Hummingbird Monitoring in the Grand Staircase


Rufous hummingbird–  The birds often rest for 10-20 seconds to recover from the stress of handling before they fly away.

As I sit in the office in Escalante, I can’t believe my time here is almost over! The fall rains have come to this formerly hot and dry desert landscape, and a familiar chill is in the air once again.  Except for the one main highway that runs through town, none of the roads here are paved.  The remaining roads are made of clay and silt, which makes them pretty dangerous when it storms, and impassible when the scourge of floodwaters literally wash them away.  Back when summer was in full swing and the area was more reliably safe to traverse, our team was able to conduct surveys of many different animal species on the monument.  Our boss, Terry, partners with the Hummingbird Monitoring Network, so we spent many early mornings driving to beautiful sites along slick-rock rivers and in the crisp mountain forests.

A typical day goes something like this:


Drop-net feeder trap

We arrive to work between 4:30-5:30 am in order to make it to the sites early enough.  The birds are more active and numerous before sunrise.  We begin by getting all the banding equipment in order and setting up the drop-net traps.  If we have time before the survey begins, we scramble to make a fire to keep the frigid winds at bay.  Then, eyes still red from lack of sleep, we begin trapping! The traps have a feeder hanging in the center.  Once a bird lands and begins to drink, we trip a wire from about 15-20 feet away.  A circular net drops around the feeder and makes contact with the base.  The bird is unharmed and still free to fly around in the enclosure.  We simply grab a small mesh bag, walk up to the feeder, and very gently reach in and get the bird.


Teeny tiny hummingbird band!

Terry is trained by the network to examine and band the birds, so once we deliver the birds to him, we begin to take data.  First, exact species, sex, and age is confirmed.  We then look to see if the bird already has a band.  If not, the bird’s tarsus is measured to make sure the band will fit.  Too big and the band either falls off or gets material wedged inside.  Too small, and you risk injury to the bird.  Each band has a unique number used to identify the bird if captured again. Banding species of any kind is a very precise and meticulous process, but is especially important in this situation as hummingbirds are obviously very small.  Can you imagine using a special pair of pliers to apply a metal band to an ankle that’s barely bigger than a piece of pencil lead?  Special care is always taken to make sure the birds are not injured.  I’m glad Terry knows what he’s doing, because I’m not ready for that kind of pressure!


Feeding post-banding

Next, we gather information about the bird’s specific markings, colors, and condition.  We measure the birds weight, length of the wing chord and culmen (bill), how much fat is present, wear on the body’s different feathers, and more.  The four most common hummingbird species we encounter are: Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Calliope. We all try to work as quickly and efficiently as possible, so that the birds don’t endure more stress than necessary.  Hummingbirds have extraordinary metabolisms, so they lose a lot of energy in the short time we have them. Because of this, we make sure to feed each bird before releasing them.



Fire: our saving grace on the mountain during those cold 30-40 degree mornings

Each survey period is precisely five hours long.  We take care to measure the change in temperature, wind speed, and cloud cover every hour.  We also record the number of birds that simply fly by to check the feeder out, rather than stop for a drink.  Birds are discerning creatures, and many of them are rightfully skeptical that their usual feeders are now surrounded by a mess of unintelligible equipment.  Usually after the first 1-2 hours, the number of birds we trap takes a dive.  This is a time for us to  desperately run to the fire and warm our freezing hands.  Once the survey period is over, we pack up and find a nice spot overlooking a lake or river to eat lunch, remembering all the fascinating species we caught that day!


Though getting up at 4:00 am wasn’t always easy, it was definitely worth it.  Those early mornings were some of the best of the whole season, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything- not even more sleep.

Lauryl McFarland

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument




Flash Floods and the First Picture of the Season!

When I made the move to Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument from a small college town in coastal Northern California earlier this summer, I had no idea what to expect.  Growing up I’d moved almost a dozen times and experienced a variety of environments and communities.  I had not, however, lived or explored in a region even remotely resembling the quickly changing landscapes of high deserts and canyon country.

When I first spotted this river, I was somewhat puzzled.  It was my first day in Utah and though all the scenery was completely new to me, this stuck out! I’d never seen a river flow such a rusty orange.  I remember assuming it probably always looked this way.  I pulled over immediately and snapped a picture- my first of the summer!

First picture in Utah!

Flash flood!

After spending the last five months living and working closely with this land, I now know that this river was probably experiencing a much higher flow than usual.  The formidable clouds above meant it was most likely raining somewhere nearby and upstream.  The river was flooding and loaded with sediment from further up the river – hence the color.  It’s so obvious to me now, but I when I found this picture it was fun to remember how much I have learned this summer.

Now that monsoon season has arrived (yes you read correctly- our area of the desert experiences a monsoon season!), we know the best spots to go and look for the onset of a flash flood or a raging river.  One of the prettiest spots to be when the rains come in is a local area known as Long’s Canyon.  The water flows over the cliff tops and down into the canyon, and it’s just magnificent!  Usually the last place you want to be when floods could occur is in a wash/canyon bottom, but this spot happens to be safe Mom, I promise!


Temporary waterfall in Long’s Canyon!

It’s fulfilling to know how much the myriad of experiences I’ve had this summer have taught me.  The intricacies of an ecosystem that once seemed so foreign and unforgiving are less daunting and more exciting now.

Lauryl McFarland

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument