Hummingbirds Are Popping Up in the Strangest Places

Despite the early hour and bad weather, Dan Harville is admiring Al Lunemann's torch lilies on Whidbey Island in Washington's Puget Sound. Drinking, lingering, and chasing each other, hummingbirds flutter about towering red plants.

Harville shakes off his reverie, “Okay.” “Set up the trap.” He covers one of Lunemann's front porch feeders with a homemade remote-controlled net. He waits until three or four hummingbirds are using the feeder's spigots, then drops the net and traps them.

They flutter confusedly against the thin mesh. “Now,” Harville continues, “you can just stick your hand in and get them.” He removes them one by one and puts them in little cloth bags to quiet them.

Harville takes a female rufous hummingbird feather from Lunemann's garage. He works fast. “I only want to keep her for two minutes at most,” he says.

He swaddles the bird in a shred of fabric, clamps it shut so she can't fly, and weighs her—“3.17 grams,” he tells his wife, Jan, who records the data. He measures the bird's needle beak, wing, and tail feathers.

He blows in the bird's chest to measure subcutaneous fat and estimate plumpness and health. Then he delicately tightens a band of aluminum around the bird's small leg with pliers.  

He paints a pink dot on the hummingbird's head to indicate she has been processed if he catches her again. After finishing, he holds her in his palm. “Off you go,” he says. Previously stationary, the hummingbird flies away.  

Remsen says a cycle is at play. People left their feeders out year-round after observing more hummingbirds in winter. More birds wanted the food supplement, which led to more feeders.

Winter hummingbirds can be found in Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts. Remsen believes more birds are migrating north as they survive.  “Hummingbirds live for ephemeral resources,” he argues. “They’re built to roam. Tough as nails.”