Thursday, September 13, 2007
Thousands turn out to see hummingbirds
By SUE WATSON
Governor Haley Barbour attended Audubon Under The Stars and helped officially open the Hummingbird Migration Celebration Thursday of last week with the release of a banded bird.
This year’s celebration drew over 8,000 visitors, matching or exceeding last year’s attendance at the four-day event held at Strawberry Plains Audubon Center.
About 240 birds were banded, according to Madge Lindsay, executive director of the Mississippi Audubon Society.
Mississippi’s Bob Bowen, board chairman of the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, introduced Barbour.
“It is an honor to introduce one of Mississippi’s most influential leaders, Gov. Haley Barbour, who is no stranger to Audubon,” he said. “He has given his personal endorsement of the master planning grant for the center at Moss Point and to the Native Plants Cooperative grant at Strawberry Plains and for an Appalachian Regional Commission grant to build an entrance at Strawberry Plains.”
Strawberry Plains Audubon in Holly Springs serves as the headquarters for Audubon Mississippi.
Bowen cited Barbour’s recognized role in leading recovery efforts following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
“The governor received national recognition for his leadership of our state in post-Katrina recovery, particularly on the Gulf Coast,” Bowen said. “As the governor has said, ‘adversity doesn’t reveal character, it builds character.’ ”
Mississippi’s first lady, Marsha Barbour, was slated to release this year’s hummingbird again, but was not able to attend due to an illness in the family, the governor said.
So he assumed the duties for his wife, by releasing a tiny bird which lingered in his hand for a long while. Barbour was deeply touched by the heartbeat and the soft feathers of this tiny creature.
“I saw the picture of my wife holding the hummingbird and thought it was a trick of photography,” he said.
It was the governor’s first time to ever touch a hummingbird and feel its rapid heartbeat of several hundred beats per minute when resting and about 1,200 beats per minute in flight.
“We’re coming back next year, whether I’m governor or not,” he said at a gathering of over 100 under the tent Thursday night. “What’s not to love? It’s a great thing.”
In attendance was Larry Jarrod, director of the Natural Resources Initiative For Mississippi, who sat on the front row when the governor addressed guests.
“We grew up bird shooting, not bird watching,” Barbour quipped. “But when you see this, you realize the bird watching industry is a tens of million dollars industry. Audubon Society recognizes the value of it and the value of educating our children.
“The other side of this is economic development and the tourism side. The hospitality industry employs more people world-wide than any other industry.”
Barbour said the industry provides entry level jobs which are important to Mississippians and are very entrepreneurial.
“A lot of people confuse this (the hospitality industry) with casinos, but I see it as good for our economy and job creating,” he said. “What a treat for me. Things like this (Hummingbird Migration Celebration) require volunteers and donors. Everybody can write a check, and this is worth writing a check for.”
Lindsay introduced Don McKee, newly nominated to the board of directors of the National Audubon Society to represent the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
McKee served with Audubon Chapters on the Gulf Coast and is the first Mississippian to serve in this important position, Lindsay said.
Lindsay introduced Bob Sargent whom she called “the gentle giant, who knows so much about these tiny birds than anybody I know.”
Sargent returns to the celebration every year with other members of the Hummer Bird Study Group to band the tiny migratory birds.
Now retired, Bob and Martha Sargent have turned their energies to studying birds of migration - particularly the smaller variety.
“It’s something we really love and a non-paying job,” Sargent said. “The hummingbirds are all heading to Southern Mexico and Central America for the winter.
Bird banding is a useful way to study the longevity and direction of travel of migratory birds, he said. And it helps unravel the life habits of the bird.
The Hummer Bird Study Group helps raise the awareness of the need to plant nectar producing flowers and to put out sugar-water feeders to help build the population of hummingbirds back up. A decade or so ago, the populations were on the decline.
Special tiny, light-weight bands are used for the delicate hummingbird, so light that it takes 5,500 bands to weigh an ounce. The band has one letter and five numbers on it.
The hummingbird population was diminishing until the Audubon Society and people like the Sargents took an interest in helping increase their populations through education and public banding programs like Audubon’s. The correct ratio for a feeder is four parts water to one part sugar. Nothing else, Sargent said.
Strawberry Plains Audubon is an ideal place for the Hummer Bird Study Group to gather and both band and educate.
When feeders and nectar bearing flowers are available hummingbirds return to them during the spring migration and again on their way back south in the fall.
The hummingbirds at Strawberry Plains have already begun fall migration and require lots of natural nectars, insects, and other foods to build up a sufficient storage of subcutaneous fat for their 500-mile flight across the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Sargent asks people who see a hummingbird after November 15 at their sugar-water feeder to call him. Contact Strawberry Plains Audubon at 662-252-1155 and ask them for Sargent’s number or to relay the message.
Top flight ranges between 25 to 35 miles per hour for the Ruby-throated hummingbird. But hummingbirds have super-quick reflexes allowing them to hover and fly in the blink of an eye.
The hummingbird has to have enough stored fat to fly non-stop for 18-24 hours over the Gulf of Mexico after leaving land. Wind currents help, provided they are in the right direction.
Sargent said about 80 percent of all hummers that hatch this year will die by the time they would be one year old. But those that live are really tough and live longer, some on record as old as eight years old, according to the study groups records.
Mother Nature is not kind to the birds that get tired, Sargent added. But those that do survive the trip across the Gulf of Mexico have the genetic makeup to survive the long flights over and again, he said.
The birds make two migrations a year, one south in the fall and one north in the spring.
And hummingbirds do not make the long migration alone, but come into the United States embedded in huge flocks containing many species.
They fly as low as 3,000 feet and as high as 9,000 feet during migration, he said. The large flocks of migrating birds can be seen on doppler radar and are pointed out by television weather casters.
Many millions of birds migrate out together every night headed to Southern Mexico and Central America and embedded in these flights are millions of hummers, he said.
Banded birds make up a tiny fraction of the total hummer population. Sargent said he bands about 800 of them a year and catches about 175 in their own yard that were banded in previous years.
The migrating birds tend to return at the same time or nearly the same day every year, he said.
The annual Hummingbird Migration Celebration at Strawberry Plains in Holly Springs is the main annual fund-raiser for Mississippi Audubon and one of the largest Audubon-sponsored festivals in the United States. It is set to coincide with the Ruby-throated hummingbird’s southward migration.
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