Flight of the hummingbirds

North Carolina botanical garden a rest stop for the birds on their annual trips north and south

NOTE: An edited version of this story appeared in the Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, edition of The Gaston Gazette newspaper in Gastonia, NC.

Similar to a fisherman on the banks of the Catawba River, Keith Camburn patiently held his string taut Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, waiting to spring the trap and reel in the mighty beast weighing all of a dime.

Camburn, a Gastonia, NC, resident, and Michael Leonowicz, who makes his home in Charlotte, were two of those responsible for capturing hummingbirds at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden near Belmont, NC. They were each seated in chairs watching a feeder inside a cage, which was constantly circled by a gang of hummingbirds.

The task wasn’t as easy as it seemed. A hummingbird can reach a speed of up to 49 mph when it dives and beats its wings, on average, 53 times per second. So, it’s not like you’re catching a turtle.

“It’s like fishing,” said Leonowicz, who has been helping to band birds for the past 15 years. “The birds have gotten smarter.”

Mike Leonowicz and Keith Camburn work to secure another hummingbird as hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell collected, measured, weighed and banded hummingbirds Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden on South New Hope Road.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

As of mid-morning Saturday, they’d captured five hummingbirds that had been delivered to researcher Susan Campbell, who identified and, with the skilled hands of a surgeon, had weighed, measured and applied bands to mark each of the birds.

“The habitat at the garden is excellent. There are plenty of things planted at the garden that are good hummingbird plants,” said Campbell, an Apex, NC, resident whose been holding the program at Stowe Botanical for the past 15 years.

Hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell collected, measured, weighed and banded hummingbirds Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

The hummingbird banding program, which was held Saturday and Sunday, is one of the most popular at the garden, usually attracting anywhere from 800 to 900 people, said Jim Hoffman, the interim executive director at Stowe Botanical.

Lake Wylie, SC, residents Eric and Allison Schaff are members of the garden and attended Saturday’s program with their sons, Noah, 14, and Benjamin, 9. Both brothers got to hold newly-banded hummingbirds in their hands before the birds flew off.

“I felt a very small vibrating because it was breathing,” Benjamin said. “I could see its eyes blinking. It was very neat.”

Hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell places a banded hummingbird in the hand of 4-year-old Aristotle Christopher on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden on South New Hope Road.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

Did you know?

The hummingbirds you see in your own garden may very well be repeat guests?

“It could very well be,” said Raleigh resident Steve Schultz, who was assisting Campbell during Saturday’s program. “They do have the ability to return to the same specific spot.”

Hummingbirds spend their winters in Mexico and South America, migrating to the United States each spring, where they’ll mate, build their nests and raise their young. In the fall, they return south.

Saturday at the garden, there was the rare experience of one of the birds they captured having already been banded. Schultz said the female bird, which was at least 3 years old, had likely been captured years ago at Stowe Botanical.

“That bird has flown to Central America and back, Central America and back. That bird’s got more frequent flyer miles than I do,” Schultz said. “This bird traveled thousands of miles. It’s amazing something that small can navigate that distance.”

A hummingbird flies about in front of the trap Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden on South New Hope Road.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

When will you commonly see hummingbirds at your feeder?

The hummingbirds usually arrive in early April and most have departed by the end of September.

Daily, you’ll usually see them at the feeder when they get hungry, which is typically in the morning and evening. During the day, they’re often snacking on insects, such as the gnats that linger near crepe myrtles, Schultz said.

“One of the myths is that they just drink nectar. In fact, they’re fly catchers. They mostly eat insects, which makes sense because they need protein, especially when they’re nesting,” he said. “And during the day, there’s tons of insects out.”

Hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell collected, measured, weighed and banded hummingbirds Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

Which hummingbird are you seeing?

Most likely, in this part of North Carolina, you are seeing a female ruby-throated hummingbird. The male will have the red marking on its throat. They don’t stick around as long as the female, who is tasked with maintaining a nest and raising the young.

“I’ve been helping here five years and I’ve never caught a male,” Camburn said. “They just do their stuff and take off.”

A hummingbird flies about Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

Nix the red?

Another helpful hint: Forego buying the red-dyed hummingbird mix at the store. Instead, make your own mixture with four parts of water to one part sugar. It’s much healthier for the birds and cheaper for the birder, Schultz said.

Keith Camburn keeps his eye on the trap Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. [Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

How many different types of hummingbirds are there?

Camburn said he’s been “chasing birds” for the past 40 years.

“I’m trying to see all the hummingbirds in the world,” he said of a list that has expanded to include 345 different species. “It’s never going to happen but I got to try.”

He’s seen all 11 of the species recorded in North Carolina. Only 17 of the species have been spotted in the United States.

“When I moved here 30 years ago, there were two hummers in the state,” Camburn said. “Now, I’ve seen 11 species, which is just nuts. I’m guessing Susan banded just about all of them.”

A horticulture volunteer at the garden, which means doing a lot of weeding, trimming and planting, Camburn also has taken on filling and cleaning the five hummingbird feeders at the garden.

A hummingbird flies Saturday, August 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

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