Dec 18

Migration of the Rufous Hummingbird

The marsh at Stillwater Wildlife area in Western Washington.

A flash of reddish-orange zipped by and dashed into the bushes at the trail’s edge. A dozen birders had come to Stillwater Wildlife Area on a beautiful early May morning. Red-winged Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, and Black-capped Chickadees sang all around, but our concentration was on this flitting glimpse.

“Look, there it’s sitting on top of that branch,” Stewart pointed through a small opening, “a male Rufous Hummingbird.”

The motionless bird stared across the marsh; it then looked one way and the other, totally ignoring our goggling eyes. Quickly, two spotting scopes focused on the male who was searching for possible intruders.

“That’s my first Rufous of the year,” Gordie said. They had only just arrived in the Puget Sound basin, and this one had chosen Stillwater for its breeding territory. He was busy defending this space as well as looking for a prospective mate.

The range of the Rufous Hummingbird determined by modeling eBird data. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Recently, Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology has started to use data collected by birders to understand the distribution and movement patterns of birds throughout the year. The eBird program has been running for more than a decade and now covers the entire globe. Sufficient data have been recorded in North America to allow some fascinating analyses for a few species.

Rufous Hummingbirds take a clockwise migration path on their annual trek. In the spring, they head north from Mexico along the western side of Mexico, through California, and into their breeding range. In the summer and fall, they move south through the Rocky Mountains into Texas and southern Mexico. The distribution map Cornell has produced now provides a finer resolution understanding of this species range.

Also, Cornell created an animation of this hummingbird’s distribution throughout the year. You can watch these little birds begin their northward travels, settle in for breeding, and then head back south. Imagine, a bird whose weight is only a little heavier than a half teaspoon of table salt can do this monumental loop.


Keep birding and keep entering your sightings into eBird. We have much to learn about the natural world and its fascinating inhabitants.


A version of this essay appeared in WOS Newsletter 177: http://wos.org/documents/wosnws/wosnews177.pdf


Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, M. Iliff, and S. Kelling. eBird Status and Trends. Version: . https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.


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