1-7 November 2001

Rufous Hummers Aren't Supposed
To Be Here

Although we could spend several lifetimes studying natural wonders that abound on just 11 acres at Hilton Pond Center, we occasionally wander elsewhere in the Piedmont. Such was the case this week when we journeyed again to Casar, North Carolina--about 60 miles to the north--to investigate a "vagrant winter hummingbird" visiting a feeder maintained by Wayne and Colleen Girard.

Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, adult female

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

We met the Girards in February 2001 when Colleen called about a hummer that had visited her feeder all winter. In the Carolinas, winter hummingbirds are an anomaly; the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris, is our only breeding species, and virtually all of them depart by mid-October for warmer climes in Mexico and Central America. The few ruby-throats that overwinter in the southern U.S. are usually found in coastal areas, so any Piedmont winter hummer is likely to be one of several western species known to wander eastward.

Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, adult femaleThe most common vagrant hummer east of the Mississippi is the Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus. This bird breeds in North America from the southeastern tip of Alaska, throughout British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, and into western Montana and extreme northwestern California. Normally it winters in central Mexico, but has been documented in the eastern U.S. from fall through spring with increasing regularity since perhaps the middle of the last century. Whether it was here before that is anybody's guess.

Most female Rufous Hummingbirds-- especially adults--bear several green or bronze metallic markings on the gorget (top photo), while female Ruby-throats of any age almost never have dark throat feathers. Female Rufous Hummingbirds also show some degree of rusty coloration at the base of the tail; often this is not viewable unless the bird is in the hand. Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, immature winter maleYoung male Rufous Hummingbirds (left) resemble the female, but by their first winter usually bring in at least a few rusty feathers on head and back. The adult male Rufous Hummingbird is bright rusty-orange on belly, back, and tail, with a full bronze gorget; it can't be confused with any other local species.

There are unquestionably more winter hummingbirds being reported in recent years throughout the eastern U.S. What is not known is whether the increase is due to a change in hummingbird dispersal and migration behavior, or whether there are so many more pairs of human eyes watching winter hummingbird feeders--most of which traditionally had been taken down in early October. We do know that hummingbirds make a living being curious, whether it's probing a bright new flower in your garden or exploring some untapped territory for an appropriate place to breed or overwinter.

Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, adult femaleIf a hummer is successful in its investigations, it stands to reason it would capitalize on the situation. That probably explains why a Rufous Hummingbird would twice fly as much as 3,000 miles from its western breeding grounds to the very same backyard feeder in Casar, North Carolina. Maybe this particular hummer has figured out that Colleen Girard (above right) is a conscientious feeder of birds, and that an avian visitor is guaranteed to find a never-ended supply of fresh sugar water, and that at the Girard household there will be no competition for winter food--very different from the bird's normal wintering grounds in hummingbird-rich central Mexico, which also lies 3,000 miles from Rufous Hummingbird breeding range.

It's fascinating enough that the Girard's Rufous Hummingbird has made the trip to Casar in successive winters, but this bird revealed another interesting tidbit this week. Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, adult female billWhen we captured her the first time on 11 February 2001, we noticed the upper half of her bill overlapped the bottom by about 2 mm (above left), giving an almost hook-billed appearance. This time around--only nine months later--the bill was completely normal (below right). We can't begin to speculate on what might have happened, or whether there's even any real significance to this phenomenon, but it's interesting nonetheless.

Maybe in a few hundred more years we humans finally will begin to understand hummingbirds and bird migration in general--certainly one of the biggest mysteries of animal behavior. For future understanding to occur, we need a lot more data points, so it's important that folks in the eastern U.S. who see hummingbirds between mid-October and mid-March report their sightings immediately. Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, adult female billIf you spy a winter hummer at your feeder or know of one in your neighborhood, please send an e-mail to RESEARCH. Include as much information as you can, including location and date of the sighting and your phone number. In turn, the research team at Hilton Pond Center will either attempt to observe and band the bird or will forward the information to another hummingbird bander who may live closer to you.

Now if one of those wayward winter hummers would just stop by Hilton Pond Center and fill the void our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds left when they bailed out in September. Previously, we HAVE banded Rufous Hummingbirds as close as 10 miles from here, but what we really want for Christmas is a wintering hummingbird to call our own.

Hear that, Santa?

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

NOTE: Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, as well as some other interesting nature notes.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written and photographed by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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1-7 November 2001



American Goldfinch--2
Yellow-rumped Warbler--14
Eastern Towhee--1
House Finch--1
White-throated Sparrow--9
Hermit Thrush--1
Blue Jay--1

(with original banding dates)
Northern Cardinal (4)

White-throated Sparrow (4)


This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
On average since 1982 we've banded 74 per year; each winter always brings several returns
(see left below)

7 species
29 individuals

74 species
1,272 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
122 species
39,555 individuals

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

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In 2001, informative and entertaining hummingbird banding presentations were held at four Carolinas locations for more than 500 participants. For more info, and especially if your group would like to host "Hummingbird Mornings" in 2002, click on the hummingbird drawing at left.

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.