Hummers in December, hmm?
A week ago, Vonda Poole of New Wilmington, Pa., emailed me and worried about "a female hummingbird that has not gone south for the winter. It's now December 9th," she wrote, "and it's still here. Was I wrong to leave a feeder up? What will happen when freezing weather hits?"
I explained that keeping the feeder up was the right thing to do. The bird was almost certainly a rufous hummingbird, a hardy western species that nests as far north as Alaska. Over the last 15 years, rufous hummingbirds have been showing up with increasing regularity in Pennsylvania and adjacent states. This year visits by western hummers have reached record levels in Pennsylvania.
The first western hummingbird report I can recall dates back to October 1997 when a female rufous hummer showed up at a feeder in Delmont, Pa., just east of Pittsburgh. "Ruthie," as this hummer came to be known, was a regular topic of conversation on my weekly radio show in Pittsburgh (Sundays, noon to 2 p.m., online at www.wmnyradio.com). Since then more rufous hummingbirds have shown up every year.
In December 1997, banders from the Alabama-based Hummer/Bird Study Group (www.hummingbirdsplus.org) captured and banded Ruthie. Amazingly she returned to the same backyard in October 1998. She died in January 1999 and now resides in the bird collection at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Scott Weidensaul, a naturalist and hummingbird bander from eastern Pennsylvania, has received reports of more than 80 hummingbirds statewide this fall. "Most have been rufous," Weidensaul explains, "but there have been a few late ruby-throats, two calliopes, two Allen's, and one black-chinned hummingbird. By chasing these birds and banding as many as possible, we're getting a better understanding of their migration. Many seem to loop from west to east, and then at some point after a cold snap, they continue on to the Gulf coast."
Knowing the interest in late season hummingbirds, I asked Poole if she would permit a bander to visit her home. She agreed, and Bob Mulvihill, consulting ornithologist and bander at the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (www.aswp.org) in Pittsburgh made arrangements to visit the next day.
Mulvihill arrived early and had the trap set by daybreak. Within minutes, he captured a previous banded adult female rufous hummingbird. It was originally banded Jan. 27, 2012, near Donaldson, La., and identified as a second-year female rufous hummingbird that hatched in 2011. "That means she hatched somewhere in the northern Rocky Mountains in the summer of 2011," Mulvihill explained, "migrated all the way to Louisiana for the winter, returned to the Rockies to nest this summer, and migrated south again, this time stopping in western Pennsylvania!"
Mulvihill told me this was the second time he had recaptured a rufous hummingbird near Pittsburgh in the fall that had been originally banded along the Gulf Coast the previous winter. "The first instance," he said, "was a bird recaptured in November 2006 in McDonald, west of Pittsburgh, that had been banded the previous winter in Diamondhead, Miss. That bird was recaptured again in the same McDonald backyard the following year in early November 2007!"
In recent years the Hummer/Bird Study Group has documented 14 species of hummingbirds wandering east during the fall and winter. Most have been rufous hummers, but other species include ruby-throated, black-chinned, Allen's, Anna's, calliope, buff-bellied, broad-tailed, white-eared, green violet-ear, magnificent, green-breasted mango, broad-billed, and Costa's.
Bob Sargent, founder of the Hummer/Bird Study Group urges birders to maintain one nectar feeder all winter, keep it clean, and place it where it can be easily viewed. "If you live in the range for the ruby-throated hummingbirds," Sargent explains, "you will not make them stay if you leave a feeder out in winter. When it's time, they will migrate with or without your feeder."
It's never too late to see a late season hummingbird, so keep a nectar feeder filled all winter. When it gets cold at night, place the feeder indoors until morning so the nectar doesn't freeze. If you see a hummingbird between now and March, there are people who want to know. Bob Sargent (Rubythroat@aol.com) can put you touch with a bander near you.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033 or email email@example.com.