8-14 January 2009

Installment #424---
Visitor #Brother hl 4070cdw

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Here in the eastern U.S. (and southern Canada) the only breeding species of hummingbird is the Ruby-throated, Archilochus colubris, so it was the ONLY hummer species we were likely to see from late March through mid-October. Historically, however, there have been sporadic but verified reports of hummingbird in midwinter, and those turned out NOT to be ruby-throats. Rufous Hummingbirds--far away from their traditional wintering grounds in central Mexico--were reported from coastal South Carolina as far back as the early 1900s, but such birds were seen only a few times each decade. In about 1990 several western hummingbird species suddenly began showing up regularly at many locales east of the Rockies--so much so that these days winter vagrants are much less rare. The causes of this apparent population explosion are not well understood, but climate change, habitat alteration, and a near-logarithmic increase in hummingbird feeders have likely played roles. (We might add Internet-enhanced communication has also been a factor in allowing folks to learn about and report vagrant hummers.) Amazingly, the Carolinas now have 11 different vagrant hummer species on their combined list--10 for North Carolina and seven for the Palmetto State--almost all of which have showed up in winter long after our breeding ruby-throats have bailed out for the warmth of Mexico or Central America.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Since 1991 we've banded nearly 70 vagrant hummers in the Carolinas--including two Rufous Hummingbirds here at Hilton Pond Center--so we weren't surprised in December 2008 to hear of a Rufous coming to a feeder east of Charlotte NC in Matthews, about 40 minutes away. The bird was at the home of Carol Buie-Jackson, president of HAWK (Habitat and Wildlife Keepers), an affiliate of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. Everyone's Christmas schedules precluded a banding trip to Matthews in December so we made tentative plans to visit Carol's place in early January, a delay we thought would be okay since the bird was feeding quite regularly.

In the meantime, Carol mentioned her Rufous Hummingbird to the folks at Backyard Wild bird feeding store in Matthews and was surprised to learn Jim Jiles, who lives just two houses down the street from Carol, had also reported a Rufous at his feeders. It seems Carol and Jim had joint custody of this winter visitor and the Rufous was partaking of sugar water at both residences.

We arranged with Carol for a January visit to Matthews and she, in turn, talked with Jim; together they decided his house would be the better trapping site because his feeders were on an easily accessible back porch. After we finalized plans, Carol also contacted Janet Denk (above left) of The Matthews Record and Melinda Johnson (above right) of The Charlotte Observer to invite them to cover our banding of the winter vagrant Rufous.

We arrived at Jim's place at about 8 a.m. on 9 January 2008, a bit later than we usually try to capture winter hummingbirds. (We're most successful when we arrive before dawn in time to catch a hummer on its first feeder visit after fasting all night.) As usual we took down all Jim's feeders--Carol had taken hers in the night before--hung our portable hummingbird trap, placed a feeder inside, set the trap, and retired to the warmth of Jim's dining room from which we could comfortably watch for the hummer's approach. Meanwhile, Carol and the two newspaperwomen arrived, filled with anticipation and lots of questions. By 8:20 a.m. it was merely a matter of waiting on the hummer and responding to perceptive, rapid-fire inquiries we were happy to answer.

All text, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Everyone noticed Jim's special attire for the occasion--an incredibly bright orange T-shirt (above right) he said was guaranteed to attract a similarly colored Rufous Hummingbird. You'll note the outfit worn by Carol (above left) was more subdued. Jim was true to his word--and shirt--and at 8:35 a.m. the hummer put in a first appearance. As often happens, the bird tried to get at the feeder but couldn't quite figure at first how to enter the trap.

The bird investigated this new contraption from several angles, often flashing the bright rusty feathers at the base of its tail (above) and eventually disappearing. A few minutes later it returned from a different direction--one that allowed a better view of the feeder inside. It wasn't long before the Rufous--by now nicknamed "Rusty"--flew straight through the open trapdoor to begin feeding. A millisecond later we grabbed our remote transmitter and flipped a switch that pulled a pin that allowed the door to slide shut behind the hummer. Success in 18 minutes!

We invited everyone onto Jim's porch to watch as we carefully removed the hummingbird from our trap. The bird wasn't particularly jumpy, so it was easy to grasp the hummer gently and bring it inside to the temporary banding table we had set up in Jim's dining room. After showing our catch to all the onlookers, we inserted the hummer's bill into the port of a feeder Jim had placed on the table; as typically happens, the bird drank freely--an indication, we believe, it was under little stress from the experience.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We secured the tiny hummer by sliding it into a paper tube that allowed us to weigh it accurately and hold it safely for other measurements and the banding process itself. We noted this bird had 13+ iridescent red-orange feathers on the left side of its throat (see top photo)--NOT an indicator of a Rufous Hummingbird's sex. Although only male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have metallic gorget feathers, female Rufous typically have several. However, the large amount of rust in the tail (above) and on the bird's otherwise green back indicated this was a juvenile male--which we then confirmed by measurements. (Females are somewhat larger in all regards, and they don't get rusty back feathers.) The bird we had just trapped was well on his way to developing a full iridescent gorget and a completely rust-colored head and body--tell-tale signs of the adult male Rufous he would become in time for the next summer season on his breeding grounds.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Incidentally, there was always the possibility our western vagrant could have been an Allen's Hummingbird; this much rarer western vagrant resembles a Rufous except the adult male Allen's usually has a green back. More important, the outer tail feathers of an Allen's are very narrow (less than 3.3mm) while those on our Matthews bird were quite wide at 3.8mm. There was no doubt this was a young male Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, in its second year; i.e., it had hatched in 2008 somewhere in the northwestern U.S., western Canada, or southern Alaska.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

During the whole ageing-sexing-measuring-banding process we carefully monitored the hummingbird, and several times we tried to feed it sugar water; in every instance it lapped up the sweet juice, so it certainly wasn't going hungry. Just prior to release we applied band number Y14971, took numerous photos of the bird--and its admirers--and then allowed each observer to hold the bird briefly. Penultimately Jim placed the bird in his open palm (above) and watched in amazement as the bird stared back, seemingly undisturbed by the whole scenario. In the end we moved the hummer to Carol's outstretched hand but by then the Rufous Hummingbird showed it was ready to go by zipping straight up into the tallest tree it could find.

Our thanks to Carol Buie-Jackson for contacting us about "her" winter Rufous Hummingbird, and to Jim Jiles for allowing us to trap "his." We suspect the mutual interest of these two hummer enthusiasts will assure "Rusty" has all the fresh sugar water he wants until departing the Matthews area, probably sometime in late winter or early spring.

Vital Statistics for
Rufous Hummingbird #Y14971

Age/Sex--Second year male
Wing Chord--42.52mm
Tail Length--27.0mm
Outer Rectrix Width--3.8mm
Culmen (upper bill)--16.0
Bill Corrugations--none
Furcular Fat--none
Gorget--13+ orange-red metallic feathers
Molt--None in wings; tail feathers worn;
adult feathers beginning to come in on back

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Be sure to scroll down for an account of all
birds banded or recaptured during the period,
plus other nature notes of interest.

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8-14 January 2009

American Goldfinch--18
Pine Siskin--12
Chipping Sparrow--5
Northern Cardinal--1
House Finch--14
Purple Finch--19

* = New species for 2009

6 species
69 individuals

7 species
93 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
51,975 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)
Brown-headed Nuthatch (1)
08/28/08--2nd year unknown

Chipping Sparrow (1)
07/24/08--2nd year unknown (local hatch)

American Goldfinch (1)
02/11/05--6th year male
01/16/08--3rd year male
01/21/08--after 3rd year male

Eastern Tufted Titmouse (2)
04/21/08--after 2nd year male
06/03/08--2nd year unknown (local hatch)

House Finch (2)
05/11/06--4th year male (local hatch)
12/16/07--after 2nd year female

--Pine Siskins, absent from Hilton Pond Center for six of the past ten years (see last week's installment), continue to visit our feeders this winter. They--and our few American Goldfinches--are ignoring thistle feeders in favor of black sunflower seed.

--This week brought a nice assortment of recaptured birds (see list at left), including an aging American Goldfinch banded back in 2005 and now in its sixth year. Equally interesting were a Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Tufted Titmouse, and House Finch, all banded as recent fledglings at the Center. These retraps provide good data about species longevity but even more about site fidelity. Such information simply isn't available for wild birds by any other means except banding and subsequent encounter.

A second year male Rufous Hummingbird was banded at Matthews NC (see photo essay above)

For more information about winter hummers and how to care for them, see our page on Vagrant & Winter Hummingbird Banding.

All text & photos © 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.

Brother hl 4070cdw