Rufous Hummingbird, photo by Kelli Heindel

Perhaps the question we are most often asked about hummingbirds is “When should I put up and take down my hummingbird feeders?” This question reflects the concern that feeders might entice hummers to remain too long in fall, which might cause them irreparable harm. In Inyo County that does not appear to be the case. Hummingbirds are found year-round near Ridgecrest, 100 miles to the south of Bishop. If a hummer decided to leave Bishop it would arrive about three hours later where it would find feeders, shelter, and sparring companions. So our answer is “As soon as you move in and when you move away!”

Anna’s Hummingbird, Photo by Tom Heindel

If you put up one feeder, one male usually usurps it as belonging only to him so you should consider putting up more, widely spaced, and with cover nearby. Some people have 6-10 feeders up and during migration can have 10-20 or more hummers in their yard at one time, all feeding and fighting simultaneously. During winter just a couple of feeders are likely enough and location is crucial to help reduce the chances of freezing. A mixture of 3:1 reduces the temperature to about 27˚F before it will freeze. A couple of suggestions are to place them next to a house, especially where two walls join at a right angle, or under the eaves. Another configuration, if possible, is to place one where a flood lamp can be aimed from a few inches away. This prevents freezing no matter how cold it gets.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Photo by Matt Heindel

In northern Owens Valley a few hummingbirds typically overwinter. These are usually Anna’s Hummingbirds, although we occasionally get Costa’s. This past winter in Big Pine, we have had 3 Anna’s and 1 Costa’s(click for photo) with at least two birds seen almost daily. We have reports from other residents that they also have had these two species throughout the winter. We have seen them perched on branches set up right next to the feeder with a floodlight and snow falling all around them. The snow disappeared in a few days but the hummer remained active throughout the rest of the winter.

If you have not had feeders out this winter, this is a good time to clean them with bleach, rinse repeatedly, and fill with fresh syrup since the migrants are already heading our way. We were shocked a few years ago when we were running a banding station in our backyard and found an adult male Rufous Hummingbird in the net on 17 Feb! If we didn’t have feeders out and if we didn’t happen to be banding that day, we never would have guessed that a Rufous would be heading north so early.

Broad-billed Hummingbird, Photo by Tom Heindel

Inyo County has eight species of hummingbirds all documented with photographs. Two species are casual, the eastern Ruby-throated and the Mexican Broad-billed. A Ruby-throated was photographed at Furnace Creek Ranch (J.L. Dunn) and recently accepted by the California Bird Records Committee. The Broad-billed normally reaches southeastern Arizona but twice has made it to Inyo County where the immature males were well photographed in Lone Pine and Big Pine.

Of the remaining six species, all occur annually in the Eastern Sierra with Anna’s, Rufous, and Costa’s regular and widespread by mid to late March. Black-chinned, Calliope (click for photo) and Broad-tailed arrive in April. All of these are breeders except the Rufous, which is a pure migrant here and breeds no closer than the extreme northwest corner of California.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Photo by Tom Heindel

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird reaches the western extreme of its breeding range in the mountains of eastern California. While it has been known to breed in the Sierra Nevada, it is far more often reported in the mountains to the east, particularly the White, Inyo, and Panamint Ranges.

Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbirds are the species most often found in towns and riparian areas of the Owens Valley. Costa’s may also be found in these areas although they are usually associated with more xeric habitats.

Our smallest hummingbird, the Calliope, favors the mountains and has been found nesting as high as 10,000ft near the Baker Creek headwaters.

Black-chinned Hummingbird, Photo by Tom Heindel

The family of hummingbirds is found throughout the Western Hemisphere and regardless of culture, country, or language, people everywhere are fascinated by these amazing birds. Their ability to hover and fly backwards, without being windblown, captures everybody’s attention. Their array of neon colors dazzles one’s senses and when the sun’s angle turns a black gorget into a resplendent rainbow of color, the response of human viewers is usually explosive expletives and adjectives. Hummingbirds can even become quite tame if they feed in the same area for a while and will buzz about your head as you try to take down and put up feeders. Often we have just held the feeder in our outstretched hand and the hummers swarm in to land and feed, all the while cocking their head to watch us watching them.

There are many good books on hummingbirds. Our favorite two are Hummingbirds of North America: The Photographic Guide, by S.N.G. Howell (2002 Academic Press) and Hummingbirds of North America, the Peterson Field Guide Series, by S.L. Williamson (2001 Houghton Mifflin, Co.).

By the time you read this, the hummingbirds could be searching your yard. Don’t make them wonder where you hung the feeders!

Rufous Hummingbird, Photo by Kelli Heindel


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