Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

April 1, 2013

PLATEAU GARDENING: Winter storms delay returning hummingbirds

By C. Rae Hozer
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — When mid-March rolls around, I start getting ready for the arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Past years have proved our wooded property on a quiet lake is good habitat for hummingbird nesting. We usually start seeing hummers up here on the Cumberland Plateau in Middle Tennessee some time after April 1 and before April 15.

Hummingbirds migrate hundreds of miles from their winter homes in Central America to states along the Gulf of Mexico’s shores — from Texas east to Florida. From there the little birds make their way to Tennessee and other locations farther north.

Hummingbirds have a fast metabolism. To sustain themselves under normal conditions, they feed almost constantly during the day. That long journey leaves the birds tired with no remaining fat reserves. They need to rest before flying to their nesting grounds and build up their strength by feeding on insects and flower nectar. If cold temperatures stall the opening of spring blossoms and keep insect numbers low inland, ruby throats may remain along the coast longer.

Prepare for the hummingbirds’ arrival. Nectar feeders need to be dug out of winter storage, sterilized with bleach and water (no detergent), rinsed and then hung to dry. I make sugar syrup / nectar by heating water to the boiling point in a microwave and then adding sugar and stirring until it dissolves. The proportions are four parts hot water to one part white granulated sugar.

For a small batch, use two cups water and 1/2 cup sugar. Make a larger batch with four cups hot water and one cup granulated sugar. (Use no substitutions — no brown sugar, no honey, no artificial sweetener Do not add red food coloring).

Cool homemade nectar and then store in the refrigerator. It keeps well if refrigerated.

Early last week the snowfall and sharp drop in temperatures caught me by surprise. I was busy over the weekend before. Between work on other projects and tracking NCAA basketball March Madness on TV, I didn’t hear weather forecasts. Because I was caught off-guard on Monday, I spent the morning working outside in wind-blown snow flurries. There were logs to be split and moved from their rick outback closer to the house for use in the wood stove.

During winter and throughout spring nesting time, we feed black oil sunflower seeds and homemade suet to a variety of woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, titmice and other resident bird species. Their feeders were all either empty or nearly so.

Knowing those birds would have it rough looking for food, I restocked the sunflower seeds and suet. When it was time for a break, I came inside to get warm, have a hot lunch then check my computer for information on what impact spring storms might have on the arrival date of migrating hummingbirds.

Hummingbird bander Lanny Chambers of St. Louis, MO, set up and runs Hummingbirds.net. Interested citizen scientists can view spring migration maps or report their first-of-the season sightings of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Another map is available at www.learner.org, which offers "Journey North," a global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change. The participation of K-12 students and the public in general is welcomed. There is even a mobile app for reporting.

My questions were answered by a tutorial on reading weather maps using a songbird’s point of view by Dr. David Aborn of Chattanooga. In spring, migrating birds need a tailwind (moving south to north) to help them. Bad weather as well as headwinds (moving north to south) force birds to land. Storms last week and the week before kept hummers grounded. Favorable winds a day or two after a cold front goes through can help birds get moving again.

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Plateau Gardening is written by Master Gardeners for gardeners in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland Region.  Contact UT Extension Cumberland County at P.O. Box 483, Crossville, TN 38557 (484-6743) for answers to horticulture questions, free publications and how to become a Master Gardener. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae, MGardenerRae@frontiernet.net.