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Hummingbirds a delight for human eyes

September 8, 2012
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

The RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS (Archilochus colubris) is a tiny creature. We humans are amazed that such a little package of feathers, muscles and bone can be put together like this. We enjoy this gift from nature, a beautiful critter that flits around flower beds during its relentless search for nectar and insects.

At this scribe's hummingbird feeder, a territorial "battle" is now on-going as several hummingbirds attempt to sip its sugar water treats. And it is during these escapades of competing hummers that the action gets fast. Hummers seem to me to be Mother Nature's successful attempt to create a helicopter. Hummingbirds are among the few birds capable of inspiring fascination among birders and non-birders alike. Their astounding powers of flight and fearless nature have captured the imaginations of people around the world. Hummingbirds can truly hover. Other birds may temporarily stay in one place with careful wing beats, but only hummingbirds can hover almost indefinitely. They can also fly backwards, straight up and down and side to side.

Hummingbirds have iridescent colors to its feathers, a color pattern that seems to come and go depending upon how sunlight strikes the bird. A bit of investigation tells us that those colors are the result of the common pigment melanin, which normally produces reflections of blacks, grays and browns. In hummingbirds, these pigments occur in flattened platelets that have tiny air bubbles within. Light striking these various platelets works like a prism, to break white light into various colors and reflecting those to the outside. The platelets are so tightly packed on some feathers, that light reflections can be reinforced by some wavelengths and canceled out on others. This gives one the impression that the bird can change how colorful it wants to be at any given time. There is no doubt that male hummingbirds use this adaptation to look good for the girls.

Article Photos

Two Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds give each other a close encounter checkout as they fluttered about a nearby sugar water feeder. This scribe considers himself fortunate to have the tripod mounted camera and 300mm lens in the right place at the right time to obtain this photo. I can guarantee you this was not a pre-planned photo. It just happened and my lens caught the action. Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds usually appear in Iowa each spring in southeast counties by April 21 and northwest Iowa by May 1. The fall migration, currently in progress, will see most hummers leave Iowa by Oct. 1.

I'll leave you with this last factoid to ponder. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds may have about 3 grams of fat on their bodies normally.That fat content is increased to 6 grams, in effect a full tank of gas, prior the big water journey they must take. Hummingbirds will leave the shores of the Gulf coast this fall and make a nonstop journey across 1,000 miles of open sea water of the Gulf of Mexico to Central America. That is an amazing accomplishment. Enjoy your own encounters with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds this fall.


September is a month when lots of migrating birds big and small are working their way south. The drive to accomplish long range flights is ages old biology that the birds are powerless to resist. They will make the journey. Look for departing species in mid-September such as Common Terns, Northern Crested Flycatchers, Rough-winged Swallows, Bank Swallows, Cliff Swallows and Purple Martins. In addition, lots of warblers of many species will be making the big push through Iowa. Scarlet Tanagers normally leave Iowa by Sept. 15, Rose Breasted Grosbeaks by Sept. 21 and Indigo Buntings by Sept. 27. There are many more birds to follow in early to late October.


GOOD NEWS for conservation is that numbers are up for people hunting. And more hunters and fishermen ultimately means more funding for long term conservation programs. The trend line for hunter numbers had been going down but a resurgence has been documented according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. A report from 2011's National Survey of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife-Associated Recreation shows 13.7 million people, or 6 percent of the U.S. population age 16 and older, went hunting last year. That is a 9 percent increase over 2006, reversing a previous downward trend.

Hunters spent $34 billion last year on equipment, licenses, trips and other items to support hunting activities. A breakdown on the numbers shows sportsmen and women spent $10.4 billion on trip related expenses, another $14 billion on guns, ammo and archery gear, plus camping gear or even vehicles specific for hunting purposes, and $9.6 billion on licenses, land leases or ownership and required conservation related stamps/fees. "The more hunters spend on firearms, ammunition, bows, arrows and licenses and permits, the more money is generated to provide the necessary funding for successful science-based wildlife management across the United States," said David Allen, President and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. In short, hunting is conservation.

Highlights from the report show 13.7 million hunters in 2011 compared to 12.5 million in 2006. Hunters spend an average of 21 days afield. Youth ages 6 to 15 that hunted in 2011 was 1.8 million kids. Big game hunting attracted 11.6 million people. Hunting related expenses increased 30 percent since 2006. The overall population of hunters increased by more than 5 percent since 2001. Total hunter expenditures increased 27 percent since 2001. Expenditures by hunters, anglers and wildlife recreationists were $145 billion or 1 percent of the gross domestic product. These are impressive facts that speak well for the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.


A SPORTING CLAYS shoot is coming up soon, in fact it is scheduled for Oct. 7, at the Marshall County Izaak Walton League. What is neat about this event is that it is also a fundraiser for Iowa River Hospice. The sporting clay course will be in place for shooters to ply their skills on fast moving clay targets launched into the air. Registration begins at 8 a.m. and continues until 2 p.m. Team shooter or individual shooters are welcome. There will be three courses: 10 stations and 100 birds for $35; or 5 stands and 25 birds for $10; and lastly a novelty shoot. Food on site will be provided by Smokin G's. There will also be a bake sale on site in the Ikes club house.

The Ikes are also holding their Membership Appreciation Dinner on Sept. 12, a Wednesday, at 6:30 pm. All the food and drinks will be provided by the Ikes. Members may bring a dessert....and a big appetite. The evening program will be a presentation by Rhonda Miller of Iowa River Hospice. She will highlight programming needs of IRH and how the Ikes activities can assist with this important community need. Visit the Marshall County Ikes on Facebook to learn more.


An ending note on our local IOWA RIVER history. In 1977, also a drought year, a lack of spring runoff hardly made a dent in the flow all the way through the year until early August. Then a series of rains came and the river stage spiked at 15.92 feet by mid-month. But due to the dryness, the river soon settled back to gauge reading of 9 to 10 feet.

In 1988, another drought year, Corps of Engineer data shows a more typical higher flow rate but still well below flooding conditions until mid April. From that point in time onward for the rest of the year, the water flow in the river went down, down, down. It seemed to settle at a stage of between 7 and 8 feet. In real terms this was so low one could walk across the river and get only your ankles wet. The lowest gauge recording that year was 7.01 feet ... a river that was barely moving at all.

Now in 2012, a similar situation is manifesting itself on the landscape. The river indicates this by the number of exposed sand bars with green weedy growth emerging from them. This does not normally happen. Water flow is slow, under 50 cubic feet per second. If we take a tip from the Iowa native mammal, the Beaver, he and his clan may try to build dams across the main channel of the river. It is as if this animal knows when to try to store up water. Beaver dams on smaller tributary creeks to the Iowa River do have lots of dams on them now.

One thing we humans must remember: the weather will change. In a few years time, we will be witness to high water and floods. And a few years after that, the natural weather cycles may go to the dry side of the equation again. We just have to adapt.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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