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Reflecting on the gift of an out-of-range hummingbird

out-of-range hummingbird
This female Rufous Hummingbird visited Laura Erickson’s neighborhood in Duluth, Minnesota, in late 2021. The species breeds in western North America, and in recent years, part of the population shifted its migration route to the east and now winters along the Gulf Coast. Photo by Laura Erickson

On November 6, 2021, I learned that a female hummingbird belonging to the genus Selasphorus — either an Allen’s or, much more likely, a Rufous — had been coming to a feeder down my block in Duluth, Minnesota. The next morning, a neighbor and I set out our own feeders, and the bird quickly started visiting our yards, too. She remained in the neighborhood through a couple of snowstorms and a cold snap when temperatures dropped to 11°F, sticking it out until December 4. No hummingbird banders were available, but photos confirmed that she was a Rufous Hummingbird, a lifer for many of the dozens of birders who showed up to see her.

On days with west or northwest winds, she arrived at my feeders, on the east side of my house, a half-hour before sunrise, but when winds were easterly, she arrived much later. Three different feeding stations gave her options.

At midday, she spent a lot of time away from all our feeders. I watched her take droplets of oozing sap and dart for insects at the tips of white spruce branches. Our block has several native plant gardens, and she often disappeared into my raspberry canes, interspersed with weedy native plants, or my dogwoods and Virginia creepers — plants that host lots of tiny insects. On the coldest days, she stayed closer to feeders but even then took some wilder fare.

The ratio of sugar to water in flower nectar ranges between about 1:5 and 1:3. The best feeder recipe is a quarter cup of sugar per cup of water. During cold, wet weather in spring migration, I usually bump the sugar to a third of a cup, which is the recipe we used in this situation.

A winter hummingbird feels like a gift, but one fraught with responsibilities in frigid weather. Every morning I set out warm feeders before first light. On the coldest days, I swapped out icy feeders with warmer ones two or three times an hour all day. That’s labor intensive, impossible for people who work away from home. So many people with out-of-range hummingbirds seek advice and camaraderie on social media. Some have invented all kinds of makeshift heaters to keep sugar water thawed. I was thrilled to discover a tiny company, Hummers Heated Delight, that sells hummingbird feeders heated with a 7-watt lightbulb. Founded in Oregon to help people with overwintering Anna’s Hummingbirds, it’s now run by the original owner’s nephew in Two Harbors, Minnesota, less than 20 miles from me! I bought two feeders, which worked perfectly, and now I won’t have to worry about my sugar water freezing overnight during spring migration here in the frozen north.

On December 4, the hummingbird pigged out all day; the temperature was a balmy 41 degrees with strong southwest winds. In mid-afternoon, the wind died down and shifted to the northwest, ideal for a southward journey. Sure enough, the hummingbird disappeared.

Next fall, I’ll keep my feeders out until at least Thanksgiving.

This article appears in Laura’s “Attracting Birds” column in the March/April 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

Listen to Laura’s radio episode about this hummingbird and read the transcript on her blog.

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

Laura Erickson on social media