On October 21, 2012, a once-in-a-lifetime event occurred in Gladwyne, just outside of Philadelphia, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
A special hummingbird arrived and examined every one of the flowers in my garden. Muted brown and green feathers helped it blend into the autumn vegetation, but in the center of its back I saw brownish red feathers, and when the sun hit the bird at the right angle, it shone like a new penny.
It was a juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird, a western species that is rare in Pennsylvania, although it occurs regularly. It was one of more than 80 western hummingbirds — including Anna’s and Calliope as well as Rufous — that were reported in Pennsylvania during the winter of 2012-13, a record. Forty were banded. More than half were adults. The number may reflect a prolific breeding season in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
I’m familiar with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the only hummingbird species that nests east of the Mississippi River. Our property is thick with shrubs and trees and backs up to a large area of protected woodland. A succession of hummingbird-attracting flowers follow each other from April until a heavy frost — coral honeysuckle, red bee balm, native cardinal flowers, salvias, hummingbird mint, others. I put out as many as seven feeders; I start with three in April and keep adding. By mid-summer, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds guard at least seven territories zealously.
I typically see the first males between April 17 and April 28. Arrivals continue for a few weeks until a few males establish territories. Females arrive a few weeks after the first males show up. I add feeders as more hummingbirds appear.
One day, they’re here
The males remain until late August, when all the mature males leave together. One day, they’re here; the next, they’re gone. I never see another adult male until April of the following year. Females and juveniles migrate later, in mid- September, although a straggler or two remains occasionally. (I suspect the fledglings don’t migrate earlier because they haven’t yet gained enough weight.)
Two weeks after September 11, 2001, when a group of 12 hummingbirds arrived, it wasn’t surprising that they stayed for a week. The birds hovered over a large group of salvia but did not guard territories. This was the first time I had seen behavior like this here. They left at the same time. And a few years ago, a group of juvenile and female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds arrived in late September. They stayed through October, occupying and defending seven feeders. They, too, migrated at the same time.
I used to take down my last feeder in late October until one mild fall when hummingbirds came through in waves through December. Every time I took down the feeder, two weeks would pass and then another group would arrive. Because the birds circled the spot where I place the first feeder in April — their behavior was identical to the group that arrived after 9/11 — I believe they were Ruby-throateds. Since then, I’ve left a feeder up until late December — and thinking back to the Rufous that arrived last October, I’m glad that I do.
Rufous Hummingbirds breed in open areas and forest edges in western North America from southern Alaska to California. As bander Kate McLaughlin explained in an article in a recent issue, they nest farther north than any other hummingbird. (See “Alaska’s Amazing Rufous Hummingbird,” April 2013.) In July and August, many migrate through the Rocky Mountains and nearby lowlands to take advantage of the wildflowers. Most then spend the winter in wooded areas in Mexico, over 2,000 miles by an overland route from their nearest summer home — an extraordinary journey for a bird weighing only a tenth of an ounce.
A growing number of western hummingbirds, however, make an even more extraordinary journey. More and more, they are flying east as well as south and then wintering in Florida or along the Gulf coast of the United States, rather than in Mexico. Among the western hummingbirds observed doing this, Rufous is the species most likely to stray into eastern North America. Some migrate to Pennsylvania.
Three winters in a row
One faithfully returned to the state each winter for three years not too long ago, and I recall another that caused a stir when it was seen on a cold winter day over six years ago. It had found a mushy apple still clinging to a tree in central Pennsylvania and was probing it for dormant bugs. During the winter of 2011-12, Rufous Hummingbirds were recorded in Allegheny, Chester, Lebanon, Lehigh, Northampton, and York Counties. Most of the Rufous Hummingbirds that appear in Pennsylvania leave in December. Banding records have revealed that many birds subsequently show up in Louisiana, where they remain until late February or early March, when the instinctive urge to migrate hits again and they fly northwest to breed.
Since it is difficult to differentiate a juvenile Rufous from an Anna’s, I sent photos of the bird that visited my garden to Ross Hawkins, founder and executive director of the Hummingbird Society, in Sedona, Arizona. He identified the bird and forwarded my pictures to Bob Sargent, co-founder and president of the Hummer/Bird Study Group in Fort Morgan, Alabama, who confirmed that my bird was an immature male Rufous. (If Bob sees one or more rufous-colored feathers in the center of the back of an immature bird of the genus Selasphorus — Broad-tailed, Rufous, or Allen’s — the bird is a male Rufous Hummingbird.) Bob connected me to Scott Weidensaul, who in addition to being a naturalist and well-known author, is also a federally licensed hummingbird bander. All these wonderful people guided and encouraged me; they helped me survive the winter without panicking.
When the Rufous arrived, I had not seen a hummingbird since the middle of September. He came close to examine me a few times, but as the days went by, he kept his distance. I sang or hummed to him every day. I gave him a simple nickname: Rufous.
Each morning, as soon as I brought the second feeder outside around 10:30, I would start to hum, and he would show up within seconds, squeaking loudly. I would hang the feeder on a lilac shrub, away from other bird traffic, and step away. Rufous enjoyed both feeders — although one was more than enough. At night, we brought in the feeders because of pesky raccoons. As the weather got chillier, I thought of him as I fell asleep and rose early knowing he would be hungry. If I were not out there by 7:30, I would find him circling the area where the first feeder had been placed.
On nights when the temperature dropped below freezing, he would not show up at the feeder until 8:30. To keep the nectar from freezing, I attached a 95-watt halogen spotlight to a shepherd’s hook, pointed it at the feeder, and switched it on.
How to care for overwintering hummingbirds
Read how hummingbirds tolerate winter’s cold, learn how to keep your feeders from freezing, and get a list of hummingbird banders affiliated with the Hummer/Bird Study Group.
Although Rufous weighed less than a penny, he proved himself to be a feisty guy. He settled into the most desirable territory, and he chased all our birds — as well as the occasional bumblebee. Since he was the only hummer in town, however, his aggressiveness was not an issue.
October turned to November. Rufous saved his energy for the chickadees. He made a loud squeaky sound that made it easy to find him. The vocalization was similar to the Ruby-throated’s screech but louder. Ruby-throats appear to make it when interloping on another hummingbird’s territory.
When people came onto our property, Rufous followed them around screeching. Clearly, at least to me, they were interlopers. As he matured, he didn’t make the sound as often, although he squealed frequently when I appeared. Did he think I was an intruder? I don’t know. My humming calmed him. “Summertime” was his favorite. When I appeared with my camera, he made the sound for only a few seconds. Often he would move to a different perch.
Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29, affecting the entire eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine and west across the Appalachian Mountains to Michigan and Wisconsin. Surely, I thought, Rufous would take advantage of the tail winds and migrate. As the wind howled and blew down trees, I worried, but the following day, he was sitting in the shrubs without a care.
When a nor’easter brought light snow shortly after Sandy, I was sure he would leave. I sang and said good-bye. I gave him a pep talk about how strong and brave he was, then came inside and cried. But he stayed. I took pictures of him perching comfortably on branches dusted with snow.
November and December passed without any dangerous storms. He became one of the many birds roosting in the thick shrubs behind our home. Even the chickadees were tolerated. On warm sunny days, he would disappear for hours. This happened several times. Maybe he was checking out his internal compass or feasting on bugs in a nearby pasture.
Coral honeysuckle was still setting flowers late in December. On Christmas Eve, he sat, totally at ease, on dried salvia sticks near his feeder close to the house. As light snow fell, he allowed me to take his picture.
Surely, after this latest snow, he would take advantage of the next warm spell and head for Louisiana. But my friend didn’t do this. Instead, he stayed during another light storm.
I started talking to him. “It is time for you to leave,” I would say. “You are fat and healthy. Leave with the next mild day and good breeze. In two days, you will be in Louisiana feasting on bugs and nectar. Come back next year, if you want. It can get awfully cold here in January and February.”
It got colder. The morning of January 18, 2013, was our last together. It was comfortable, sunny and windy. By now, I thought there was a chance he would stay until late February, which is the normal time to migrate from the tropics. As I took pictures, he ate from the feeder non-stop. When I put out the second feeder, he didn’t wait for me to walk away. I was so close that my lens was too long to get a picture. I had observed this behavior in the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds close to migration. He was so engrossed in sipping nectar that he ignored me.
I hummed and spoke softly to him, wishing him a safe journey: “You will be safe, my friend. There is a fine wind, and you are healthy.”
A bib with jeweled spots
His gorget, like a bib with jeweled spots, was growing daily, shimmering in the sun. Specks of brilliant orange-red had been showing on his throat since early November. He would be mature by breeding season. In the right light, I thought, his throat feathers will look like a fiery sunset and his copper body will shimmer. First-year hummingbirds don’t usually get the best territory when returning home to mate. Perhaps Rufous would be lucky.
He hovered close to my face, I believe in order to say good-bye and thanks for the nectar. He was so close that I could have touched him.
I went inside around 12:30. When I returned, he was gone. He had chosen a perfect day, and the rest of the weekend was balmy until Monday brought bitter cold.
I kept the feeder up for two weeks, just in case he was making a practice run, but he did not return.
No tears, just joy. I knew he was okay. He is also in my heart, where he will always be safe.
Suzanne Kimball is a writer and gardener whose property is a certified National Wildlife Habitat. She has been studying and photographing hummingbirds for 17 years. She teaches classes on attracting hummingbirds to the garden at the Henry Foundation for Botanical Research in Gladwyne and other places.