Almost every year since beginning to write this column, I have penned articles about the phenomenon of wintering hummingbirds. With the official 2020-21 winter season approaching, I have already gotten word of hummingbirds making themselves at a couple of homes in the region, as well as from such far-flung locales as Ohio and New York.
Katherine Noblet, a former resident of Johnson City, Tennessee, is hosting a rufous hummingbird at her home in Mount Vernon, Ohio. The tiny bird was banded and identified on Nov. 16. The verdict? The tiny visitor is a first-year female rufous hummingbird.
Noblet, who also hosted rufous hummingbirds when she lived in Tennessee, has posted on Facebook about her most recent winter hummingbird. She noted that the hummingbird, which she has named Reba, first appeared on Nov. 14. Temperatures have dipped into the 20s during the bird’s stay.
“Why a few of these tiny creatures want to hang around this far north is a mystery, but she looks happy and healthy and cannot be existing on just sugar water,” Noblet noted in a Facebook post on Nov. 24. “I have to trust she knows what she is doing.”
Closer to home, some Roan Mountain residents have reported lingering hummingbirds.
Leslie and Kathie Storie, who reside on Heaton Creek in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, posted to Facebook on Oct. 29 about a visiting hummingbird.
“We had a hummingbird on Heaton Creek about 6 o’clock today,” they noted in a post on my Facebook page.
Although they had already taken down their feeders, they reported still having pineapple sage and lantana in bloom in their yard. These flowers are favorites of hummingbirds and would no doubt help attract one of these tiny birds.
Judi Sawyer, also a resident of Roan Mountain, has hosted not one but two rufous hummingbirds this fall. She noticed the birds in early October. One of the two birds was banded and documented on Oct. 4. One of the birds evaded the bander’s traps, but the one that was banded was identified as an immature male rufous hummingbird.
I also received an email recently from Susan Jensen, a resident of Carmel, New York, about a lingering hummingbird at her feeders. She had found one of my online articles about wintering hummingbirds and contacted me for more information.
“We have had ruby-throated hummingbirds for many years and I have three feeders for them during the season,” Jensen said. “I always leave one up until I know for sure everyone has passed through to their winter location.”
In October, she reported a feeder visitor that looked like a strange ruby-throated hummingbird. She described the bird as bronze and rusty with a bit of green.
“For about two weeks I thought it was a ruby-throated hummingbird until I realized it wasn’t,” Susan wrote in her email.
After a quick Google search, I emailed Susan and put her in touch with Robert Yunick of Schenectady, New York. On Friday, Nov. 20, he traveled to Susan’s home. He banded the bird, which he identified as juvenile female rufous hummingbird, confirming Susan’s thoughts on the bird’s identity. Susan shared a video of the banding process at this link:
“It has been here since Oct. 10,” she informed me in an email. She noted that the bird has endured at several freezing nights when the temperature dipped down to 20 degrees.
“I change the feeder every three days and, if it is frozen like it was this morning, I change it again,” she said. “We are now going to bring the feeder in at night and put it out early the next morning.”
Susan enjoyed observing the banding process. “The whole process was surprising,” she wrote to me. “I had never witnessed anything like it.”
Susan said the visiting hummingbird got caught in the trap fairly quickly.
“Bob worked very quickly to measure and band her,” Susan added. “It took about 20 minutes and he fed her three times.”
At the conclusion of the process, she got to hold the tiny visitor. “I have held a hummingbird before, but it was still very special,” Susan said.
She also shared what she termed an “extra story” about hummingbirds.
“About three to four years ago, I was sitting on my deck, watching the babies (immature) hummingbirds buzz around later in the evening,” she said. “They chase each other, and do all kinds of acrobatics.”
During that evening’s antics, one of the hummingbirds flew right into the post used to hold Susan’s feeder.
“It knocked itself out, falling on the railing,” Susan explained. “I was stunned. I picked her up and proceeded to do everything wrong until my son came home. He looked up what to do, and we righted all the wrongs.”
They realized that the bird needed to be fed, so they took down the feeder and fed her twice.
“After that, she took off,” Susan noted. “It was amazing.”
Susan shared that she has been feeding the birds at her home in New York’s Hudson Valley for over 30 years.
“My parents got me interested,” she explained. “They took up bird watching when I was in high school and I have been bird watching ever since.”
Watching birds, she noted, is her all-time favorite thing. “Even when my husband and I are hiking we are always looking for something new,” she said. “It never gets old.”
Through the years, I have seen several of these seemingly out-of-place hummingbirds. Some of them remain at their host’s feeders for a brief stay of a few days or a couple of weeks, but some of these hummingbirds have extended their stay for several months, lingering throughout the winter months before eventually departing in February or March.
The big question concerns whether these hummingbirds are truly lost and out of place. The answer, based on everything I have managed to learn, is that these hummingbirds are precisely where they want to be. For still unknown reasons, some of these western hummingbirds make a migration swing through the eastern United States.
Many of the visiting winter hummingbirds turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, which is a species native to the western United States. The birds visiting at the homes of Katherine, Judi, and Susan all turned out to be rufous hummingbirds. It’s likely the visitor reported by the Storeys was also a rufous hummingbird.
In the summer months, the ruby-throated is the expected species of hummingbird in the eastern United States. In the winter months — not so much. However, in regions all across the Eastern United States, as well as along the Gulf Coast, a few ruby-throated hummingbirds are attempting to overwinter.
The rufous hummingbird has basically become an expected winter visitor each year in Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee, and western North Carolina. A few reports are received each winter. I have observed rufous hummingbirds in many different locations throughout East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
Winter hummingbirds, while always a delightful surprise for their hosts, no longer shock long-time birders. We’ve grown to expect them. If any readers are still hosting lingering hummingbirds at their feeders, I’d love to hear their stories. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.