages, they could attract Martins to nest in them. The birds repaid them by...

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

by Nancy Sefton, Winter 2019Photo by Philip HutchersonPhoto by Philip Hutchersonby Nancy Sefton, Winter 2019  As I floated in my kayak, I spotted a great blue heron perched on a mass of partially submerged roots. Suddenly it stabbed the water and came up with a small...

Poems-6

Poems-6

Winter 2019Winter 2019     Haiku by Nancy Rekow   One heron standing.Mist hangs low in the valley.I will write to you.Painting by Kathleen Faulknerby Nancy TaylorIn Beacon Hill Park, Victoria B.C.             I watch            a bald eaglelight...

Citizen Science

Citizen Science

by Todd Ramsey, Winter 2019Photo by Eric Wagner, COASST staffPhoto by Eric Wagner, COASST staffby Todd Ramsey, Winter 2019  It all started out so innocently. We just wanted to pick up trash on the beach after a storm. Soon after that we discovered COASST.org (Coastal...

Foto Tour 2

Foto Tour 2

Showcase of Participant Photos North Kitsap Heritage Park from September 18, 2019  Showcase of Participant Photos North Kitsap Heritage Park from September 18, 2019 On September 18, 2019, WSU Extension in Kitsap County hosted a Forest Foto Expedition led by John F....

Seabirds Are Cool

Seabirds Are Cool

by Julia Parrish, Winter 2019Photo by Lee TenneboePhoto by Lee Tenneboeby Julia Parrish, Winter 2019  In Washington State, there is a bewildering abundance of seabirds. The seabirds of the surf zone that always capture my imagination are in the Alcid family: murres,...

The Russians Are Coming

The Russians Are Coming

by Paul Pegany, Winter 2019Photo by Catherine WhalenPhoto by Catherine Whalenby Paul Pegany, Winter 2019  The Russians are indeed coming! They are winged, white, and ready to spend their winter along the shores of the Salish Sea in northwest Washington. As the rain...

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Nature's Pest Control by Adelia Ritchie, Winter 2019 Photos by John F. Williams except where notedNature's Pest Control by Adelia Ritchie, Winter 2019 Photos by John F. Williams except where notedClose cousin of the purple martin is our hard-working summertime...

Editorial-6

Editorial-6

by Adelia Ritchie, Winter 2019by Adelia Ritchie, Winter 2019  On vacation in Costa Rica recently, I walked the city of San José one morning and visited a famous museum of pre-Colombian civilization, back when indigenous tribes lived in harmony with nature and as a...

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In case you hadn’t noticed, Salish Magazine contains no advertisements to distract from the stories we bring you about our natural world. But the costs of producing and delivering the magazine have to be paid somehow.

FIND OUT MORE

Mesmerizing Migration: Watch 118 Bird Species Migrate Across A Map Of The Western Hemisphere, By Pat Leonard, January 20, 2016

Flyways Map, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Flickr. Credit: North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Birds follow migratory routes, called flyways, between their northern breeding grounds and southern wintering areas. There are four major flyways in North America: the Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway. Credit: North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Keep your hummingbirds happy with winter bloomers with nectar-rich flowers, The Seattle Times, October 11, 2017.

Pacific Wonder Tracker, a blog by Sharon Pegany, celebrates wonder, particularly the delicious sense of wonder we experience when exposed to the natural environment here in the Pacific Northwest.