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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.