The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

August 10, 2012

Festival to feature tiny wonders

They live in our own backyards, but their spry movements, gemlike appearance and astonishing migration patterns make each encounter with them a wonder.

Some of Fayette County’s flashiest seasonal residents will be the focus of a set of events at Hawks Nest State Park this weekend as the New River Hummingbird Festival introduces locals to the feeding, nesting, migration, and behavior of the ruby-throated hummingbird.

A bird both familiar and elusive to West Virginians, the ruby-throated hummingbird spends half the year breeding and gorging on the nectar of flowers in the Eastern U.S. Then they take to the skies for a trip across the Gulf of Mexico to more tropical climes.

Bill Hilton Jr., the festival’s keynote speaker this evening, has been banding hummingbirds since 1984 and is one of only about 150 people permitted by the federal government to do so.

Even with all that research under his belt, he still feels awe when he contemplates the tiny creatures.

“To me, the amazing thing is that a bird the size of your thumb makes a migration trip maybe 2,000 miles long, and then turns right around after a few months and comes right back to the same location that it was banded in the U.S. It just doesn’t seem possible,” he says.

Hilton studies the birds in West Virginia and South Carolina, but he’s also the only scientist who meets them on their wintering grounds in South America.

A self-described “educator-naturalist,” and the consulting director of the New River Birding and Nature Center, Hilton takes groups of “citizen scientists” to Costa Rica, Belize, Nicaragua, and Guatemala to get better acquainted with the birds’ migration and behavior.

Hilton says airplane rides to South America are a good time to reflect on the yearly feat accomplished by the glittering creatures.

“I’m up at 10,000 feet looking down, doing the same route as the ruby throats, but with a jet. They are doing it with wing power and scooting along the same distance,” he says. “Of course, they don’t read any manual, but they do it anyway.”

Hilton says the migration probably arose historically as a response to glaciation. As glaciers moved south, the birds also had to fly further south to get food and warmer temperatures. Then as the glaciers receded, they gradually dispersed back northward.

“They got into their genes this annual clock that says ‘Let’s go back to the tropics,’” he says.

So why not stay in the tropics year round? Competition is stiff in an area with 330 other hummingbird species. In places like West Virginia, on the other hand, there’s essentially no competition, which makes for good breeding grounds.

Hilton now has 11 years of banding data from West Virginia, which has allowed him to show that the ruby throats here follow the same rules of survival as their counterparts in other areas of the country.

“We’re trying to collect data about arrival and departure dates. Nobody has done much work on hummingbirds in West Virginia, so anything we learn is of use.”

The New River Birding and Nature Center, based at Wolf Creek Park, hosts this weekend’s Hummingbird Festival.

Events kick off on today with a dinner at 5 p.m. at Hawks Nest State Park Restaurant in Ansted. Then at 6 p.m., Hilton presents “Ruby-throated Hummingbirds: From Your Yard to Costa Rica ... And Back!”

On Saturday, Hilton will use “a variety of nets and traps” to catch and band the birds, with “lots of opportunity for close-up observation and photography,” he says. He’ll also offer informative tidbits, including how to attract them by maintaining hummingbird feeders.

These and other native plants activities are planned at the Midland Trail Pavilion at Hawks Nest State Park from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

All events are donation only and open to the public, with proceeds benefiting the Fayette County Education Fund, a non-profit aimed at securing the future of Fayette County by providing leadership and environmental training focused on youth.

Those donating $25 or more will receive a hummingbird feeder. A donation of $50 earns a feeder and a New River Birding & Nature Festival T-shirt.

For more information on the ruby-throated hummingbird, visit rubythroat.org or hiltonpond.org.

Visit http://www.birding-wv.com/hummingbird-festival.html or call 304-658-5196 for more information on the festival.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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