Hummingbirds: Summer’s Flying Jewels

Summer wildflowers bring tiny, colorful seasonal travelers to feed on their sweet nectar.

Hummingbirds

The Flying Jewels of Summit County

There are always cool things to see in the mountains, with sun and colors and natural beauty dancing all around. On any day just walk out the door into a gorgeous sunrise, or look up and catch a Bald Eagle soaring above. Look a little deeper and the smaller beauties emerge; hundreds of varieties of wildflowers that flourish, even above treeline, and the tiny wonders that come with them, little seasonal hummingbirds.

Perched Broad-Tailed Hummingbird

The male broad-tailed hummingbird with his brilliant red gorget.

Anyone can take a picture of lunch, but you get a hummingbird in motion? Perfect focus takes a frame speed of 1/1000 or 2/1000 of a second, timing, and perfect light. Even catching a perched one takes perfect timing and a camera on the ready. Even with good lighting catching a hummingbird with all the colors you see can be nearly impossible.

If you stay in a house or condo in the summer, you might notice a feeder outside, filled with sugar water. Locals like to set up feeders and flower arrangements to help fuel these feisty travelers. They can travel long distances in a day, and they also scoop up mosquitos and other small bugs. Watching them is fun, even as they chase other birds away from the feeder. They are talented aerialists, sometimes flying at high speeds in any direction. Anyone can get a food pic for Instagram, but a good picture of a hummingbird will really impress. Their erratic, darting travels and special luminosity make catching them hard – and catching them in the right light nearly impossible.

Avalanche Lily

Summer is wildflower season all over Colorado.

As the snow is pushed back by warmer temperatures, bright yellow blooms known as glacier or “avalanche” lilies appear, and so do broad-tailed hummingbirds. The only hummer that builds nests in Summit, the males perform an aerial show and make a high-pitched trilling sound with their wings to attract mates. Males have a striking appearance, with long tails, emerald green crowns, and ruby-red “gorgets”, or throat patches. No hummingbirds form pairs, and the female protects her nest and raises her young as the male searches for new mates and protects his territory.

Broad-tailed hummingbirds. See their feather iridescence in action.

Hummingbirds appear to shimmer and change color as light hits their feathers in a phenomenon called iridescence, the same effect that gives bubbles, oil slicks, and the inside of some seashells their rainbow effect. Structures called melanosomes, so tiny that 100 million of them can be inside of a single feather, are responsible. Some other birds, like mallard ducks, also have feathers with melanosomes, but the structures are shaped differently, lending a more dramatic effect to the hummingbird feathers. Even more fascinating, the coloration may be related to the birds’ ability to see more colors than humans. Known as “tetrachromacy”, the birds can detect a fourth dimension of color (humans see three).

The hyper-agressive rufous hummingbird.

The Rufous Hummingbird is the second type you can see here in Summit, and you can also hear the trilling sound of his wings when he’s around. Aggressive and territorial, these little hummers have the longest migration of the three. The word “rufous” means reddish-brown or rust-colored, and males are almost entirely orange or reddish-brown with white chests. The gorget on these birds can appear green, gold, or red depending on the light. They show up in July and head south to chase food sometime in September.

The Rufous Hummingbird

Perched Rufous Hummingbird

The Calliope Hummingbird, the smallest bird found naturally north of Mexico, also spends summers here in the mountains, appearing around July and heading south before the snow closes in.  Females produce two eggs that hatch in about 15 days, and babies can fly about 20 days after hatching. Birds are glossy green on the back and crown with white underparts, and the males have wine red streaks on their gorgets. Males are also capable of producing a buzzing sound with their feathers to attract mates. Named for the Greek muse of poetry, this bird is shyer and quieter than the other two species and is easily chased away.

Perched Calliope Hummingbird

The Calliope Hummingbird is the smallest bird native to North America.

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