Thirteen-year-old Anna LaPorte’s interest in birds started in elementary school and has expanded to her whole family. The LaPorte’s yard is filled with feeders.
“I love all birds,” says LaPorte, a rising eighth-grader at Laing Middle School, “but if I had to pick my favorite, it would be hummingbirds. I love how they fly. I love their little calls. I often hear them before I can see them.”
Her mother, Anissa LaPorte, says Anna’s love of hummingbirds was evidenced by her patience in feeding them by hand, adding, “She stood still for 30 minutes or more to get them to feed by hand.”
The LaPortes are not alone in sharing a passion for these migrating marvels that beat their wings at a remarkable rate of more than 60 times a second.
Danielle Motley, co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Mount Pleasant, says the universal appeal of hummingbirds is shared by people in Charleston, often with some level of frustration.
“Unfortunately, Charleston doesn’t get as many hummingbirds as states out west. So people see photos with tons of hummingbirds on them and they want that, but they can’t quite get that.”
Locally, she says hummingbirds prefer inland areas such as Goose Creek, Summerville and Moncks Corner to areas immediately along the coast. Also, locals may see more hummingbirds during the spring migration north in March and April, then experience a lull in late spring and early summer, and then an uptick August through October.
However, that may be changing with the warming climate and gives avid backyard birders more reason to leave feeders up in the winter.
Motley says many people still think that leaving hummingbird feeders up in the winter is harmful because it disrupts their instinct to migrate, but Motley says that’s not true.
While the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummingbird that breeds and nests in eastern North America and is the most common one in South Carolina, leaving feeders up year-round can yield some fun surprises.
Jennifer McCarthey Tyrrell, research coordinator with The Center for Birds of Prey and local Audubon Society board member, kept a window feeder up at her James Island home last winter and had a male black-chinned hummingbird, which breeds in the Southwest and ranges into Mexico, show up around Christmas and hang around for two months.
Other members of the family “Trochilidae” to show up in South Carolina include rufous and calliope hummingbirds.
Tyrrell says locals can expect to see more overwintering hummingbirds, so feeding them will be helpful.
The only issue with that, however, is that keeping hummingbird feeders filled with fresh sugar water and keeping the feeders clean is a bit more involved than just putting out seed for other birds.
To make sugar water, combine four parts hot water to one part white sugar. (Debate still continues whether the water must be boiled or just be hot.) Experts stress not to use honey, artificial sweeteners or red dye.
The sugar water must be changed regularly, at least twice a week during warm weather and definitely before it gets cloudy. To keep the solution from fermenting, hang feeders in the shade.
To clean feeders, the Audubon Society advises using a solution of one part white vinegar to four parts water. Feeder should be cleaned once a week. Rinse the feeder with warm water three times before refilling with sugar water.
If the feeder has become dirty, add some grains of dry rice to the vinegar solution and shake vigorously. The rice acts as an abrasive.
Planting flowering plants that hummingbirds like can be another way to lure them to your yard.
“Having native flowering plants on your property is the best thing you can do for the hummingbirds,” says Steve Bleezarde, also a member of the local Audubon chapter, aka the “Charleston Natural History Society.”
Among the flowering plants, vines, shrubs and trees that provide much-needed food for hummingbirds are trumpet honeysuckle, bee balms and hummingbird sage. Group similar plants together and choose species with different blooming periods so that there will be a steady supply of flowers nearly year round.
Leave some sticks and small branches on bushes and trees to enable ready perches for hummingbirds. Also, eliminate or minimize the use of pesticides in your yard.
Hummingbirds consume many small insects in addition to nectar, and they as well as butterflies will benefit from a pesticide-free space.
Hummingbird fans now have an app for that passion.
The National Audubon Society launched the app, Hummingbirds at Home (http://www.hummingbirdsathome.org/) to invite birders and nature enthusiasts of all ages to help track the health of hummingbirds.
This “citizen science” project collects data that provides scientists with crucial information about the bird species and the plants that sustain them.
More specifically, the app asks a user to identify “a patch of habitat,” from a backyard, a spot in a park, a playground, or any place hummingbirds may visit that can be surveyed at least once. Data recorded during these surveys can be entered into the Hummingbirds at Home app under “Patch Survey” in the Main Menu.
Surveys can be as short as five minutes or as long as an hour and include selecting the correct hummingbird from a list, the blooming food sources in the patch, and the food source if the hummingbird fed while surveyed.
According to the society, Audubon scientists recently released a study revealing that some species of hummingbirds could lose more than 50 percent of their current ranges by 2080 if climate change continues on its current trajectory. That is due, in part, to flowering bloom earlier because of warming conditions and a growing mismatch between flowering times and the arrival of hummingbirds in their breeding areas.
Citizen scientists recording data on hummingbirds and their food sources will help Audubon’s scientists understand this growing imbalance.