Camping With the Birds and Hummingbird Banding

Pyrrhuloxia

After five weeks in Tucson we headed to Tombstone Territories RV Park, an hour and a half east and located between the towns of Sierra Vista and Tombstone. This campground was a big change as it was no longer in town but out in the middle of nowhere. Cell service was nonexistent and WiFi was weak. We were staying in this area for the birds. Sierra Vista boasts great birding in the nearby canyons and along the San Pedro River. We also had fun birding at our campsite where we placed a few feeders. Since traveling, we have had great bird encounters at a number of our campsites such as St. Augustine, Florida; Corbin, Kentucky and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but this was the best yet. I counted 16 different species that came regularly to our site. Several of my favorites were the shy pyrrhuloxia also called desert cardinal, the little black throated sparrows, the curved bill thrasher and the cactus wren.

Black-throated Sparrow

The cactus wren turned out to be the most mischievous of the group. At times I saw him running around the outside of our truck, checking it out. One day Mark left the truck door open and when he went back, the cactus wren was inside the truck on the dashboard where he left a little “deposit.” A few days later, I left the truck door open as I was loading things up. When I went back there was the cactus wren on the passenger seat. I wish I would have had my camera with me, but I wasn’t expecting a photo moment.

The mischievous cactus wren

We had another curious visitor in the evenings – javelinas. We were warned the first day we got here not to leave our dish of seed on the ground as the javelinas could get into it. We forgot about it and they came and licked it clean. I could hear them outside but when I grabbed my camera they were walking away and it was too dark anyway to get a decent photo. Another evening I watched as two of them left our campsite and started trotting toward the campground office as if they were on a social call. Mark had a close encounter with them when they walked by him as he was sitting outside. There were walking/hiking trails outside the campground that went into the mesquite scrub and once I attempted to walk one of them. But the scrub was thick and since I was afraid of a close encounter with a javelina I turned back.

Curved-bill thrasher

Our first day birding the area took us to San Pedro House, a birding center that is next to the San Pedro River. We walked along the river scanning the tall cottonwoods for the many birds that live here.

San Pedro River

Although we did see birds, we saw a lot more of something else – tent caterpillars. There were many, many gray sacs hanging from the trees and the caterpillars were dropping from the sacs in the thousands. Every where we looked they were crawling about and we could hear a constant soft patter as they hit the ground. Unfortunately, they were also dropping on us and we were frequently flicking them off our pant legs, shirts, hats and hands. It was really getting to me, but I still wanted to find the birds so we pushed on.

Tent Caterpillars

In spite of this annoyance, we found some birds including colorful ones like the Yellow warbler and the Vermilion flycatcher which is always fun to see with its bright red and black markings.

Vermilion Flycatcher

When we had first arrived to the San Pedro House in the morning, we found out there would be a hummingbird banding at 3:00 in the afternoon. This was something I definitely wanted to see. It turned out to be a very interesting and informative event. I had never been to a bird banding before. This one was organized by the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO) staff. The public is allowed to participate including carrying captured birds to the banding table and holding birds before they are released.

Broad-billed hummingbird at feeder

In order to capture the hummingbirds, traps are set up at the feeders so when they come to drink, a release mechanism is triggered dropping a curtain around them. They are then removed, placed into a small mesh holding cage and carried to the banding table.

Carrying a captured hummer to the banding table

A hummingbird expert did the banding and checking of the birds while two other staff recorded the information. If a bird has not been banded before, it receives one with its own number which is recorded in a database. As can be imagined, the bands are very tiny and have to be put on with special pliers. Some of the birds that were caught had been banded previous years, so information collected is entered with their already assigned number. The birds were weighed, measured, checked for sex, possible age and species. In the photo below, the expert blows a little air from a tube onto the hummingbird to move the feathers and check the condition of its body.

While the expert completed her examination of each bird, she talked about what she found with the audience. She explained that the average life span of a hummingbird was five years, but one was found on this date that was eight years old. I learned that determining the age of a hummingbird can be very difficult and only happens if a bird is caught and banded the first year of life when they have shed their first feathers. While examining one bird, the expert Sheri Williams noted that it had suffered a bloody nose, possibly from hitting a cactus or other sharp plant. Most of the birds caught were Black-chinned hummingbirds like the little guy in the photo below, showing his bright purple throat. A few of the birds were caught twice on this day, one three different times.

We learned that banding the birds provides valuable information as to migration habits, life span, reproductive cycles and health of the bird population and habitats where they live. One question is whether banding is traumatic for the birds. Sheri explained that hummingbirds are fierce and intelligent, not prone to stress when captured like other birds. Because of this and their small size, they are easier to work with. I was able to hold one of the birds before it was released. Each bird was first given a drink of nectar from a feeder so hopefully it would be full and not head right back to the trap. Then the bird was held close so I could get a good look. This little hummer below is a female Black-chinned.

The hummer was then placed in my hand for release. The heartbeat of a hummer is so fast that one cannot feel it. Some hummers stay for a few seconds when let go, but the one in my hand took off like a shot.

It was a great day with the hummers! I will close with a photo of a Western Screech Owl which has taken up residence next to the San Pedro House. It was sitting in a heart shaped knot high up in the huge cottonwood tree.

6 thoughts on “Camping With the Birds and Hummingbird Banding”

  1. We loved these photos. They brought back happy memories. I would love to hold a humming bird.
    Thanks. . We love you!
    Dad & Judy

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! We had such a great birding trip together to Arizona all those years ago. Glad it brought back memories for you! Love you too!

  2. that picture of the owl is the best. Such a happy little camper in his nest. I can’t believe the bird took a dump in your car I would love to see a picture of that lol. Great shots of the hummingbirds, really special animals

    1. Hi Matt, thanks for your comment! Yes, we liked seeing that owl in his cozy, heart shaped nest. I sure wished I had my IPhone with me when the cactus wren was in the car. I have definitely missed some good shots in our travels, but it is hard to always be “photo” ready.

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