Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Where do hummingbirds winter?

Where do hummingbirds winter?

Jim Williams, Special to the Star Tribune

Ruby-throated hummingbird, juvenile male, at geranium flower

As ruby-throated hummingbirds are returning to the state, researchers are learning more about where they spend the other half of the year.

Last update: April 21, 2009 - 12:53 PM

Wonder where they've been all winter?

So do the scientists.

At the end of each summer, some 7 million ruby-throats from across the eastern United States and Canada essentially disappear.

There are indications that they travel to the tropics, going as far south as Panama. But hummingbirds are so common in Central America that few people even notice them, much less track them. These little mountain birds also disperse widely, making it even less likely they'd draw attention. So, much of what we know about ruby-throats outside the United States is based on assumptions.

A South Carolina naturalist and educator is working to change that.

Bill Hilton Jr. has been banding U.S. ruby-throats for decades. Over the years, Hilton and others have slipped tiny aluminum rings on more than 200,000 hummingbirds. Still, none of the banded birds have been reported in Central America.

And the value of banding birds lies in them being reported after being caught by another bander or found dead. It's only when a banded bird is rediscovered that researchers can learn where its band was attached. That, in turn, tells a great deal about a bird's itinerary.

But Hilton isn't giving up. For the past several years, he's been leading groups of volunteers to the other end of the migratory trail. In winter, they head to Costa Rica to study and band hummingbirds there.

The banders found an aloe vera plantation popular with ruby-throats. By banding a few dozen of these birds over several years, Hilton could tell that the same ruby-throats were returning from year to year, a practice called "site fidelity" in ornithological circles.

To date, an estimated 400 ruby-throats have been banded on their tropical wintering grounds. That's a small percentage of the estimated population. But the banding work has already proved its worth: The birds that return each year to the aloe plantation send a strong message about conserving such sites.

"Site fidelity like this gives us pretty powerful evidence when we talk about the need to protect the birds' habitat," said Hilton.

And, in the summer of 2008, Hilton got some exciting news. A bird he'd banded in Costa Rica had turned up in the United States.

This hummingbird, encountered in Georgia, was the first-ever ruby-throat banded in Central America to be captured in the United States. That makes it the first hard evidence that ruby-throats migrate back and forth.

You can help

If you're a hummingbird fan, you can help learn more about these birds. Here's how: If you come across a ruby-throat with a band on its leg, contact the federal Bird Banding Laboratory. Either fill out a form on its web page ( or call 1-800-327-BAND. They'll ask for the band number and where the bird was found, and report this information to the original bander.

If you'd like to join one of those winter bird-banding trips to the tropics, go to and click on hummingbirds.

Val Cunningham, a St. Paul resident, writes about nature for local and regional newspapers. She's also the author of "The Gardener's Hummingbird Book." She can be reached at

    Next page

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Review Lady visits Songbird Prairie Bed and Breakfast

The Review Lady

Opinions on food and travel from the life of a perfectionist

The Review Lady's Rating Scale:


1 - Abysmal
2 - Needs Improvement
3 - Average
4 - Exceeds Expectations
5 - Perfection!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 


Songbird Prairie Bed and Breakfast: Valparaiso, Indiana


Last month I decided to break up a Wisconsin-to-Kentucky drive by staying at Songbird Prairie in Valparaiso, Indiana for one night. It is only 10-12 minutes off I-65 and provided a welcome retreat from bad weather and a boring drive.


Tucked in a rural area with large residential lots, the inn’s landscaping looked well-kept even in the dead of winter. I assume the terrain and trees in the backyard are beautiful in the spring and summer.


Entering the inn feels more like entering a friend’s home than a commercial lodging property. There is a living room past the foyer where guests can relax. A snack and beverage center is off the living room just past the stairs.


A snack and beverage center is off the living room just past the stairs.

The entry to the breakfast room/sunroom is just before the snack area. Too full from dinner, I passed on snacks or drinks and headed up the stairs to my room. There are a total of 5 rooms/suites. With the solo midweek traveler rate, I was booked in the well-appointed Purplefinch Suite. Be sure to check photos online before booking a stay if decor is important to you, since each room has a different style. (Based on what I have seen on their website; I didn’t see any of the other rooms in person.) The Purplefinch Suite is very feminine and if my husband is my traveling companion on a future trip, I'll ask about some of their more masculine rooms. The innkeepers did their homework when designing the property as the lighting is some of the best I have ever experienced. Whenever I needed something like a hook, light, or towel, it was right there in the perfect place. There were even spot reading lights in the ceiling and most (if not all) switches had a dimmer.
The bathroom was very spacious, with a huge two-person air jet tub - my favorite kind. (Air jet tubs are known for being more hygienic than their whirlpool counterparts and I wish more lodging accommodations with whirlpools featured them.)


One of the best features of the bathroom was the heated tile floors - talk about being spoiled! I have only seen them on HGTV and they were a pampering touch on a cold night.


Other notable aspects of the room included your own thermostat controls, satellite television, a reading chair, fireplace, sound machine for sleeping (loved this - first time I have seen one at an inn), and a bedside candy truffle (almost too pretty to eat). Since the inn seems best suited for couples, there was not a work desk in the room. Not a problem since I was passing through, but worth noting if you are a business traveler. You may want to ask about one of the other suites or take your work downstairs to the sunroom since it has plenty of tables and chairs. If you snack while working, you may also want to go downstairs since the in-room information advised not to eat in the room. The only other thing to mention, in case it is important to you, is that there were two scent diffusers in the room - one in the bedroom and one in the bathroom. If you are sensitive to smells you might want to ask the innkeeper to remove them during your stay. They were fine for me, I just moved the bedroom one to the bathroom overnight.

The comfortable atmosphere continued the next morning when I went downstairs for breakfast served in their sunroom. The room overlooks the landscape on the back of the property and includes windows on three sides. Thanks to their sound system (piping in sounds from just outside the windows) and a plethora of bird feeders, there is quite a show while you enjoy breakfast. I saw bird species that I had never seen or heard of before that morning. It was a relaxing way to start the day. 

Breakfast was amazing. Barbara, the co-owner/innkeeper, creates fare that is not only delicious but also artistically presented. Ice water is waiting when guests arrive with juice, coffee and hot tea available once you take a seat. The room features individual tables so guests have plenty of privacy while dining if there are other people present. The highlight of the morning was the cranberry-glazed poached pear with fresh fruit on the side. I do not normally like pears, but I would eat this every morning if I could. There was also a sweet bread pastry coated with orange icing on the plate. An omelet stuffed with fresh produce and cheese followed; it was filling and flavorful with a biscuit and bacon on the side. There is normally a third course, which likely would have been equally as delicious as the preceding two, but my stomach was much too full to keep up. I apologized to the expert chef in the kitchen, but let her know so that she did not plate it and waste any food since I was already one satisfied guest.

Unfortunately, after breakfast I had to get back on the road and leave such a lovely sanctuary. Barbara was very kind and I enjoyed chatting with her for a few minutes while I checked out.

I definitely recommend this inn to other travelers. Not only is it clean and comfortable, but breakfast is worth the trip alone if you are in the area. I am actually surprised that it is not included in Select Registry Distinguished Inns of North America. It is on par with other member properties that we have visited and certainly goes above and beyond standard bed and breakfasts. I hope to be back if we are in the area again.
Rating: 4
Songbird Prairie Bed and Breakfast
174 North 600 West

Valparaiso, Indiana 46385
(219) 759-4274


The Review Lady