HAMILTON - Ned and Gigi Batchelder have handled nearly 30,000 hummingbirds over the years, but the citizen scientists recently found one they will never forget.
The Bitterroot Valley couple say they caught the oldest male black-chinned hummingbird on record.
"To break a record for longevity, it's like winning the lottery" for hummingbird enthusiasts, Ned Batchelder said.
The elderly bird was banded by a noted hummingbird researcher, Sheri Williamson, in southern Arizona on Sept. 9, 2000.
It was recaptured by the Batchelders on July 26 in a family's front yard on the valley's east side near Hamilton.
That means the winged senior citizen was more than nine years old, well beyond the typical lifespan of three to five years for hummingbirds.
"He was one really old dude, but he looked great," Ned Batchelder said.
The Batchelders didn't realize they had a record-setter until several hours later when they plugged the bird's band number into the North American Bird Banding Lab database.
The number Y93568, laser printed on a lightweight aluminum alloy band on the bird's leg showed its original date and place of capture.
The Batchelders, who had already released him, found additional information about the bird on a private Web site for hummingbird banders.
"We read it five times," Ned Batchelder said. "We suspected it was an older band because it was faded but still legible. We were pleasantly surprised. It's one of the big rewards of this kind of research, like finding a needle in the haystack. It's why we do this - to learn more about these birds."
Batchelder suspects the hummingbird was born in the Bitterroot, but there's no evidence of that or of why it has lived so long.
"Hummingbirds are one of the lesser studied bird species and our passion is to learn all about them and what they're capable of," he said.
Since the late 1980s, the Batchelders have spent most of their time from April to October catching, banding, weighing, measuring and releasing hummingbirds.
"It's turned our lives upside down," Ned Batchelder said. "It's been a rewarding experience to study these birds, to have them in hand and learn what they do."
Batchelder, 53, a retired oil and gas engineer, and his wife, a retired homemaker, spent 30 years in Oklahoma.
In 2000, they moved to Montana, where they have conducted east slope, west slope and Continental Divide hummingbird studies.
The self-taught biologists moved to the Bitterroot in 2006 and have continued their migration and breeding research, banding 3,000 to 4,000 hummingbirds a year.
Much of their work is done in people's yards, where sugar-water feeders draw droves of hummingbirds.
They belong to the Hummer/Bird Study Group, a nonprofit group dedicated to studying and preserving hummingbirds and other neo-tropical migrant songbirds.
To capture their quarry, the Batchelders place a cage trap around a feeder. When a hummingbird flies up to the feeder, Gigi lowers the door and gently takes the bird in her hand and brings it to Ned at the banding table.