Another first, Anna’s Hummingbird in Pa.

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Finding a specific individual bird in an entire county or even state is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. That’s what happens every time a rare or unusual bird shows up somewhere. Birders flock to the area hoping for a peek. The best way to actually find such a bird is to flood the area with eyes.

A group of many birders are much more likely to find a target individual than a single individual working alone. That’s one reasonable explanation for the surge in reports and observations of western hummingbirds in eastern states each winter.

More people are keeping nectar feeders up all year. When strays show up, people notice. It began back in October 1997 when a female rufous hummingbird appeared at a feeder just east of Pittsburgh.

“Ruthie,” as she came to be known, became quite a celebrity in the birding world. In December 1997, banders from the Alabama-based Hummer/Bird Study Group captured and banded the bird. Amazingly Ruthie returned to the same backyard in October 1998.

In museum

She died in January 1999 and is now a specimen in the bird collection at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Since then many rufous hummers have shown up throughout the east at this time of year.

Some stay for several months before heading south to warmer climes. What’s most remarkable about this is that the normal range of rufous hummingbirds is the Pacific northwest — from Oregon and Idaho north to Alaska.

They are tough little birds and easily survive sub-freezing night time temperatures. Their normal migratory path takes them south through the western states to wintering grounds in southern California, the Gulf coast, and Mexico. Over the last 13 years western hummingbirds have appeared in the east with increasing frequency.

Documenting hummers

The Hummer/Bird Study Group has documented 13 species of hummingbirds wandering east during the fall and winter. Most have been rufous hummers.

To have a chance, and I emphasize “chance,” to see a winter hummer, hummingbird expert Bob Sargent of the Hummer/Bird Study Group suggests keeping a nectar feeder filled all winter.

You just might be one of the lucky few to see a vagrant winter hummingbird. The Hummer BSG website (www.hummingbirdsplus.org ) offers instructions for heating a nectar feeder to keep the nectar from freezing. And the possibilities aren’t just limited to rufous hummingbirds.

In 2005, Ohio’s first Anna’s hummingbird was reported near Cincinnati. Normally Anna’s hummingbirds nest from southern Arizona north to British Columbia, and their migratory habits are not well known. In fact, many do not migrate at all, so an appearance in Ohio was noteworthy.

Allen’s hummingbird

Last December, Pennsylvania and Ohio birders got an early Christmas gift. Both states reported their first Allen’s hummingbird, a species that normally nests along the California coast and north into Oregon (most winter in Mexico). And just last month an Anna’s hummingbird showed up in eastern Pennsylvania (Berks County).

It had been coming to a feeder for several weeks when bander Scott Weidensaul got a call. Just 20 minutes after setting up his trap, he had the bird in hand to confirm its identity. It has been seen almost every day since.

“We shouldn’t take for granted the idea that this hummer will leave with the arrival of seriously cold weather,” Weidensaul explains. “If it’s a coastal California bird, it may migrate back next month to be on the breeding grounds in time to nest in January. If it’s from a later nesting population, it may stay through the winter.”

In captivity

When birders first noticed western hummers showing up in the east, some felt they had to be “rescued” or else they would die. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, rescued hummers usually die in captivity. Though tiny, hummingbirds are amazingly hardy.

Weidensaul explains, “What we are seeing with these vagrant hummers are the first pioneering individuals exercising the kind of flexibility that leads to the establishment of new migration routes and wintering areas.”

Any hummingbird seen from November through March should be reported. Bob Sargent (Rubythroat@aol.com) can put you in touch with a nearby bander.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

6 COMMENTS

  1. The link that explains how to keep a feeder over the Winter is a 404. I live in Pittsburgh. I’d like to have a year-round feeder.

  2. Susan,

    Thank you so much! That was indeed the link. I didn’t know they made plumbers tape that short. I think that’s the route I’ll take. (next year)

    Thanks again!

    Joe.

  3. Posting this for Wanda who e-mailed us from afar:
    “We live on Anderson Island in Washington State. For the past three years we have had Anna’s Hummingbirds wintering over. I have about three this year, others have five, and there are more who feed all year long on this island in Puget Sound near Seattle (for those of you who have never heard of our little island). Actually, could be Ruby Throated, but the two are so much alike who can tell without getting them to “stand still”? Thanks for caring. We love them. Wanda”

    • I live in Bend Oregon and have seen for the first time hummers hanging out all winter, so far. They seemed to show up just before Thanksgiving at my feeder. I was late to take it down and convinced all the birds had migrated by the end of October. Then one day right before a severe cold snap a male Anna’s showed up. I replaced the liquid and he hung out right through a foot of snow and I got photo’s of him one morning when it was 0’F drinking from the feeder. I don’t know how he made it but he did. Since that time, he has been around and so has a females Anna. I went home for lunch yesterday and caught sight of a hummer at my front feeder which may have been a Rufous. That would make 3 different birds this winter.
      I bring my feeders in during nights when the temps get below 25F and have put an old pair of red wool socks on them to keep them a bit warmer during the day. Thankfully this area does not see too many days with temps below 25 all day long. Feeder swaping is a pain. I hope the birds consider my yard home from now on. Good luck to all you feeding winter hummers in northern climates.

  4. I live outside of Salt Lake City, UT. We have a few feeders which my wife loves. We did however hit a few snags because our feeders fell and broke and we ended up using some plumbers tape to fix them. Sounds kind of silly but it works great!

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