And you can hold one in the palm of your hand.
It all happens at San Pedro House, the visitor center on the grounds of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. This protected swath of land along the San Pedro River is a migration stop for all kinds of birds, not just hummingbirds. And for 19 years, it’s been the site of a hummingbird study that draws bird lovers of all kinds.
It’s a delicate process, getting the little helicopters tagged and studied. First, specially rigged feeder traps are deployed on the grounds. Trapper Gary Ostrander watches carefully for bird body language, and when an unsuspecting beak dips in the nectar, he hits a button. A net drops, and the bird is contained. He collects the bird and puts it in a mesh bag, the kind of thing you’d wash your delicates in. A visitor carries the flapping little package to Sheri Williamson, the author of “A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America.”
If you want to release a bird, show up early. Volunteers hand out numbers based on when you arrive. Be aware that the hummingbirds don’t care how many people are there. Some days, volunteers can catch and release up to 30 birds; others, only four or five.
If the bird has a band, Williamson reads the tiny ID to a volunteer who pulls an index card and reads the bird’s stats. If it’s not banded, Williamson delicately wraps a jewelry-fine strip of metal around the bird’s leg. She checks beak length, feather quality, coloring—she can even tell if the females are carrying an egg. Once the bird is measured and cataloged, she hands it to Susan Ostrander for feeding. Ostrander dips its fine beak in the feeder and, if it’s not interested, prepares to release it.
If you arrive early or there are enough birds trapped, you can hold out your hand and have Ostrander set the tiny bird there to rest. You can see it blinking and feel it breathing while you try not to jump up and down with excitement. When the bird is good and ready (in a few seconds or several minutes), it shakes off the experience of being trapped and hums off into the hot Arizona sky.
The black-chinned hummingbird weighs a little more than a penny, so you don’t really feel the weight. But the idea of that little bird, which could be traveling 3,500 miles, from Mexico to Alaska, stays with you for a long time.
For information on the hummingbird program, visit the South Arizona Bird Observatory.
MORE SUMMER TRAVEL QUESTS
42) Hold a Hummingbird in Your Hand