April 2024
Bird of the Month
Ryan Crouse

Central Arizona’s Hummingbirds

As I write this we are heading into one of my favorite times of the year: the weather is slowly shaking off the final grip of winter, our year-round resident birds are beginning to sing, and Major League Spring Training is well underway.

Today I saw my first bona fide spring migrant, a lone turkey vulture soaring over the shop. Pollinators are beginning to appear from their winter dormancy as well. As I coached Little League baseball last night, a small bat (the animal type) was taking advantage of the stadium lighting in pursuit of the recently aroused white-lined sphinx moths in attendance.

The diminutive hummingbirds, one group of our more beloved pollinators, are rapidly ramping up their population to take advantage of our generously long breeding season. Male Anna’s hummingbirds are first to arrive. We have a small resident population that tough it out during our surprisingly harsh winters. They possess certain traits that help them survive and find food when others cannot. In the last couple weeks, though, the population has seen a dramatic spike, adding birds that have wintered in the more temperate southern half of our state. You can now find them performing their unique flight display for the newly arriving females. This medium-sized, stout and short-billed species is our most abundant hummingbird no matter the time of year.

Next to arrive is the lankier black-chinned hummingbird. At the shop we started receiving our first reports at the end of February, and the bulk of them started arriving in the second half of March. While the Anna’s tend to sit in a somewhat hunched position, the black-chinned tend to stretch out and display a much longer neck. Belying their longer appearance, they are about 25% lighter than the Anna’s, which explains their more slender physique. Also noteworthy is their longer, slightly drooped beak and royal purple gorget. They persist in our region through September, but by the last weeks of October are well into Mexico for their winter holiday. Black-chins tend to have a tranquil demeanor and are rarely seen harassing other birds at the feeder.

Accompanying the early sightings of black-chins, we also saw scattered reports of the contrasting, feisty rufous hummingbird. Their spring migration generally takes them up the California coast, where they can take advantage of blooming wildflowers. We always get notable spillover into our region, although it doesn’t last long. They are not an Arizona breeder, instead preferring the coastal Pacific Northwest. They range throughout much of Oregon and then north into southern Alaska. This coppery species is shorter than the Anna’s and weighs about the same as the black-chinned. What it lacks in size it more than makes up for in attitude. They are known for defending feeders with annoying persistence, chasing off anything that dares to imbibe at their well of choice.

These two pictures of the same Anna’s hummingbird were taken seconds apart, showing how the angle of light can dramatically alter a hummer’s appearance.

For anyone wanting to get a great look at the rufous, late summer is your time. As they make their way south they migrate directly through Arizona, timing it perfectly with the monsoon-fueled wildflower explosion. They will be a common visitor at your feeders during this time, and if their belligerence rubs you the wrong way, consider this: they are only halfway through their 4,000-mile trip home, which takes them from Oaxaca to Anchorage. You’d be hungry and defensive too! So, help them refuel and they’ll be on their way quickly.

In the higher-elevation areas of Prescott we enjoy another breeder, the broad-tailed hummingbird. During migration the distinct insect-like trill of special feathers on their wings can be heard streaking through the Prescott sky. By April, though, they are happily situated above 6,500 feet or so, and can be found breeding as high as 10,500 feet. Their unique sound echoes through the cool mountain canyons and Douglas firs. Size-wise they are between an Anna’s and a rufous, and have a stubby shape similar to both. They are more docile, like the black-chinned, and display a beautiful rose-colored gorget. The females are easily confused with rufous females, since they too have a bit of cinnamon on their flanks. Look for them at feeders during the migratory bookends of summer.

Those four species are the core of our local hummingbird population, which crescendos in size during the transition weeks between August and September. Any sighting beyond those four is noteworthy or downright rare. Be on the lookout for Costa’s, calliope and broad-billed hummingbirds though, as they do show up from time to time. Rivoli’s are also possible and we even had an astoundingly rare blue-throated mountaingem at a local feeder last year, proving that anything is possible!

This article is far from a comprehensive guide to identification, so I encourage you to study the differences as they patrol your backyard feeders. With time and persistence you can start to pick out the often subtle variations between species. Or simply enjoy the hummingbirds!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.