Hummingbirds make pit stop in Arizona en route to Alaska

Jesse Hendrix and his Hummingbird Ranch


by Laurel Bill
Alaska Newspapers Inc.

The Cordova Times    May 16, 2002
The Valdez Vanguard    May 22, 2002*
The Seward Phoenix Log    May 30, 2002*

* actual article varies slightly

A full-grown rufous measures 3 1/2 inches from bill tip to tail end. These fuel-efficient birds are the northernmost hummingbirds and travel about 2,600 miles from southern Mexico to spend the summer with Prince William Sound residents

photo courtesy Wayne Owen

    The first rufous hummingbirds spotted in Prince William Sound this spring may have made a stop in Arizona during their annual 2,600-mile migration from southern Mexico to Southcentral Alaska. Jesse Hendrix's house, six miles northeast of Nogales, is located on the migration path of the tiny birds and is hummingbird heaven.
    Bird feeders filled with red, yellow, green and blue-colored sugar water dangle from a magnolia tree, metal poles, a bamboo grove and mesquite trees surrounding the 77-year-young Hendrix's home. A constant, low hum fills the air as little hummers dart from feeder to feeder, pausing only to lick at the sugar water that the retired high school teacher has prepared for them.
    "It all started by accident," Hendrix said. "My daughter noticed one hummingbird out of the kitchen window 15 years ago. We bought a feeder, hung it up, and the next day two hummingbirds showed up."
    Hendrix bought a few more feeders, which drew in more birds. He bought more feeders, and still more birds showed up. He now goes through 1,500 pounds of sugar a year to keep up with the demand of these hungry little birds traveling to and from South America, Mexico, the Continental United States, Canada and Alaska.
    Typically, hummingbirds start showing up at this hummer oasis around the last week in February and are usually all gone by the first week of November. Hendrix keeps meticulous count records for the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, as well as detailed information on the amount of sugar water he prepares. It is estimated that he now feeds up to 10,000 hummingbirds, using 150 feeders, during peak days in late August and early September.
    Hendrix pays for most of the sugar out of his own pocket and said he watches for sales in the newspaper.
    "I don't worry about the expense of the sugar," Hendrix said. "My doctor, who gives me excellent care, tells me to keep busy."
    Not only does he stay busy filling feeders, Hendrix believes the birds are helping his health, too.
    "I can't prove it, but I'm sure these little guys keep my blood pressure down," he said. "They are so colorful. Especially when the sun shines on them-it's like sun hitting a crystal spectrum, light changes colors."
    Hendrix said the hummingbirds start feeding at daybreak, so he goes to bed at 8 p.m. and gets up at 4 a.m. to mix the sugar water. He adds a different nontoxic food dye to each day's solution.
    "With the colored water, I can see from a distance when the feeders are getting low," he said. "The birds get discouraged if there is nothing in the feeders, so I make sure they're filled."
    The colored water also tells Hendrix when the sugar solution was made. For instance, he may put blue in Monday's solution, yellow in Tuesday's and a soft red in Wednesday's. If by Thursday there's any blue solution left in any feeders, he will change out that water because it's three days old. He wants the birds always to have fresh water.
    Hendrix has opened his home to the scientific community, as well as to anyone interested in birding. The path to his house is well-known to People Magazine, PBS, the Smithsonian, the British Broadcasting Co. and several universities.
    "Ornithologists come out and band hummingbirds," Hendrix said. "It helps scientists answer questions such as how do the birds know to come here, the general condition of the birds, their patterns and so on."
    According to officials of the American Birding Association, the National Audubon Society and other experts, Hendrix's home has the largest number of hummingbirds anyone has seen in one place in the United States.
    Scientist have identified 14 different species of hummingbirds at the feeders surrounding Hendrix's house: broad-billed, Berylline, blue-throated, violet-crowned, magnificent, Lucifer, black-chinned, Anna's, Costa's, calliope, Allen's, broad-tailed, white-eared and the rufous.
    The rufous is the only known hummingbird to travel to Prince William Sound. The rusty-colored, 3-inch bird is the most hardy of the hummer species.
    "If I see a hummingbird scaring other birds off a feeder, it's sure to be a rufous, "Hendrix said. "They are a feisty, fearless little bird."
    They might be the toughest because they have the farthest to travel. Aaron Lang, education coordinator for the Prince William Sound Science Center, said two rufous hummingbirds were spotted in Cordova on May 4.
    "The rufous are pretty common around here," Lang said. "But they are a little later this year than average. They usually show up around the 20th of April. All of the songbirds are late this year."
    Lang said the rufous is the only hummingbird to come this far north. He said sometimes the Anna's shows up in Southeast Alaska, but the rufous is the northernmost hummingbird in the world.
    "People in Cordova really like hummingbirds," Lang said. "Even if they're not interested in any other birds, they always know a hummingbird. You see feeders all over town."
    The tiny birds will start leaving again around late July, according to Lang, and most will be gone by early September, heading back to winter in Mexico.
    Scientist suspect that most of the rufous hummers traveling from Alaska heading south in late summer and early fall will refuel at Hendrix' place. And rest assured, his feeders will be filled and waiting for them.
    "I love feeding the birds," Hendrix said. "I don't have a desire to go anywhere else. The birds give me peace."

a feature of wayne owen's HUMABOUT hummingbird photography