The return of the first ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most highly anticipated spring events in eastern North America. Although a few of these winged gems spend the winter months in parts of the southern United States, the vast majority winter in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Each year the hummingbirds travel remarkable distances between their wintering grounds and their summer breeding areas, which span from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada.
The first ruby-throats typically reach the Gulf Coast in late February or early March, often making a nonstop 18- to 20-hour flight across the Gulf of Mexico. The birds move northward from there, relying heavily on the emergence of spring flowers as they make their way up through the United States. By early May, most of the Canada-bound hummingbirds have reached their destination, and most of the eastern two-thirds of North America is populated by ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Keeping track of the northward progression of these birds can help create an interesting picture of migration patterns. Lanny Chambers of St. Louis, Missouri, has been doing exactly that since 1997. By collecting thousands of reports each year from volunteer observers across North America, Chambers has constructed nearly real-time maps of when and where hummingbirds are showing up across the continent. Visit hummingbirds.net/map.html to view the maps, and consider contributing your own observations to this project.