Between the icebergs and whale sightings, not many people visiting Alaska would notice the lack of Rufous Hummingbirds during the time that they are supposed to be abundant. But this is what Sarahy Contreras is working to change – her most recent project consists of tracking hummingbirds along their migration route throughout the Americas. The information she finds is crucial to spreading more awareness about the Rufous Hummingbird and other hummingbird species and improving conservation tactics. Sarahy has been working to protect birds for much of her life. Now through her research, she is diving into the world of the hummingbird migration and learning just how much the loss of hummingbird species could impact human life if we do not act fast.
Q1 How did you first become interested in birds?
It was many, many years ago. I have always been interested in conservation and the environment. But I had the opportunity to start working with birds at the University of Guadalajara because one of my advisors encouraged me to study birds. He also introduced me to hummingbirds.
Q2 What are your specializations within environmental conservation?
My specializations are ecology and conservation. Specifically, I like to look at hummingbirds and land-birds both in the tropics and mountains. Also, I look into how humans impact birds – their habitat, migration and overall wellbeing.
Q3 How did you come to focus on hummingbirds in particular?
I focus on hummingbirds because they are special birds. They just have different characteristics from other birds, like they don’t have a brain stem and their mobility is different. I also like to study the relationship between birds and fires; how they impact them and how they respond both in the long-term and short-term.
Q4 Can you tell me about your first research experience in the US at the Crested Butte?
I was one of the fortunate students chosen from the organization Partners in Flight that takes students to US. So, I got to travel to the Rocky Mountains and study hummingbirds there.
Q5 Can you tell me a broad overview of the other research you’ve done?
Generally, in my research I look for demographics, how to protect the birds’ migration and the proportion of populations between females, males and adults.
Q6 What work are you doing now?
I am trying to understand the long-distance migration of birds to conserve the species. The Rufous Hummingbird is declining – I think in a small scale there is not enough food maybe because of climate change. They need specific flowers and the timing of flowers is changing so it can be dangerous for the hummingbirds. Like in Western Mexico, where I live, they need salvias. But they don’t have enough so it can be bad for them. So, in my project we are trying to put together the information on a bigger scale to understand how to help the hummingbirds.
We are connecting field studies to the migration route in order to see where they stop and how they move throughout the route. First, we find the route and establish monitoring sites, then we search for the birds. Once we find the birds we band them – like a catch and release to track their movement. In Alaska, we also contacted people who study hummingbirds there and especially the Rufous Hummingbirds. The entire migration takes 8 months so we are trying to learn the complete cycle in order to give better management and conservation advice. Also, we need the information to put together festivals to spread awareness.
Q7 What has interested you the most in your work so far?
The site fertility has been the most interesting. But also, how many years they live considering how far they travel. Hummingbirds can survive the climate conditions better than humans can. They are so small but they are so strong. And they are trying to survive but we need to help them. We need to conserve biodiversity because it relates directly to the wellbeing of humanity.
Q8 Have you encountered any problems in your research?
The main problem is financial support. It is hard to keep the monitoring station going in the long term and sometimes I have to use some of my own money.
Q9 What would you like other people to know about the work you’re doing now?
I would like people to know that if we can collect efforts throughout the hummingbirds’ migration route we can work together to save the species. Also, the Western Hummingbird Partnership is connecting people, researchers and society.
Xavier Rivera, a Mosaics in Science intern, has been banding and studying hummingbirds for the past few months at Capulin Volcano National Monument. Mosaics in Science is a diversity internship program and partnership of Environment for the Americas, that gives opportunities for youth to learn from and work alongside the National Park Service. As the biological technician for Mosaics in Science this summer, Xavier conducted a research project where he categorized previously collected pollen samples from hummingbirds’ beaks in order to determine their preferred flower genus.
Capulin Volcano serves as an important migratory and nesting site for Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Calliope hummingbirds, making it a hotspot for hummingbird research. Mosaics in Science interns have collected pollen in this region for the past several years, giving Xavier plenty of data to work with. After categorizing pollen into rare, common, or abundant, Xavier determined that Castilleja, Lupinus, and Penstemon are statistically more prevalent than plants from other genera. Although abundance is a subjective matter, hummingbirds do seem to favor these three flowers in northeastern New Mexico. Something to keep in mind if these plants are native to your area!