June 2013: Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds
I love how birds tend to be named for a physical attribute or behavior. Woodpeckers peck wood, yellow-headed black birds are black with yellow heads, Brown Creepers area brown and creep up trees – you get the idea. Hummingbirds don’t hum in the way humans do, but this is a great way to describe the sound of their ridiculously fast wings. Calliope is a musical instrument, but I associate the word with an array of colors for some reason (perhaps I’m thinking of Kaleidoscope?). So with its bold pinky/purple sun-ray bib and vibrant greens that seem to change depending on the light, Calliope just seems to fit this magical little creature. Last June I got the chance to spend hours observing and photographing the Calliope Hummingbird and the experience ranks pretty high among my birding inventory.
As mentioned in previous posts, I spend a lot of time in Weaselhead – it is one of my favorite spots in Calgary (maybe even the world). So much so, I actually wrote an article about it a few years ago for the Calgary Journal. Calliope Hummingbirds nest in a meadow area in Weaselhead, and usually arrive in May/June and leave in August. I knew the general area but I hadn’t had any real luck in seeing them there – just a quick glimpse of one land on the top of a spruce tree a couple of years ago. This meadow area happens to be on my regular route through Weaselhead, so I got into the habit of keeping my eyes peeled for the tiny bird when passing through. One beautiful June evening, I caught a glimpse of one on the tip of a bare branch. I wandered in the narrow path a bit to try to get closer, but the hummingbird flew off. However, I had heard hummingbirds are very territorial, so they often come back to the same perch. I tucked myself in behind a bush and waited…
The Calliope returned a short time later and I got some great views, decent shots and became addicted to finding hummingbirds. I returned to this spot many times throughout June and had great success – sometimes. Other times I waited for an hour or more in the mosquito infested bush and the Calliope never appeared. The images I managed to capture are worth getting eaten alive. Hummingbirds are difficult to photograph. They move so fast in flight that you can barely see them. They flit from place to place then buzz away. Capturing in-flight shots are possible, but generally require a feeder or flowers/bushes for the bird to hover at while feeding for a few seconds. It’s virtually impossible to follow their flight patterns with a lens otherwise. When they do land they are pretty active even at rest, and will often flare their wings/tail feathers, groom and stick their tiny hollow tongues in and out.
The Rufous Hummingbird is also found in Weaselhead, but a good hike from the Calliope spot, so I could usually only check one spot per trip. I did see the Weaselhead Rufous a couple of times as well, but it was far off and barely identifiable in the picture. However, there is a fantastic Rufous spot on the Highwood Pass in Kananaskis, west of Calgary. I did a drive of the Highwood on the day it opened – June 15th, and the Rufous spot did not disappoint. The Highwood House is a little store that has feeders in the summer that have been attracting Hummingbirds (and photographers) for years. It’s garnered quite the reputation as a Hummingbird hot spot. They get other species as well, but I’ve only seen the Rufous at the store. There were a few Rufous Hummingbirds on the move when I arrived the morning of June 15, and I had the pleasure of watching and photographing them for a good hour. Unfortunately, the Alberta Floods shut down the Highwood Pass for the rest of the summer, so I didn’t get a chance to go back. Hopefully the Rufous and others will return as usual next year.
There are four types of Hummingbirds in Alberta: Calliope, Rufous, Ruby-throated and Black-chinned. I believe Annas Hummingbirds are seen here rarely as well, but not considered an Alberta species at this time . I have seen all but the Black-chinned, but my capture of the Ruby-throated was not good enough to make this post. I’ve had the most experience observing the Calliope. My proximity to and love of Weaselhead fed my Hummingbird addiction for at least a couple of months. The males have the colorful pink bibs and the females have green spots under their chins. As mentioned above, they are very territorial, as most hummingbirds are – especially the males. I can only describe their call as a high-pitched clicking. I heard it a few times when I was in the bush last summer, usually when there was more then one male in the area defending its territory. Otherwise, the only sound I remember is the soft hum..
An extra for this post: I also had a chance to photograph some hummingbirds when I was in Peru.
That’s it for now! Watch for my next post: July 2013: Moose, moose and more moose…