Above ankle-deep snow on Cam Finlay's driveway, a glass bird feeder hangs, covered with a dome of snow and filled with a clear liquid. A hummingbird feeder in the snow? Yes, for the Anna's Hummingbird (one of four species in British Columbia) lives year-round on southern Vancouver Island.
The hummer that visits the Finlays' feeder in the snow expanded its range northward in the 1960s, and the population has grown quickly as the area's winters have warmed.
The feeder is monopolized in summer though, by the far more common Rufous Hummingbird. The most northerly ranging of all hummingbirds, it nests across most of B.C. and into southern Yukon and southeast Alaska. The tiny Calliope Hummingbird nests in the southeastern quarter of B.C., and the Black-chinned Hummingbird only in the south Okanagan. These three species appear in the spring to breed, stay for the summer and migrate south again in the fall.
Always curious, Cam Finlay wondered how many hummingbirds were coming to the feeder in their Saanich garden, and how he could count them. He learned that hummers drink a known quantity of nectar every day, and by calculating how much sugar water he was using, he could estimate how many hummers were in the neighbourhood. Astonished to find there were several hundred hummingbirds in the area, Cam's curiosity peaked. He wanted to know more.
While Cam began his working life in geology, he went back to university to become a biologist. His goal was to work in the field of nature interpretation, and he pursued a lead that found him working as one of the first national park rangers in Canada, at Elk Island National Park. He later worked for the City of Edmonton for 24 years at Fort Edmonton Park, and developed the highly regarded John Janzen Nature Centre. When he retired to the Saanich Peninsula, north of Victoria, the hummingbirds fascinated him. During his graduate studies Cam had captured and banded Purple Martins, and he continues to hold a Master Bander's permit. He knew banding hummingbirds would allow him to learn more about their migration habits.
Hummingbird banding is a specialized field, and few have the skill or required license. Cam met one such bander who loaned him a hummingbird trap and some bands to try his luck in his yard.
"We banded 54 Rufous Hummingbirds that first day, and we never looked back," says Cam. He realized, however, that he was not technically authorized to continue, so he applied for a permit to band hummingbirds - the first ever issued in Canada.
Over the 11 years Cam has banded the tiny birds, the technique has been refined. He now uses a more compact trap with a feeder inside to enclose the birds. Each is removed carefully and slipped into a soft cloth "straitjacket" to calm and stabilize the bird. The band itself, unlike most bird bands, is so tiny that it must be cut manually from a sheet of thin aluminum, shaped, and fitted to the bird's lower leg. The number is recorded, measurements are taken, and the bird is aged and sexed before it is released.
The work starts early in the year. Anna's Hummingbirds are present all winter, and begin to court and breed in late January. Male Rufous Hummingbirds begin to arrive on southern Vancouver Island about mid-March, and the females about three weeks later.
Cam hopes to learn more about hummingbird movements with his research, and works with a network of other volunteer banders in B.C. and elsewhere in North America. For example, monitors in the Alberni Valley have recaptured birds banded on the Mainland. While most of the birds banded are Rufous Hummingbirds, Cam's work has also helped to document the breeding behaviour of the more localized Anna's Hummingbird.
Cam has always worked closely with his wife Joy. Between the two, they have authored several books and mentored many naturalists. Retirement for them was a life of new projects.
Cam continues to be active in bird banding, and is qualified to train others to do the delicate work. In their "spare time," Cam works on completing a family history, while Joy is an accomplished potter. For those interested in hummingbird banding, Cam will demonstrate on his property, 270 Trevlac Place, Saanich on Sunday, May 6, from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. Joy's pottery will be on display as part of a weekend pottery tour.
Bruce Whittington is a freelance writer and naturalist living in Ladysmith, B.C. His book Seasons With Birds was published in 2004.
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