If we’re lucky enough to have had it happen, most Floridians clearly remember the first time we saw a hummingbird. These amazing creatures – weighing as little as a quarter-ounce but requiring nearly half their weight in food every day – can hover over flowers, flit backward to a more enticing bloom and even fly upside down to reach an elusive drop of nectar.
Although relatively rare in Florida, up to 11 of the 16 species of hummingbirds found in the U.S. have been seen in the state. You’re most like to see the ruby-throated hummingbird, but black-chinned and rufous are occasional visitors with buff-bellied, calliope and Allen’s all recorded in the Tampa Bay region. They begin returning from more northern climes as temperatures drop, and many appear to return to the same backyard year after year, particularly those habitats that have been planted with hummingbirds in mind.
Steve Backes sees hummingbirds in his suburban Valrico yard so often that nationally renowned hummingbird expert Fred Bassett visits most winters to band and document the “snow birds” who come south to Alabama and Florida. “It’s really cool because without the bands you have to guess if it’s the same bird,” Backes said. “With banded birds, you know they’ve come back.”
The trick to attracting hummingbirds, he says, is planting plenty of their favorite foods – including lots of red flowers – and hanging feeders. “It’s really difficult for them to get enough food from flowers but they need to see the flowers to decide to check out your yard and find the feeders.”
Backes has an amazing selection of plants in his yard, interspersed with feeders protected from ants that also love sugar water. The feeders also need to be visually separated from each other because hummingbirds can be very territorial. (Other feeders, dispensing treats ranging from standard bird food to mealworms he grows in his kitchen for bluebirds that nest nearby, can be closer to the hummingbird feeders, though.)
Some birds overwinter here, beginning in late September, but others will stay long enough to nest, usually beginning in about April. It’s more challenging to create their favorite habitat for nests because they prefer trees over running water, but they will travel to a nearby yard to obtain food.
Backes’ favorite plants for hummingbirds are also likely to attract butterflies so even a small amount of land set aside for them is beneficial even after the hummingbirds have left for the summer. Most are easy to grow – so easy, in fact, that he regularly hosts “clean-up” days at his home where you can help prune plants and take home cuttings or rooted pieces that have spread from the original plant.
Learn more about hummingbirds in Florida – including sightings from across the state and insights from experts into the most effective plants – at Backes’ Facebook page.