Published 10:25 am Monday, January 9, 2012
Hummingbirds are not the usual birding fare during the winter months, but with more people leaving their feeders up and with greater observer knowledge, it is now not uncommon to have wintering hummers at many locations throughout the Carolinas.
The majority of the ruby-throated hummingbirds leave the southeastern U.S. by the middle of October, and any hummingbird seen after that date is well worth studying in detail. Most of these laggards are still ruby-throats, but there is a very good chance of a rufous hummingbird that has strayed far from its normal migration path through the western states.
Contrary to popular belief, leaving hummingbird feeders up beyond the middle of October is not detrimental to these birds, as the majority of the population will continue their normal migration patterns despite this new food source. These winter feeders may indeed help those late and/or sick birds by extending the available food source, thus enabling the birds to either add more fuel to continue on their southbound journey or to spend the winter near a well-stocked feeder.
The most common wintering hummingbird is the rufous, probably the hardiest of all the northern and western hummingbirds. They breed from northern California to southern Alaska and winter in central Mexico. Most of the individuals overwintering in the Carolinas seem to be young birds, and it was originally thought that their inexperience with migration may indeed explain why they seem to be appearing with ever increasing frequency in our area.
However, additional research has proved that, rather than a very few vagrant hummers present at scattered feeders, there is a population of wandering birds throughout the southeast. It is from this pool of individuals that many more species are being reported in our area. Another interesting note is that several individuals seem to be returning to their out-of-range winter homes in subsequent years.
Adult male rufous hummingbirds are very easy to identify as they are a rich orange-brown in coloration. Immature birds are harder, but the easiest way to distinguish them from the more common ruby-throat is to examine the bird closely. Rufous hummingbirds tend to show browner flanks and brown webs to the tail feathers – a fairly easy feature to see as they feed around the feeder.
This winter is looking to be an excellent one for stray hummers from the west as there have already been several rufous reported, as well as a male Allen’s hummingbird that has been visiting a feeder in Hickory for the last month.
So, the bottom line is, if you see a hummingbird buzzing around your winter flowers, you have not been having too much winter spirit, and you may indeed have a hummingbird wintering in your area. Put up your feeder and wait to see if the bird comes back. If it does please call me at the Ventures office on 828-253-4247.
Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 16 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours, www.birdventures.com.
He is also an owner and operater of the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store. For more information on any of the birding activities in the area, drop by the store or check his website at www.asheville.wbu.com