Last year on April 24, I wrote that ruby-throated hummingbirds were back early. This year they are setting new records for returning early. One of my favorite websites, www.hummingbirds.net (maintained by Lanny Chambers), follows hummers' northward journey on the map that's updated daily. Anyone can report their first hummers, and then all can monitor the northbound migration.
The first report this year came from coastal Alabama on Feb. 25. That date is not unusual. Last year, the first migratory ruby-throats arrived on the Mississippi coast on Feb. 23. Since 1998, as many as 13 ruby-throats have been reported from the Gulf Coast in February.
What is remarkable this year is how quickly the hummers are moving north. As of March 22, ruby-throats had been recorded in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and central Wisconsin. By the time you read this, there may be hummingbirds in your backyard.
I never look for hummingbirds before mid-April, but I put up one nectar feeder this week. Just in case.
But also remember that just because a hummingbird appears, that doesn't mean it will stay through late summer. It may just be stopping for a rest before heading further north.
I suggest you hang a nectar feeder today. The nectar recipe is simple - mix one part table sugar with four parts boiling water, cool and refrigerate. Do not use honey; it can harm or even kill hummers. Red dye is unnecessary because nectar feeders are red, and that's the color that catches hummers' attention. If you're offering nectar for the first time, enhance the feeder's conspicuousness by tying an 18-inch length of red ribbon to the feeder.
For now, a single feeder will suffice. Before nesting begins, hummer numbers at feeders can usually be counted on one hand. When young fledge in July, however, feeding stations attract females and their young from surrounding areas. From mid-July through August, some lucky feeding station operators report ''clouds of hummingbirds.''
The simplest way to get more hummingbirds is to put up more feeders. Serious hummingbird banders sometimes run dozens of feeders in mid summer to insure they can capture and band many hummers.
Inevitably, some readers ask if it's better to buy commercially prepared nectar. Powdered mixes are OK, but expensive compared to ordinary table sugar. Prepared nectars may advertise that they are fortified with vitamins and minerals, but hummingbirds satisfy their nutritional requirements from their natural foods. The nectar we provide is an energy supplement; their natural diet includes myriad soft-bodied invertebrates such as spiders, aphids, gnats and fruit flies, as well flower nectar. Invertebrates provide the protein and nutrition that nectar lacks.
Other products that might tempt you are jugs of what appears to be pre-mixed nectar. Read the label. In big-box stores, some of these products are merely colored water to which you must add sugar. Buyer beware.
Feeding hummingbirds is like feeding seed-eating birds. It's not necessary. Birds can find plenty of natural foods on their own. But we offer nectar to attract them to places where we can watch them simply because we enjoy them.
Another tip to pull in the early arrivals is to get one or two hanging flower baskets for the porch near the feeders. Colorful flowers, especially red ones, may attract attention when a single feeder does not.
And a great source of insects is rotten fruit. Place it in the hummingbird garden. Fruit flies love spoiled fruit, and hummers love fruit flies.
Another, and perhaps best, way to attract hummers is to plant native, nectar-bearing flowers. Trumpet honeysuckle, trumpetcreeper, cardinal flower, scarlet bee balm, eastern columbine and spotted jewelweed are species to look for at a native plant nursery. By using these natural nectar producers, you can have wild backyard nectar all summer long.
Monitoring the pace of migration online is a great way to anticipate the arrival of other favorite species, too. Sites such as www.learner.org/jnorth feature a variety of maps tracking blooming milkweed, monarch butterflies, Baltimore orioles, barn swallows and many more. Track purple martins at www.purplemartin.org, and chimney swift aficionados can track their progress at www.chimneyswifts.org.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my website, scottshalaway.googlepages.com.