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When do Hummingbirds Return in Spring?

Updated on March 24, 2016
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Ruby-throat Hummingbird

Yellow Bell is a favorite for hummingbirds. Picture captured during the Rockport Hummingbird Festival.
Yellow Bell is a favorite for hummingbirds. Picture captured during the Rockport Hummingbird Festival. | Source

Along with all the other migrants, the hummingbirds are coming back. The first sign of migration for me comes well before any hummers made it to my yard. Lanny Chambers, a dedicated birdwatcher, builds a mapping of Ruby-throated hummingbird first sightings.

The map is updated through spring to show the hummingbirds as they move farther north across the U.S. and into Canada. She has been building these hand created art charts since 1996 with a network of birders across the country who send her their sighting information. In 2015 she had a record number of spotters totaling 7,891 bird reports. According to this year’s map, some birds arrived in at High Island, Texas area on March 11th.

A help such as the Chambers map or the average arrival date map below are advantages for hummer lovers. However, If you wait for the first appearance of a hummer in your yard, you may be missing out. Hungry birds moving through an area on their way north don’t knock on the door asking for nectar. If they don’t find it right away, they will go elsewhere. If you want to see hummingbirds and make a welcome seasonal home for them, planning is key.

Hummingbird Predicting

Average Arrival Date Map
Average Arrival Date Map | Source

Plants for Hummingbirds

Hanging Fushia, a great attracter
Hanging Fushia, a great attracter | Source
Plumbego clusters bring in Hummers
Plumbego clusters bring in Hummers | Source
Black and Blue Salvia makes for happy Hummingbirds
Black and Blue Salvia makes for happy Hummingbirds | Source
The hotels near Goose Island State Park plant Yellow Bell heavily to attract hummingbirds.
The hotels near Goose Island State Park plant Yellow Bell heavily to attract hummingbirds. | Source

How to Attract Hummingbirds

My first line strategy is to put out flowers. I built a hummingbird and butterfly garden four years ago. It started with an existing Mimosa tree. I then added Plumbego, Mandivilla, Yellow Bell and hanging baskets of Fushia. Today, the Mandivilla has been replaced by a Bleeding Heart Vine and a number of sages and salvia. All of them are Hummingbird attracters.

  • Fushia are a favorite annual hanging basket plant I can get early in the season. They bloom abundantly and hummingbirds love them. Fushia comes in bright pink and purple blossoms or white and pink. They usually die back by June. Sometimes they will grow back later in the season for an encore, but not always. I’ve never had them come back a second season.
  • Plumbego is a bush plant of china blue bloom clusters. Due to lack of space, I have trained mine to climb against a trellis wall. It takes periodic maintenance to keep up, but as you see the effort is well worth it. Despite the general rule about hummingbirds preferring red and orange, I have seen hummers feeding on plumbego every year. Plumbego blooms constantly through the year, taking a rest in winter.
  • Sages and salvias vary in bloom production depending on variety. Some will last from spring to fall and into winter. Some only in early spring and summer. I have had excellent results from black and blue salvia, but they can take over, so I have to keep ready with pruning sheers. My autumn sage is a blush of red blooms that will bloom well into fall. Late arriving hummingbirds have found it a welcome food source along with Bleeding Heart Vine.
  • I loved the Mandeville, but I didn’t have enough sun for it. Yellow bell, Turk’s cap, Carolina Jasmine and others will also attract Hummingbirds. Just know that many of these require full sun for six hours or more. You should check with other gardeners or your local nurseries for the best annuals and perennials for your area.

I also keep six or eight inexpensive hummingbird feeders ready for the birds when they return in the spring. See this article about one specific brand I like. The feeders work just as well for attracting, but require refilling and cleaning often to keep fresh. In the heat of East Texas, even in early spring, this can mean changing the nectar every two to three days. As such I only keep about 1 ½ cups of nectar in each feeder.

What is Nectar?

Nectar is a liquid sugar super food that flowers produce. Commercially bought nectar is good, but includes dies and additives most birders and birding authorities are questioning these days. You don’t have to research these to try to find the best brand. You can make your own from just table sugar and water.

Nectar Recipe

4 to 1 cups of water and sugar. Yep that’s it.

3 to 1 mixtures can be used in the fall when birds are building up for the long trip across the Gulf of Mexico.

Hummingbird Year Gallery

Hummingbird landfall at Anahuac NWR
Hummingbird landfall at Anahuac NWR | Source
Tiny male guarding my yard
Tiny male guarding my yard | Source
Male and his girlfriends sitting down to dinner
Male and his girlfriends sitting down to dinner | Source
Black-chinned Hummingbird nest
Black-chinned Hummingbird nest | Source
Five together filling up for the trip south
Five together filling up for the trip south | Source

A Year Observing Hummingbirds

A year of watching hummingbirds from their arrival to departure is a rewarding occupation. It doesn’t take a lot of time, just a conscious effort to keep a watch on your viewing area to see what the birds are doing while keeping fresh food out for them.

Spring Migration

In early April, I was giving some scouts a birding field trip at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge is located on the coast near High Island, a widely known land fall point during spring migration. It’s a long trip across flying at 25 to 30 miles per hour flapping at 70 times per second over a distance of 600 miles. In the Yucatan, these birds filled up for 7 to 10 days doubling their body weight for the trip. Then in one push when the winds are pushing north, Large groups of passerines, including Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, leave the coast at dusk flying 18 hours in good weather to High Island, Texas and other landfall sites.

My scouts and I found tired and famished Ruby-throats gorging on wildflowers less than a quarter mile from the water front. There was a large patch of primrose they were working over. It was an incredible thing watching these birds getting caked with pollen as they moved from one blossom to the next to regain their strength. When ready, some birds will continue traveling as far north as Canada, another 1700 miles or more. But for some, the trip ends in locations around Texas.

This year, according to the 2016 Chambers map, the Ruby-throats had arrived in Houston by March 16th. My flowers were blooming and ready for the first arrivals.

Setting up Seasonal Homes

Hummingbirds are highly territorial. A male who finds my yard usually stations himself in the Mimosa tree where he can see the whole yard. Any other hummingbird is highly unwelcome. I have watched this tiny guard spend hours chasing interlopers away over and over. I’ve also watched visiting hummers double team the guardsman. One will swoop in and lure the guardsman away while another, usually a female, will grab a quick drink from the feeders.

I have tried spacing out three or four feeders across the whole yard. I even put several feeders in the front yard. The guardsman stationed in back would just add the front yard to his rounds. No matter how many feeders I put out, this is the way in the spring and summer. The attacks may seem vicious, but they rarely involve bodily harm. A Ruby-throat hummingbird’s beak is too soft to use as a sword. The various passes are intended to drive the intruder toward the ground or into a fast retreat.

Nesting Time

I have never seen a hummingbird nest in my yards. But, their nests are tiny and may be up in the mimosa or in a neighbor’s thick brush. Hummingbirds build their nests from 10-40 feet above the ground. I have once seen a hummingbird nest that was built on a branch hanging about 7 feet. It was presumed to have been made by a Black-chinned Hummingbird. See this video of the nest building process by PBS.

I’ve never been able to identify a young fledgling either, so this part of their life cycle remains hidden. We know that the male guardsman’s method of operation is to create a territory and then mate with all females that feed in it. The females in turn will choose a nesting site with good cover and nearby food. She will also become highly territorial. She will chase off other hummingbirds that stray too close to the nest; also other birds, squirrels, snakes and even hawks. Get a picture of that in your mind. Can’t? Then see this video by Bob K that shows a hummingbird trying to drive off a Red-tail Hawk.

Weather can be a friend or foe to the effort. A hummingbird’s tiny nest can be ruined by heavy rains. A female will continue to breed and build new nests over and over until she can successfully raise a brood.

The Fall Call to Fly South

Come fall, adults and the year’s young will start moving south trailing southerly moving fronts. It isn’t as uniform a movement as the spring migration is. I find myself watching for the birds to be hungrier than usual and for more birds to work my yard. When demand rises, I put out more feeders. One year I had 12 to 15 birds feeding in my yard by late August. I had my yard divided into two and three and then five sections as more and more birds showed up for fall feeding. There was a hummer on top of each feeder claiming it as their own. Then the territorial fever seemed to die down, as the birds seemed too hungry to care. At that point any open feeder port was good. By the end of August, I had eight feeders to keep full.

By September the fall flock has dwindled down to just a few birds. By October my feeders are taken down for cleaning and storage. I have seen few late comers in early December. That is when the sages and Bleeding Heart Vine are most needed as they keep blooming into winter. By mid-December all the hummingbirds are back in sunny Mexico and the Yucatan; and I am impatiently watching for the next Chambers spring map.

Happy Birding

© 2016 Sherry Thornburg


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