September brings the Harvest Moon

Barbara Hootman

Now is the time of the Harvest Moon (Sept. 16) which is as fall as pumpkins. The fall equinox, marking the beginning of fall on the calendar, doesn’t happen for another six days (Sept. 22).

This young female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is resting.
The female Ruby-throated hummingbird will leave for winter grounds in Central America soon, and then the juveniles will follow.

The Harvest Moon is in no hurry arriving early and staying late in the September sky.

Back in our ancestors’ time the Harvest Moon gave the farmers enough light to gather crops. The farmer could have supper, milk the cows and return to the fields and have enough light to continue working in the fields. There is still harvesting to be done, but most of it centers around the kitchen and garden now. The last big yields from the garden are maturing rapidly.

The female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (the only breeding hummingbird In eastern America) are beginning their annual migration.  The fall migration is not pushed by breeding and nesting waiting for them.  It is estimated that the fall hummingbird migration includes some 7 million Ruby-throated hummingbirds. Both fall and spring migrations require a tremendous amount of energy from the tiny birds.

Hummingbird feeders may sit unused for several days at a time in the fall, and then suddenly there will be a burst of activity.  More “hummers” are moving through the Valley from northern states.  A maintained feeder does not encourage the birds to stay longer.  It helps them with an energy boost to continue their journey.

The Valley male hummingbirds that spent the summer sipping nectar left by mid-August.  You will probably attract a second wave of migrating birds which will include females and juveniles.  Although they move through the area at the same time, they don’t migrate together.  Hummingbirds do not migrate in flocks, but rather each bird travels its path alone.

Hummingbirds participate in one of the biggest eating binges of the season during their southern migration. It takes a lot of refueling to make it from hundreds to thousands of miles.  They must maintain a high calorie diet to sustain flight during migration.

Bird banding studies show that most hummingbirds visiting feeders during late migration are completely replaced by a new wave of migrating hummingbirds within 24 hours. Keep the feeder full.

As the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds reach the southern US, they rest and refuel again before they cross the Gulf of Mexico to reach Mexico and then travel into Central America.  There have been sightings from oil rigs and boats reporting exhausted hummingbirds landing and resting before taking off again to complete the crossing.

Before hummingbirds migrate they often double their weight from a light 3 grams to over 6 grams.    They use the reserve fat to see them through migration. They have a heartbeat of about 1,200 beats per minute, with wings buzzing at 53 times a second. These birds consume at least 50 percent of their body weight in nectar each day.  During migration they have no idea where their next meal is coming from.

Once the hummingbirds reach their winter grounds in South America, they spend most of their time preparing for the return trip back to their breeding and nesting grounds.  In November, they begin to molt which is another stressful time for their tiny bodies.  They literally gorge themselves on nectar and insects. The juveniles know exactly where to go and how to get there although they have never made the trip previously.

Some of the migratory hummingbirds don’t make the Gulf crossing and remain in the southern part of the US for the winter.  There are those that choose to remain on the North Carolina’s Outer Banks. These birds can survive chilly weather but have a hard time surviving when the temperature reaches the mid-20s.

In January, the hummingbirds are still growing new feathers.  They feed heavily visiting dozens of plants daily preparing their tiny bodies to head back to the States in late February.  The earliest departures north come in late February from Central America into Mexico and then across the Gulf of Mexico into southern US.  The biggest migration north comes in March, and the hummingbirds arrive in the Valley by April 15.

To make sure you don’t miss any hummingbirds that need a sip of nectar, leave your feeders up until Halloween, then take them down, clean and store them.

There is evidence that fewer Ruby-throated Hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico in the fall choosing to follow the Texas coast route into Mexico.  The hurricane season may be a factor.

Hummingbirds require more energy to live than any other warm blooded animal.

Hummingbirds have a large brain and heart in proportion to their size.

Keep out plenty of water for bathing and drinking.  Take in the bird feeders by late afternoon.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.