With their forked tails and scythe-shaped wings, swifts herald the arrival of spring in Europe and are seen as the bringers of rain in parts of Africa where they spend their winters. These amazing birds spend almost their entire lives in flight, so much so that their legs are small and too weak to support them for long when perching, explaining why their family name, Apodidae, is taken from the Greek word meaning ‘without feet’. Spine-tailed swifts, also known as white-throated needletails, have been measured as flying up to speeds of 105 mph (169km/h), while common swifts are known to routinely reach speeds of 70 mph (112 km/h).
Although they resemble swallows, swifts are placed in the same order as hummingbirds, Apodiformes, while swallows are of the order Passeriformes. Their similarities are attributed to convergent evolution, a phenomena where differing species develop similar traits due to lifestyle adaptations, in this case their habit of catching insects in flight.
Distances are immaterial to swifts, as they can easily fly 500 miles in a day. Most swifts remain airborne from when they fledge to the first time they breed – a period of roughly four years. It’s been estimated that in a swift’s lifetime it will cover a distance of around 1.28 million miles. They even roost on the wing, circling gently for hours as the two sides of their brains take turns in sleeping. Swifts only nest to raise their young, and are fond of doing so inside roofs of houses. Parents can gather and carry as many as 1,000 insects to feed their young, making them very effective insect controllers. When the fledglings leave the nest, they all take to the skies and so the cycle continues.
When swifts are feeding in the late afternoon, they swoop through the air in a series of aerobatics that are fascinating to watch. As is the case with hummingbirds, swifts are able to rotate their wings in a manner that keeps them fully extended and rigid, delivering power on both the upstroke and downstroke, thereby increasing their speed and maneuverability. No other bird species are able to do this. So if you happen to have the good fortune to see swifts in action, take some time to appreciate their unique characteristics.
Hummingbird experts from around the world will be sharing their knowledge and pictures over the three days of the festival, which will also feature an art exhibit, vendor stands, birding trips and other exciting activities. For more information visit www.hummingbirdsociety.org/hummingbird-festival
Dates: 1-3 August 2014
Venue: Sedona Red Rock High School
Country: United States
The coastal seaport city of Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, features a wide variety of habitats which attract large numbers of birds. To encourage interest in local and migratory birdlife, Vancouver hosts an annual event called Vancouver’s Bird Week, with the 2014 program taking place on May 3-10. This week-long celebration offers a host of bird-related walks, talks, workshops, exhibition and lectures at various venues across Vancouver, at no cost to participants. The Roundhouse and Hillcrest community centers will host artists’ workshops for all ages, as well as art exhibitions, and the week will draw to a close on World Migratory Bird Day with a series of nature walks in Vancouver’s spectacular parks.
As part of the celebrations, members of the public are encouraged to choose from six popular Vancouver bird species to decide which will be honored as the City’s Bird for the year. This is the first time a City Bird is being selected in this way, and the winner is to be announced on May 10, the closing day of Vancouver’s Bird Week. Birds in the running for the honor of City Bird include Anna’s Hummingbird, the Black-Capped Chickadee, the Pileated Woodpecker, Varied Thrush and Northern Flicker – all beautiful birds, each with their own unique characteristics.
The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is the largest of the City Bird candidates and is very distinctive with its black body, white stripes, flaming red crest and long, strong beak. Residing in mature forests and wooded parks, Woodpeckers are known for pecking holes in trees while searching out their preferred meal of carpenter ants. The Pileated Woodpecker makes quite large rectangular holes in trees, sometimes weakening smaller trees and causing them to break. They do not restrict their search to a particular species of tree and will search for ants and beetle larvae in both coniferous and deciduous trees, sometimes peeling long strips of bark from trees as they do so. They also forage through leaf litter on the ground and eat nuts and fruit. The woodpecker’s search for food produces a loud hammering sound that can be heard from far away. They also hammer as part of their mating ritual and to set their territorial boundaries. Certainly the Pileated Woodpecker is among the more fascinating birds living in the vicinity of Vancouver.
Picture courtesy of Nigel from Vancouver (Wikimedia Commons)
There are more than 338 recorded hummingbird species worldwide, and many birding enthusiasts would agree that they are top of the list as the most interesting little birds of the nearly 10,000 bird species found around the world. With their brilliant iridescent coloring, wings flapping in a blur and ability to dart in all directions, or hover in one spot, hummingbirds are extremely entertaining to watch.
Interestingly, the color of a hummingbird’s gorget (throat feathers) is not a result of feather pigmentation, but of light refraction caused by the structure of the feathers. They are unable to hop or walk, but can move sideways while perching. The smallest species is the bee hummingbird, endemic to the main island of Cuba and weighing only 1.6-2 grams with a length of 5-6 cm. Up to 30 percent of the hummingbird’s weight is in the muscles used in flight – the pectoral muscles. With wings that beat between 50 and 200 flaps per second and an average heart rate of more than 1,200 beats per minute, a hummingbird uses an amazing amount of energy and must consume up to half of its weight in sugar daily. They harvest nectar from flowers with fringed, forked tongues that lick 10-15 times per second.
The rufous hummingbird migrates a distance of more than 3,000 miles from its Alaskan and Canadian nesting grounds to its Mexican winter habitat – the longest migration of all the hummingbird species. Some hummingbird species such as the rufous, calliope, broad-tailed, Anna’s, black-chinned and Costa’s are known to inter-breed and create hybrid species, making the birder’s identification task more challenging.
Following the completion of a species status review in 2012, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that the Honduran Emerald hummingbird be listed as endangered. Endemic to five small valleys in the Central American country of Honduras, it’s estimated that the Honduran Emerald hummingbird population has decreased to fewer than 1,500. With loss of habitat being the primary cause of the decline in numbers, it is feared the decline will continue as land is cleared for establishing plantations and pastures for cattle. The good news for the brightly colored little bird is that the Honduran government is aware of the problem and has formed the Honduran Emerald Hummingbird Habitat Management Area which includes dry forest habitat suitable for the Honduran Emerald hummingbird and may very well turn the decline around.
Keynote speaker Kevin Karlson will be joining in every field trip of this popular annual event. As an accomplished bird, wildlife photographer and professional tour leader who has published a host of articles for an assortment of magazines, journals and books, Kevin currently writes the Birder’s ID column for Wild Bird Magazine. His program features “Birds on the Wind: The Miracle of Migration”. For more information on this exciting event, please visit the The Rockport-Fulton Hummingbird Website.
Dates: 13-16 September 2012
Country: United States