by Sharon Wada
Sharon Wada recently joined the Seattle Audubon Board of Directors. An accomplished photographer, Sharon documented behavior by Anna’s Hummingbirds* in her yard that led to questions. With the help of a local hummingbird expert, University of Washington PhD student Alyssa Sargent, Sharon shares her findings.
We aren’t the only ones who enjoy heading out into the snow to experience the falling snowflakes on our faces and tongues.
Several winters ago, I was watching a lovely light snow falling out my window when an Anna’s Hummingbird left my feeder and began darting around in midair as if discovering a new element. I then saw another hummer whiz by, stopping and starting in similar erratic patterns before flying off.
Another one hovered right in front of me and I saw that it was actually pausing and using its tongue to catch flakes! It appeared to be tracking individual crystals as they were falling and then zoom under them for the grab. I was amazed by their skillfulness in a world that had to be unusual for a bird more genetically adapted to warmer climates. And I wondered, how did hummingbirds learn to do this? And do they do it for “sport” or because they need the water or both? They still came to my feeder for nourishment but would intentionally zigzag through the falling snow for a while before heading back to their hideouts. It was fascinating to watch them and ponder all of this.
One of our local hummingbird experts, University of Washington PhD student Alyssa Sargent, describes this behavior as “hover-hawking”, a term associated with birds when they hover in the air to catch food such as insects. “It’s a foraging technique,” she noted. “A similar strategy, when they fly from a perch into the air to feed and then back, is called ‘sally-hawking’.”
Since hummingbirds that frequently visit our home feeders are very well hydrated due to the high water content of the nectar we serve them, Alyssa found the “snowflake hawking” activity in these photos interesting and noted that this winter behavior has been observed in other birds such as waxwings, Pine Siskins and European Starlings.
“While we aren’t sure why hummingbirds catch snowflakes like this, they seem to be doing it with intention, whether it be to satisfy thirst, or perhaps practice foraging skills, or even in play,” Alyssa suggested.
One of our most recent snowstorms was in February 2021. By then, I had been plotting all year to photograph this behavior and validate that they were indeed timing their split-second movements as selected flakes drifted down. It was so hard to follow their brief hovering and erratic darting with my camera and after a few attempts, I was completely humbled but not defeated. There were so many failed shots and just a few keepers but what fun it was to try!
So, the next time the snow falls in your neighborhood, be sure to look up and around for hummingbirds and see if they’re out there, quietly dancing and hawking snowflakes.
(And the next time this happens, I’m switching to video . . . 😉)
Author’s Note: Alyssa Sargent is in the midst of fascinating field research with hummingbirds in the rainforests of Ecuador and Colombia. To learn more about and support her important doctorate work, please visit her website: https://sargentalyssaj.wixsite.com/birds
Feeding Hummingbirds in Winter
- Use a solution of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Bring to a boil and cool to room temperature to minimize bacteria growth.
- During a hard freeze, bring feeders inside at night to prevent food and feet from freezing. Replace before first light, or alternate between two feeders. Or, use a heater or heated feeder attachment.
- Be sure to wash feeders at least once a week, more often in warmer months. Discard all remaining nectar before refilling.
- Avoid using red dyes in food. They are unneccasry and may be harmful. Any red or colored parts of the feeder itself will attract them. If your feeder isn’t red, place a red object or flowering plant nearby until they discover it.
Seattle Audubon Board Member
A native Seattleite and graduate of the University of Washington, Sharon enjoyed a decades long career in healthcare information technology, including 25 years managing her own independent consulting firm. Sharon is an avid photographer but fairly new to birding. She considers it a privilege to observe and capture images of birds in nature.
* When information is available, we link to historical profiles of individuals whose names are currently part of common bird names in English. You can learn more about eponymous bird names in Seattle Audubon’s blog post in support of the “Bird Names for Birds” initiative.
Anna’s Hummingbird © Sharon Wada