I’ve spent much of 2013 crisscrossing the United States, trying to see as many birds of conservation concern as possible in what I’m calling my “Conservation Big Year.” On my travels to the Southwest in July, I brought a hummingbird feeder to set up in places where feeding wildlife isn’t prohibited.
Established feeding stations, such as the one I enjoyed at Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, provide visitors with splendid opportunities to see hummingbirds. Setting out an isolated feeder almost never produces instant results (except, rarely, during migration). Most resident hummingbirds know where the reliable food sources are; they discover new feeders only when they happen to fly near one. A significant number of adults have encountered a feeder somewhere in their lives. If one of them does wander near a feeder, it’s likely to investigate. Other birds may then notice the first hummingbird’s sounds and movements and discover the feeder, too.
My feeder was designed to stick to windows, but the glass on my car slanted so steeply that the sugar water pooled on the side away from the feeding ports and leaked onto my car. So I set the feeder on rocks, picnic tables, and other flat surfaces instead. Before hiking in Water Canyon near Socorro, New Mexico, I set it on the concrete parking block in front of my car’s bumper. When I returned hours later, a Broad-tailed Hummingbird was visiting (above) — the first I’d seen all year. In some places, the feeder didn’t attract any hummingbirds; in others, it brought in as many as three within a few hours.
Many more hummingbird species are found in the Southwest than where I live in the Upper Midwest, so a hummingbird feeder is a natural choice for me to take there. I don’t bring other kinds of feeders when traveling because it seems too risky where bears, raccoons, or skunks could be lured to picnic areas and campgrounds. Even small rodents can be dangerous where hanta virus, bubonic plague, or other diseases are present. Northerners who spend their winters in southern states often set up feeding stations in their yard or RV park, but seasonal residents are more familiar with local feeder issues than someone just passing through.
Even though I don’t bring my own feeders on most trips, I’m ever on the lookout for established feeding stations. This year I saw Painted Buntings at Merritt Island in Florida, a Crimson-collared Grosbeak at Audubon’s Sabal Palm Sanctuary in Texas, and Evening Grosbeaks at Hartwick Pines in Michigan, all at feeders near visitor centers. I left a donation at each location. In some places, the most responsible way to attract birds is to leave it to the pros.
Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appears in every issue of BirdWatching magazine. This article appeared in the December 2013 issue. Laura is a co-author of National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America and the author of Laura’s Birding Blog. On the blog Laura’s Conservation Big Year, she describes her attempt to find and photograph species of conservation concern.
Other columns by Laura Erickson: