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15-21 November 2001

Santa Comes Early, On The
Wings Of A Hummer

A few weeks ago we journeyed to Casar, North Carolina, to retrap a Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) we banded there back in February 2001. We wrapped up our essay about that excursion (see Rufous Hummers Aren't Supposed to be Here) with these words: "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." And, at the very end, we wrote, "Hear that, Santa?"

Rufus Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, immature female

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

Well, for all those skeptics and disbelievers out there, we now have conclusive proof not only that there IS a Santa Claus, but that he also listens carefully to our wishes and often grants them in short order: On 19 November we spied a hummer flitting aroud near the old farmhouse at Hilton Pond Center, and the next day we caught it to confirm that it was our very own Rufous Hummingbird!

November has been exceedingly mild here in the Carolina Piedmont, with record or near-record high temperatures on many days. Few finches or sparrows are flocking to the seed feeders, and our Rufous Hummingbird (above) wasn't all that interested in sugar water the first day we saw it. It perched instead on thin tree branches--even on the top strand of an open mist net with which we were trying to capture it--and swooped out occasionally to grab a tiny insect from mid-air. Although we saw the hummer several times on 19 November, we never watched it visit a feeder, but it certainly made short work of the local gnat and midge population.

Rufus Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, immature femaleBeing optimistic about capturing "our" new hummer, we arose before dawn the next morning, unfurled the mist nets, and made sure all the hummingbird traps were properly set. Then we waited to see if the sun would come up. It did, of course, and at about 9 a.m. we saw the hummer for the first time that day--visiting the only feeder that WASN'T hung inside a trap! The bird made several feeder visits, no doubt tanking up after a long night of torpor. Finally, when the bird explored a hummer trap outside the back window, we quickly pulled the string and the trapdoor swung shut, safely snaring the hummingbird. Just like any giddy little kid on Christmas morning, we skipped out to the trap and admired this gift. For a moment we simply looked at the hummer through the wire mesh, but soon we opened the trap, gently grasped the bird, and brought our "gift" indoors for banding and measurements.

At first--over some distance and through binoculars--we thought the visitor might be a young male Rufous Hummingbird because of considerable rusty coloring at the base of the tail, and because the dark gorget feathers were so evenly distributed (above left). Once in the hand, however, based on size alone it was obvious that this bird was a female; Wing chord measurement, hummingbirdher wing chord measurement (right) was a whopping 46.1mm, while a male's wing would range between 38 and 43mm. And, judging from tiny vertical ridges on the bird's bill, we determined she was a young bird hatched in 2001; the bill would be completely smooth in most adult hummers. We were pleased to find that our Rufous Hummingbird was in excellent shape, with well-preened plumage and a healthy weight of 3.56 grams--certainly not one of those supposed "sickly" birds that is "genetically inferior" and destined to die off during the winter.

Since 1982, we've banded nearly 2,500 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at Hilton Pond Center. Rufous Hummingbirds--which breed in the northwestern U.S. and western Canada and usually overwinter in Central Mexico--only flew around the Center in our dreams. But with the unexpected arrival of this week's winter vagrant hummer, we've now banded 123 species locally, and 164 species have been observed on or over the property.

Santa with bird stencilAs we finished measuring our newest hummingbird species and banding her with Y14779, we slid the hummer's beak into a feeder and watched as she took a long drink of sugar water. Then it was release time, and as we opened our hands, we swear she turned her head, winked at us, and then zoomed out of sight, no doubt twittering the line, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."

Thanks, Santa, for the early present!

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

NOTE: This hummingbirdbird was re-trapped in November 2002 in Columbus, Ohio! For details see Tale of a Wide-ranging Rufous.

More information on Winter Hummingbird Research
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"Santa with Bird" stencil courtesy of Stencil Ease
15-21 November 2001



Rufous Hummingbird--1
American Goldfinch--2
Yellow-rumped Warbler--6
Dark-eyed Junco--2
Song Sparrow--3
Fox Sparrow--1
Northern Cardinal--1
White-throated Sparrow--6
Cedar Waxwing--3
Hermit Thrush--1
House Finch--4

Blue Jay--1

(with original banding dates)
Chipping Sparrow (1)
Carolina Chickadee (1)
American Goldfinch (1)
Northern Cardinal (2)
07/17/94--8th Year Male
White-throated Sparrow (2)
10/16/95--7th Year
Red-bellied Woodpecker (1)

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

 Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing
60-bird flocks hang out most winters in local tree tops, but a few birds are netted as they descend to drink from a small garden pool at Hilton Pond Center

12 species
31 individuals

78 species
1,357 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
39,640 individuals

Rufous Hummingbird banded on 11 Nov at Hilton Pond (see story above)


All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center
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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 all 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.