Small birds, big work
On May 17, 2021, hummingbird researchers Ned and Gigi Batchelder set a small cage trap on an elevated table under an aspen tree at the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission’s Amsden Creek Wildlife Habitat Management Area near Dayton. They hung a hummingbird feeder and filled it with sugar water. Within minutes their quarry was in hand — a unique looking hummingbird Gigi spied visiting a feeder upon their arrival. 

Working quickly, the pair took several measurements and photos, and placed a tiny, numbered band on the small animal’s right leg. It readily drank from a feeder Ned offered before it was safely released. It was likely the first hummingbird hybrid documented in Wyoming.
“Gigi told me at the banding table that first day, an odd-looking, possible hybrid male hummingbird was roaming the feeder locations,” Ned said. “After recording measurements and observations of the tail and wing feather shapes, including the gorget (neck feathers) shape and color hue, it was determined to be a mix of black-chinned and calliope species. The hybrid male also was conducting display breeding dives to both calliope and broad-tailed females, which added more clues to the mixed ancestry.”

Ned Batchelder records data from hummingbird research he and his wife, Gigi, conduct in Sheridan. (Photo by Darrell Meineke/WGFD)

The couple’s data and photos are currently being evaluated by the Wyoming Bird Records Committee, which has the final say on whether the hybrid determination stands.
“If accepted by the WBRC this will be an important update to our Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles in Wyoming, which tracks species status and distribution in the state,” said Andrea Orabona, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s nongame bird biologist. “Both black-chinned and calliope hummingbirds are Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Wyoming, so any information on these species is valuable.”

Species of Greatest Conservation Need are designated in the State Wildlife Action Plan and are designated by evaluating trends in a species’ population and potential threats.
“Hybrids are rare, but we have banded them in the past,” added Gigi. “We have documented almost 50 probable mixed species of male hybrid hummingbirds in seven states over the past 21 years, or about one hybrid per one thousand captures. They tend to occur where breeding species territories merge or overlap.”

Rare breed
The Batchelders are part of only 150 federally-approved hummingbird banders in the United States. Their efforts are voluntary, self-funded and operate independent of any governmental agency or wildlife organization.

They began banding western hummingbirds after relocating to Red Lodge, Montana upon Ned’s retirement from the energy industry in Oklahoma in 1999. Their introduction to hummingbird research came in the mid-1990s when they traveled from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast to watch large-scale banding efforts.

“We volunteered with neck banding geese and for duck banding in western Oklahoma and that lit our fuse,” Ned said. “After seeing an ad in Birds and Blooms that Hummingbird Research Inc. was banding hummingbirds year round and it was open to the public, we went. We intended to spend an afternoon but stayed five days until my vacation time was up. We started going every spring and fall and after two or three years, they knew our interest and asked if we wanted to volunteer.”

They are now U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers and dedicate themselves fulltime to hummingbird research, identifying locations around the country with limited hummingbird data.
“They are lesser-studied and understood, but everyone is fascinated with them and we were too,” said Ned about the couple’s two-decade focus on hummingbirds. “That was a challenge to us, to just really get to know more about them. A lot of banders don’t want to work with them because they are small and it is tedious. You also have to be approved by two Master Hummingbird Banders before getting federally-approved for a permit. But the opportunity was one we couldn’t turn down.”

The couple relocates to a new area and spends two to four years capturing, banding and releasing birds through the spring, summer and fall. They have banded hummingbirds in 10 states.
“I’m thrilled that the Batchelders are spending time studying Wyoming’s hummingbirds,” Orabona said. “We welcome the work of trained and dedicated community scientists to help advance our knowledge.”

How it’s done
The method of capture is simple. An adjustable table holding a hardwire cage is set surrounding an existing feeder. The feeder is placed inside the cage with fishing line tied to the door. Gigi stands a distance away holding the line with the door open. When a bird enters she slowly lowers the door, gently grasps the bird and places it in a small mesh bag for transfer to Ned’s data and banding station.

At the table Ned carefully removes the bird from the bag and begins data collection. First, a tiny aluminum alloy band with a unique identifying number is loosely clamped around the bird’s right leg. Ned and Gigi identify the species of the bird and its sex then place it snugly into the cutoff toe of a nylon stocking to be weighed on a small scale. Depending on species and sex, the weight will range between the equivalent of a penny or nickel. The wing, bill and tail feathers are measured and recorded. If it is a female, a magnifying glass is used to search the bird’s head and feet to identify spider webs or other small bits of plant material to indicate she is nesting. While observing the head, Ned looks for tiny grooves on the bird’s bill to indicate age.
“Grooving in the bill indicates the bird is under a year,” said Ned. “As the bird ages, the bill becomes harder and less pliable and the grooves begin to fill in.”

For females Ned uses a plastic straw to blow on the bird’s abdomen, which separates the feathers and reveals if there is a distended belly. That would indicate a developing egg and proof of local breeding of that species. In the fall this same technique is used on the chest to look for accumulated fat, which shows preparation for migration or a passing migrant. In all, the bird is in-hand for less than three minutes. It is offered a drink of sugar water from a feeder and released.

Location, location, location
The Batchelder’s began their banding efforts in Wyoming in spring 2021. They relocated to Sheridan in winter 2020 and set about surveying the area to identify potential capture locations. They selected seven unique study habitats, three on Game and Fish properties — Amsden Creek Wildlife Habitat Management Area, the Sheridan Bird Farm and the Story Fish Hatchery.

The Batchelders maintained additional feeders and captured birds from May to September. They visit one or more locations daily and usually took an hour at each site. By the end of the 2021 season, they banded 887 hummingbirds. Calliope hummingbirds were the most common, followed by broad-tailed and rufous. Three female and one male black-chinned hummingbird, a species normally found in the southwest corner of Wyoming, also were banded.

After the first banding season in Sheridan County, the couple has already found interesting surprises. A second probable hybrid, a broad-tailed and calliope cross, was captured at the Brinton Museum near Big Horn and they have confirmed what is likely the northeastern edge of calliope and broad-tailed breeding territory.
“We’re very grateful for the data the Batchelders are collecting and sharing with our nongame section,” Orabona said. “This information will help us refine distribution maps for these species.”

Important work
“Our goal in 2021 was to submit baseline data that would reveal an indication of area hummingbird breeding and nesting dates, population density and arrival dates of migrating species,” said Gigi. “We submit all our data to federal and state agencies on a yearly basis, as well as to the North American Bird Banding Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, that issues the leg bands and stores the banding data. It is always possible one of these banded birds will be encountered again in their lifetime at a different geographical locale. When and if this occurs, the laboratory will notify us and we share that information with the property owners where the bird was banded and others who may be interested.”

This type of follow-up allows wildlife managers to update their records in real time, Orabona said.

Though the pair recaptures multiple individuals at a site during a season and over the years they spend at a location, they know a researcher elsewhere capturing and identifying one of their banded birds is a long shot. But, it happens.

In 2010 a young male rufous hummingbird, banded in Florida on January 13, was recaptured in Alaska near Prince William Sound on June 28 — a distance of 3,500 miles.

“To increase the opportunities for learning about them, you have to increase the odds by banding,” said Ned. “Once we realized the numbers we could do and that were out there, it just fueled us to continue on and test the limits. Some days during the mass movement of southern migration we can band 100 or more birds at two or three locations — birds that are here today and gone tomorrow. Our theory has always been that it is a numbers game, like a lottery. And sometimes you get lucky.”

— Christina Schmidt is the information and education specialist in the Sheridan Region and is a regular contributor to Wyoming Wildlife magazine.
Photographer Info
Greg Bergquist

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