University City

Hummingbird festival draws a crowd

They're tiny-winged, curious and drawn to fragrant tubular flowers, and for the past five years, during the last week of August, hummingbirds have been the center of attention.

This Saturday, Reedy Creek Nature Preserve will host its fifth Annual Hummingbird Festival, one of the public's last opportunities to see the iridescent-colored creatures, deemed the winged jewels, up close, before they follow the Texas coastline to the warmer temperatures of southern Mexico and Central America.

"This is one of their migratory routes," said Jose Chavez, manager of the Reedy Creek Nature Center. Each April, Chavez watches as the ruby-throated hummingbird, North Carolina's summering species, settle into the park to mate during the hot months before beginning their migration farther south in late August.

By the first cold snap in October, most hummingbirds are gone for the winter.

The festival, which is free to the public, features crafts for kids, storytelling, live music and vendors selling hummingbird products like feeders and plants known to attract the minuscule birds.

This year, a new exhibit called Predators of Hummingbirds will give spectators a feel for what it's like to be so small.

"People actually will become the hummingbird," said Chavez. "They'll walk through this exhibit where they have to avoid predators like praying mantises, spiders and bullfrogs."

Susan Campbell, a hummingbird expert affiliated with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, will answer questions while she conducts her yearly research of the ruby-throated hummingbirds in the park.

For the last three years, Campbell and her handlers have trapped and banded dozens of the birds for study.

"Ruby-throated, as numerous as they are, we do not know a lot about them," said Campbell. "We do know that they live between three and five years. We know that spring migration and fall migration are two very different routes," she said. "But there are a lot of things we still don't know, like for instance, how large the population of ruby-throated birds there is in North America."

Campbell hopes to band at least 20 birds at this year's festival.

"It's very simple actually. We use a wire cage trap that has a big trap door on it," she said. "That takes maybe 10 minutes, then they're back on they're way again."

The festival's success has surprised many, said Chavez, especially its organizers, who originally planned the first event five years ago as a special program to draw a crowd closer to 100.

Last year, more than 3,000 people flocked to the festival. Shuttle buses travel throughout all parking lots within the park and neighboring Joseph W. Grier Academy, to bring people into the nature center, where many of the birds frequent the feeders and nearby gardens.

Campbell understands why the festival has become such a success, citing the uniqueness and beauty of the hummingbird.

"They are the only birds that can truly hover. They also fly sideways, upside down and backwards," she said. "And they're not fazed by people. We can very easily draw them in, close to where people are active, so it's easy to watch hummingbirds right outside your kitchen window."