Late August through September is the optimal time to see migrating Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds on Long Island. If you have planned ahead and cultivated a garden to their preferences, you might be privy to one of the most fascinating bird species to grace our area. RTHB (the accepted acronym) nest and breed on Long Island. In fact, it is their sole purpose here.
The tiny bird migrates from roosts in tropical Mexico and Central America. We might begin to see them on their way up in spring. (Some tracking has been done, but it is minimal). You have a better chance of seeing them on their way back to their overwintering sites in the fall. Then again, plant to their liking and they might just surprise you with regular stops as they flit and buzz about their territory adding your yard as a regular stop. Apparently, they have a memory of where to find nectar year to year.
Operation Ruby Throat is a long-standing program which invites citizen participation in its projects: http://www.rubythroat.org/default2.html. Whether you have children or are an empty-nester with a fondness for birds, there is a wealth of information there, and a number of ways you can participate. An especially useful resource, they have is a list of native plants that attract the RTHB: http://www.rubythroat.org/PlantsNativeTopTen.html . Now back to Huntington.
To be honest, I have not actually seen a RTHB this year. I have seen a picture of one in our backyard garden…and it has validated a decision I made about what to plant where last year, when I added a second pollinator garden to our little .25 acre. I landscaped it with butterflies, and bees in mind, but decided to experiment with attracting hummingbirds, as well. I planted two Red Cardinal Flowers, (which I purchased online; go to http://www.wildones.org/resources/ to check out native plant sellers who sell and ship to the public ) These lobelia shoot up spikes and begin to flower in late July (at least in my yard.)
I monitored two flat green rosettes for weeks when perennials started to break ground in the spring. My thoughts turned to other things mid-July when I added two species of milkweed to the plot. I stopped obsessing about the plants, and finally, green spikes similar to what a yucca shoots up emerged. Alas, a clumsy “Native Gardener” stepped on one spike and decapitated it, so I have only the one red spire that blooms consecutively up the tall spike until it reaches the tip. The blooms are at the summit now. Had I read more information about the plant, I would have realized that the rosettes were what one can expect first from the cardinal flower. I must have two-year-old plants now, they apparently start to bloom in their second year. One excellent thing about them is they take nicely to clay soil - which my neighborhood has in abundance.
Over Labor Day last year, I happened upon another hummingbird magnet plant, the trumpet vine, at greatly reduced cost. This plant is propagated by Monrovia, which has won recognition as an environmentally friendly grower that sells to independent nurseries throughout the USA. So it was planted in one area in the front yard that gets the most sun. (Native Gardening has an addictive side to it. I have found it is impossible to stop at one small bed, and am slowly renovating all of the plants here, with Mother Nature’s help.) The vine survived Sandy, and is doing well enough on a decorative arbor. If I believe my Midwestern friends -- I should be overwhelmed with hummingbirds. Except, this trumpet vine has not bloomed yet. I do not know how old it was when purchased, and I have read that it can take from four to 10 years for a vine to produce blooms. It has an aggressive root system too... so it is best that I planted it far away from the house and anything it might attack underground (like say, the utility pipe that runs along my property line, much to my chagrin). Now it is a matter of hurry up and wait. I hope it blooms in my lifetime.
One important point about both trumpet vine and cardinal flower -- they are toxic. So garden gloves are a necessity when handling them. (I found out the hard way). Also, if your dog or cat or child is inclined to eat plants, best to not put them near where they will have access.
Since my yard is pesticide free (I hope, more on the Neo-Nicotinoid crisis next time), it is entirely possible that the hummingbird pictured was visiting the front yard first, and I was just not aware; especially when the red monarda were in bloom. Many hummingbird plants are also butterfly-friendly.
Ever the optimist, I had placed two hummingbird feeders on the arbor. These are not your usual seed feeders, rather they are built to contain sugar water that the hummer can feed on through tubes. (DIY recipe is 1 part sugar to 4 parts water or 5, heat water to boil, add sugar stir until it dissolves, let solution cool and add it to feeders. Do not boil the sugar water. Although you could adjust he ratio of sugar and water slightly, making it sweeter is not recommended because it will be difficult for the birds to digest, and less sweet will not attract the hummingbirds. This 4:1 ratio of water to sugar is similar to the sucrose levels in natural nectar. It is recommended that unused sugar water be changed at least every four days, and that the feeders be thoroughly washed each time. A lot of work, but I tried).
After spotting our hummingbird, we added a low shepherd’s hook in the back with one of the feeders attached. We also bought another lobelia of uncertain bloom color at a box store I will not name. Our hummingbird has not returned since then and I suspect I know why. More on this next time. Just today I read that even tying a red cloth near your hummingbird garden will attract them, so I have added a red ribbon on the other side of the hook. I hope it works. Perhaps though, our visitor was one of the first to begin migrating south for the winter.
Other plants that I have read that attract hummingbirds include two sages (not-native annuals, but if planted in pots, acceptable): black and blue, and red sage. They are the sort of plant one would find in the spring; but be careful where you buy them from. Smaller garden centers will know their stock better. There are places that sell exotic tropical plants for hummingbirds, but as a native gardener, I avoid them.
I hope to see a RTHB in the feather this season; though I am extremely proud of the fact that we had a visitor. My husband had not seen one in 50 years, from when he summered in New Hampshire and they were everywhere. I have only ever seen one in the wild; at the Leed’s Pond Preserve in Plandome, NY, where I kept an organic garden when I lived in an apartment.
An extensive pdf from the US Department of Agriculture can be found here:
http://plants.usda.gov/pollinators/Ruby-throated_hummingbird.pdf. Another excellent resource, which takes you from start to finish, is here: http://www.bbg.org/gardening/article/designing_a_hummingbird_garden.
There is a hummingbird preserve on Long Island, on the North Fork. They are only open in August and require that waivers be signed before entering. Their blog with admission information here: http://bhhummer.blogspot.com/.
I also dream of a corridor of green, connecting neighboring yards with nature, that goes beyond fences. Information on this is also available from: http://www.wildones.org/learn/native-plants-and-landscaping/
*With apologies to Seals & Crofts, a line snitched from their song..