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Tribute to Marsha Bowe: The Heart of a Hummingbird Community Scientist

By: Heather Hayes

Read the tribute to Marsha written by her family.

At the Intermountain Bird Observatory, we are extremely fortunate to meet many wonderful people through our migratory bird research and outreach. Supporters, partners, and volunteers often become extended family that help make us what we are today. We would like to pay special tribute to a member of our extended family, Marsha Bowe, who bravely navigated the challenges of her journey with cancer until her passing on August 21, 2020.

Marsha had been a regular visitor to our Boise River banding station in years past, sharing her love of birds and the natural world. But it was not until 2019 that we were able to witness the depth of this passion. She reached out to us in late October of that year with a multitude of hummingbird images taken in her backyard and inquired about the species of her visitor. We determined that it was an Anna’s Hummingbird, and invited her to participate in our winter hummingbird banding research.

Without hesitation, she enthusiastically accepted the invitation, signing future email correspondence as “Community Scientist…Marsha Bowe”.

a cell phone photo shows a small hummingbird perched in brown branches
Female Anna’s Hummingbird resting in Wisteria vines. Photo Credit: Marsha Bowe

In the weeks leading up to the scheduled banding, she corresponded almost daily with detailed observations of her visitor. Marsha monitored not only the exact times but also the number and length of the hummingbird’s visits to the heated feeder. She knew exactly what directions the hummingbird would enter and exit the backyard. She had also pinpointed its preferred “look-out” tree branch on the corner of the property, as well as the covered resting spot in the tangle of Wisteria vines that twisted up the side of the porch. It did not take long to realize Marsha possessed the true drive of a Community Scientist and embraced her role whole-heartedly!

Upon arriving at the Bowe’s residence on a chilly December morning, I was met at the door with fresh hot coffee and excited anticipation of what the morning might bring. We headed for the backyard, set up the trap, then waited patiently for the visitor to arrive. As we whispered softly about the impending holiday, Marsha caught a glimpse of something dart into the Wisteria vines but was unable to see clearly through the dense threaded branches.

We sat silently for a few minutes and then it appeared… a beautiful adult female Anna’s Hummingbird!

It quietly emerged from the vines and hovered near the trap inquisitively for a moment, then entered to feed. As Marsha drew in a deep breath, I quickly released the trap line and the mesh net unfolded, softly surrounding the hummingbird. With hearts pounding we leapt into action and as Marsha secured the outer edges of the trap, I gently reached in to safely extract the tiny bird.

a hummingbird with small pink throat patch is held gently in the fingertips of a biologist. Her head is about the size of the biologists thumb
Marsha lovingly nicknamed this special bird “Martha E” after her mother …”who taught her to love and care for hummingbirds”. Photo Credit: Heather Hayes

Upon examination, this was no ordinary female Anna’s Hummingbird.

This bird already had a band on its leg! She was a female the IBO originally banded in the exact same neighborhood in the winter of 2017 AND 2018! This was incredibly important data for our research to support the high site fidelity Anna’s Hummingbirds have.

After assisting in recording the pertinent data, I placed the hummingbird in Marsha’s hand for release. She was awestruck at the rapid vibration of her tiny visitor’s heartbeat against her palm and took in every second of the long few moments it sat quietly in her hand. Then, with an encouraging gentle puff of air, the hummingbird took flight and landed on its “look-out” branch to preen.

As she finished up a phone call to her family back east sharing the excitement of the morning, Marsha made sure I did not leave empty handed and gifted me with her amazing homemade holiday caramel corn. It was just the sugar rush I needed to get me through the rest of my long day!

We said our goodbyes, but lucky for us, this would not be the last time I would trap at the Bowe residence.

Soon after, she reported a visiting adult male Anna’s and I returned in January to try to capture him. Though previously consistent, he did not make an appearance upon my arrival. Knowing the males are the ones that sing, Marsha proceeded to walk about the backyard doing her best Anna’s vocalization (which was amazingly accurate) and within minutes the male was on the scene making his presence known to this “intruder” in his territory! With the trap poised and ready, he darted in for the feeder, I released the line, and the capture was a success!

a hummingbird with dazzling bright magenta head and throat is held in a biologists fingertips. the hummingbird is about the size of their thumb
Because this male was such a handsome defender, he was named “Mr. Z” for “Zorro”. Photo Credit: Heather Hayes

Marsha was determined to keep tabs on the movements of “her” Anna’s even during chemo treatments, remarking the incredible joy they brought to her heart provided her strength and hope every day. We received an email from her that stated:

“This letter is long overdue. I want to give a BIG THANK YOU to your organization…”

“This year was the first winter I was blessed with having Anna’s Hummingbirds in my yard. There were many emails going back and forth between us and I was finally put in contact with Heather Hayes. Heather has been to my home twice to do captures. The first one was a female Anna’s that had been banded two years prior not far from my home. She was very healthy as well. Heather marked her after recording all the pertinent information, and then let me set her free.  This was an amazing day for me, as it was the Wednesday before Christmas and I felt it was an early Christmas gift. Two days later my joy was challenged because I found out that my cancer had returned for a third time. Not letting that get in my way, I continued to monitor the comings and goings of the little lady we had captured. Then in January I spotted a male Anna’s at my feeder. Heather made another visit and we were able to capture him. He had not been banded which gave us both great joy knowing we were going to get that job. I cannot put into words how much this has meant to me. I will be starting chemo soon and am determined to keep watch on the Anna’s as they continue to visit my yard. What a blessing this has all been. So THANK YOU and the wonderful organization you all represent. I can not be happier to have made our acquaintance and to be able to help in the work you do. After two captures and one banding I am starting to feel like part of the family. Thanks again.”

a woman with thinning hair wears a warm knit hat with a hummingbird embroidered on it. she's holding a sign with hummingbird clipart on it that reads "two captures one banding. I feel like part of the IBO family!!!"
Marsha wearing her honorary “Hummingbird Crew Member” hat. Photo Credit: Pat Bowe

Though our time with Marsha was too brief, we realized immediately she was so much more than a Community Scientist.

Beyond gaining invaluable research data, we gained a wonderful new member to the IBO family.

We were saddened to learn of her passing in August, but our hearts were warmed when we reviewed our donations a few months later. To our surprise, Marsha’s friends and family honored her passion for hummingbirds in the form of “tribute donations” made directly to the IBO hummingbird research project on her behalf. We think she would be overjoyed to know these generous gifts will allow us to continue our mission of connecting people to the natural world around them one hummingbird heartbeat at a time.

This article is part of our 2020 end of the year newsletter! View the full newsletter here, or click “older posts” below to read the next article.

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