Month: July 2020 (Page 1 of 3)

Epic Hummingbird Battle

Comet Neowise Torrey Utah

Gratuitous photo of the comet Neowise and a shooting star, seen from the Torrey Mesa

Come Strong for the Sugar Water

Whenever we visit the house on Torrey Mesa (Utah), we put some sugar water in a hummingbird feeder and hang it from the awning over the back porch. Within a couple of hours, the hummingbirds start to show up. We see three different hummingbird species in this arid, high elevation spot: Rufous Hummingbirds, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. They’re often skittish at first. After a couple of days, though, they come to tolerate our presence on the porch nearby. Indeed, the boys even get hummingbirds to land on their fingers to feed.

Hummingbird on Finger

Inter-species trust and cooperation

Hummingbirds are tiny and delicate, but they are notoriously aggressive. You can see it at times in competition over flowers, but the tension is on full display at sugar water feeders. Putting a hummingbird feeder out is a little like smashing open a pinata in front of a half-dozen seventh-grade bullies. Free sugar brings out screaming, stomping, and, occasionally, violent behavior. With dagger-like, and sometimes serrated, bills, these scrums are no joke.

At any given time, there is usually one hummingbird that we call “The Boss” around the feeder. This hummingbird furiously guards the feeder, chasing away other hummingbirds that come around. The Boss will set up on a branch on one of two juniper trees, each about 50 feet from the feeder.  When a hungry hummingbird flies in toward the feeder, The Boss darts from the juniper and heads straight for the invader at full speed. Most are quick enough to avoid the assault. At times, though, contact is made. Usually, the confrontation is mostly bluster: harsh calling and a full display of tail feathers. Sometimes, The Boss gets tired of flying in from the junipers, and just sits atop the feeder and guard the juice. 

An individual doesn’t stay The Boss for long. In four days, we’ve had at least 3 different identifiable bosses. Two have been Rufous Hummingbirds (one female Boss, and one male Boss), and the other a male Black-chinned Hummingbird. Our best guess for the turnover: it is exhausting to be The Boss. It takes a ton of energy to chase away other hummingbirds. Not only is it tiring, it can become futile. As the number of hummingbirds to chase away increases, The Boss simply can’t maintain control of the feeder.

Yesterday, I witnessed an epic hummingbird battle. The Boss was a male Black-chinned Hummingbird. When a female Rufous Hummingbird came to the feeder, the Boss did the usual thing. (I think it’s a female Rufous. It may be a female Broad-tailed). He flew in from the juniper and attempted to stab the Rufous Hummingbird with his bill. A short duel occurred in the sky near the feeder, with both birds screeching and spreading their tail feathers wide. Instead of tucking tail and flying off, the female Rufous stood her ground.  She had no idea what she was up against.

Black-chinned Hummingbird

The battle moves to the ground

What happened next was something I had never seen, nor did I ever imagine I’d see. Neither hummingbird would back down. After a few seconds of aerial jousting, the Black-chinned got above the Rufous and drove her to the ground. It looked like a wrestling match for a couple of seconds. Then, the action stopped. To my shock, the Black-chinned Hummingbird had landed on the Rufous Hummingbird’s bill. He was standing there, flapping his wings for balance, just dominating the Rufous Hummingbird. He didn’t let go for almost 10 seconds. Amazingly, I had my camera at the ready and got a couple of shots.

Black-chinned Hummingbird Rufous Hummingbird

Total Hummingbird Domination

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Black-chinned Hummingbird

The constant fighting led to a family discussion. Are we doing these birds right by offering up free food in a scarce environment? Or are we Romans at the Coliseum watching tiny gladiators battle for our own amusement? And what are the psychological ramifications of having another hummingbird stand on your bill while you’re prostrate on the ground? Yes, somewhat, and fleeting, if you ask me.

Northern Goshawk in Utah

Northern Goshawk, Singletree Campground, Utah

A Northern Goshawk on a perfectly timed flyover

A lifer Northern Goshawk

I mentioned in my previous post that my target bird for this trip to Utah was a Northern Goshawk. They are resident on Boulder Mountain, but uncommon. You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time to see one. A chance, fleeting encounter with one this morning shows how a series of little moments and decisions can put you there.

My wife had to drive in to town this morning to get some provisions, so it was just me and the boys. If we don’t have a planned hike for a day, I’m usually up and out by 8 to get some birding in before a mid-morning family adventure. But I stuck around this morning, waiting for my youngest to wake up. If I had gone out birding, the boys and I wouldn’t have gone on a hike until after lunch (important decision). He finally roused at 9:30am (little moment). After some cajoling to get dressed, eat, and brush teeth, we left the house at 10:20. We were headed either for a half-mile hike to a waterfall that’s a 15-minute drive from the house, or to explore a slickrock formation just off the highway. The boys chose to do the waterfall hike first, then the rock on the way back (important decision).

Boulder Mountain Utah

Boulder Mountain

The waterfall trail takes off from Singletree Campground on Boulder Mountain. According to eBird entries, there’s been a Northern Goshawk nest in the area for over 20 years (so said the most recent sighting at this rarely eBirded spot, from 2013). When we pulled into the campground, the 2-car parking spot at the trailhead was full. We drove around the loop, waited behind a camper-trailer traffic jam, and parked farther away (little moments).  About halfway down the trail, you cross the creek. It’s a picturesque spot that can be good for birds, but there was a family there. So instead of lingering, we moved right along (little moment).

Northern Goshawk Boulder Mountain Utah

Northern Goshawk flying with indifference away from us

As we went down a section of steep switchbacks with loose rock (a time to keep your eyes on the ground), a big bird shadow moved past me. As is my habit, I immediately looked up, expecting to see a raven. Instead, I saw a hawk-shaped bird. I got it in my binoculars, and saw a gray back, a dark-tipped tail, and a whitish belly. It couldn’t be anything else but a lifer Northern Goshawk. I quickly fired off a few photos as the bird soared away from us and out of sight. I couldn’t believe our luck. All the decisions and delays had us at a particular spot when a Northern Goshawk flew over us in just the right place in the sky to cast a shadow within my field of view as I stared at the ground. 

Singleetree Waterfall Utah

The 25-foot falls on Singletree Creek

The trip has been good for birds of prey so far. The day before, I took a detour through some agricultural land on the way to the grocery store three “towns” over. At various spots along the way I saw two Golden Eagles soaring, a Prairie Falcon hunting the fields and eating some prey, and flushed a Swainson’s Hawk from a roadside utility pole. As usual, we’re having good times in Wonderland.

Swainson's Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk Loa, UT

Prairie Falcon Loa, UT

Prairie Falcon on a distant utility pole


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