Friday, September 11, 2015

Episode 281 (9-14-15): Hummingbirds Brave the Gulf of Mexico Before and After Brightening, Buzzing, and Breeding in Summertime Virginia

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (3:11)

Transcript of audio, notes on the audio, photos, and additional information follow below.

All Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 9-11-15.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of September 14, 2015.

This week, we feature a fast- and far-flying mystery sound.  Have a listen for about 15 seconds, and see if you can guess what small but energetic bird makes these sounds.  And here’s a hint: in this case, just hum if you DO know the words.

SOUNDS  - 16 sec

If you guessed a hummingbird, you’re right!  Those were calls and wingbeat sounds from the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the only hummingbird species—out of about 15 species in North America—that breeds in eastern North America and is commonly found in Virginia.  Hummingbirds get their name from their rapid up-and-down wing beats—over 50 per second—that produce a humming or buzzing sound and enable the birds to hover and to fly in quick darts forward and backward.  Hummingbirds are the smallest North American birds; adult Ruby-throats, for example, are about three inches long and weigh about three grams, or about one-tenth of an ounce.  Despite this small size, twice every year many Ruby-throats take on some really BIG water: about 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico during spring and fall migrations, with some birds making the crossing in one flight.  Ruby-throats feed on flower nectar, insects, and sometimes tree sap, and they may double their body mass with energy-rich fats prior to their long over-water migrations.  Gram for gram, Ruby-throats and other hummingbirds are some of nature's most efficient flying powerhouses.
Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use this week’s sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.  And we close with a few seconds of another hummingbird recording, this time from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

SOUND - ~ 7 sec

For more Virginia water sounds, music, and information, visit us online at, or call us at (540) 231-5463.  Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The first sounds of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird were taken from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs—Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott, whose work is available online at and the “Music of Nature” Web site,

The closing hummingbird sounds were taken from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Digital Library (, accessed at

Ruby-throated hummingbird showing male’s bright red throat (upper photo) and individual feeding on Cardinal Flower (lower photo).  Photos made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library, accessed online at

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on Trumpet Creeper flower (upper photo) and at a commercial feeder (lower photo).  Photos by Robert Abraham of Christiansburg, Va., used with permission.


One other species, the Rufous Hummingbird, has been seen occasionally in some Virginia counties, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) (see “Fish and Wildlife Information Service” Web site, taxonomy chapter for Rufous Hummingbird, online at

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are a treat to see in flight, but it’s fairly uncommon to spot their tiny nests, which they place in trees several feet above ground.  Here’s an interesting description of these birds’ nests, from the VDGIF’s Fish and Wildlife Information Service entry on the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (“Life History”), online at “[The] nest is an exquisite cup less than 2 inches across of felted plants ferns or dandelion seed down; covered with moss and lichens and fastened with spider webs; lined with layers of down....”


Used in Audio

Bjorn Carey, “Hummingbirds vs. helicopters: Stanford engineers compare flight dynamics,” Stanford [University] News, July 30, 2014, online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online,” online at (subscription required).

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland (VDGIF)/Fish and Wildlife Information Service, “Ruby-throated Hummingbird,” online at

Joel C. Welty, The Life of Birds [on fat stores for migration, p. 485; large keel and up/down strokes for hovering, p. 62].

For More Information about Hummingbirds

Carol Heiser, “Hummingbird ‘Tidbits,’ Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, online at

The Hummingbird Society, non-profit organization headquartered in Arizona, online at

National Geographic Society, “Hummingbirds,” 2 min./10 sec. video, online at

The Virginia Society of Ornithology is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.  The Society’s Web site is

E-bird Web site at, maintained by the Cornell Lab and the Audubon Society.  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.


The following episodes also focus on bird migration or seasonal habitat patterns:
Fall migratory birds | EP183 – 10/14/13
Summer birds | EP118 – 7/9/12
Winter birds | EP150 – 2/25/13

More episodes on birds are listed in the “Birds” category at the Index link,


This episode may help with the following Virginia’s 2010 Science Standards of Learning (SOLs):

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 - Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
1.5 - animals’ basic needs and distinguishing characteristics.
2.4 - life cycles.
3.4 - behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 - living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.5 - food webs.
3.6 - ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
5.5 - organism features and classification.

Life Science Course
LS. 4 - organisms’ features and classification.
LS.6 - ecosystem interactions, including cycles and energy flow.
LS.8 - community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS.9 - adaptations for particular ecosystems’ biotic and abiotic factors.

Biology Course
BIO.8 - dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at