Gwen Baluss, USFS, Alaska: The Rufous Hummingbird is Alaska’s only regularly seen hummingbird. Making an annual trip from as far south as Oaxaca State, Mexico and back, the species tops the charts for migration versus size in the bird world. It is a tough traveler, but biologists are concerned about the Rufous; in fact, one appeared on the cover of the state’s latest Audubon watchlist, and the Breeding Bird Survey has registered declines across its range.
Causes for concern include climate change impacts that result in mismatch between flowers, insects, and hummingbirds, increased agricultural pesticide use, and changes in precipitation patterns and fire ecology. All of these impacts may impact the food sources hummingbirds need. Even hummingbird feeders could be an issue by harboring disease or altering natural behavior patterns.
To learn more about the Rufous Hummingbird in the temperate rain forest of Southeast Alaska, Biological Technician Gwen Baluss launched the Tongass Hummingbird Project in 2013 near Juneau, Alaska. Each season since, she has banded hummingbirds. Her effort is now revealing interesting patterns in plumage, migration, survivorship, and more. For example, many adults return to the same spot each summer, and several hummingbirds banded as juveniles have also returned. Photographs of each hummingbird show that while the red throat patches on females may become slightly larger, and the back color of males may become slightly more red over time, the basic individual color pattern does not change. For example, if a female has just a few iridescent throat feathers the first year she was captured, she will still sport a small patch several years later.
The Juneau station has not had the luck of catching birds banded on winter grounds, but part of an adult female’s migration was charted. After being banded in Alaska in July, she was encountered by researchers near Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta Canada, over 700 straight-line miles away to the southeast, just one week later. She had been logging over 100 miles a day and was safely released to continue her journey.
In addition to banding, supplemental information about hummingbirds is sought from local birders, such as reporting the first arrivals in the spring, the date young birds appear, and forage plants used. Now, in partnership with Juneau Audubon Society, the THP is creating educational materials to inform homeowners about how to make their yards hummingbird-friendly and how to properly maintain nectar feeders.
It is Gwen’s hope that banders, researchers, and citizen scientists will find more ways to work together, to gather meaningful and comparative data, and to better understand what actions we can take to help protect these amazing little birds.
Gwen Baluss is a Biological Technician on the Tongass National Forest in Juneau, Alaska.
This project is possible thanks to support from the US Forest Service, countless local volunteers, and the advice and materials from the hummingbird banding community.