Category Archives: Hummer/Bird Study Group

Reader reports visit from rufous hummingbird

An email from Bristol resident Ralph Beamer offered a timely reminder about the need to keep a watchful eye on our sugar water feeders even as most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds depart the region.

“For the past week, I have had a red humming bird coming to the feeder,” Ralph explained in his email. He added that he had never seen a hummingbird like this recent visitor.

“Have you had any reports of a similar sighting?” Ralph asked.

Ralph is the first person to make such a report this fall, but sightings of a species of hummingbird other than the expected ruby-throated hummingbird are becoming more commonplace each year. Once the numbers of ruby-throated hummingbirds are reduced as these tiny birds migrate from the region, noticing an unusual hummingbird at a feeder becomes even easier.

In a reply to Ralph’s email, I sought more information on the hummingbird’s coloration. He confirmed that the bird’s feathers looked more reddish brown than bright red, which supports my belief that he has received a visit from a rufous hummingbird.Ruf-Drawing

I speak from personal experience. My yard has attracted rufous hummingbirds on a couple of occasions. In October of 2016 I received my most recent visit from a rufous hummingbird, which lingered into November and was banded by Mark Armstrong. A former curator of birds for the Knoxville Zoo, Armstrong has devoted several years to studying the phenomenon of rufous hummingbirds that appear to migrate on a regular basis through the eastern United States every fall and early winter. Mark’s efforts have largely focused on Tennessee reports of rufous hummingbirds, but other banders operating from the Gulf Coast to New England have confirmed rufous hummingbirds in their respective regions.

The possibility of attracting a rufous hummingbird is the reason I encourage others to keep a sugar water feeder available into October and November. Experts who have studied the matter note that the presence of a feeder will not encourage ruby-throated hummingbirds to linger. These tiny birds know instinctively when it’s time to depart. Without the attraction of a feeder, however, a visiting rufous hummingbird might reject any extended stay in your yard.

Selasphorus rufus, or the rufous hummingbird, is about the same size as the ruby-throated hummingbird. Both species reach a body length of a little more than three inches and weigh only a few grams. In fact, one of these small hummingbirds might weigh the equivalent of a dime. Female rufous hummingbirds are slightly bigger than males, so a well-fed female rufous hummingbird might weigh as much as a nickel. So, to get an accurate impression of this sort of size, simply think of these tiny birds as weighing less than some of the spare change in your pocket.

Although hummingbirds are not known for their longevity, the website for Tennessee Watchable Wildlife notes that the oldest rufous hummingbird on record reached an age of eight years and 11 months. For the most part, hummingbirds blaze like tiny comets and enjoy typically brief but fast-paced lives. Despite a prevalent impression, hummingbirds are not delicate creatures. For instance, the rufous hummingbird’s tolerance for cold allows it to survive temperatures that dip briefly below zero. This adaptation has allowed the rufous hummingbird to breed as far north as Alaska.

The Selasphorus genus of hummingbirds consists of the rufous and six other species. Of those species, the Allen’s hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird and calliope hummingbird are known to also migrate through the eastern United States although with less frequency than the rufous. The remaining Selaphorus hummers — scintillant hummingbird, glow-throated hummingbird and volcano hummingbird — range in the tropical regions of Costa Rica and Panama. Those rufous hummingbirds that don’t spend the fall and early winter in the southeastern United States choose to overwinter in the region of Mexico around the city of Acapulco. This majority of the rufous hummingbird population migrates north again in the spring to claim nesting territory that can range from the Rocky Mountains of the western United States, as well as the Pacific Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington, all the way north to southern Alaska, as well as British Columbia in Canada.

Those rufous hummingbirds that continue to migrate through the southeastern United States each autumn constitute more evidence that we still have a lot to learn about birds. Even an abundant species like the rufous hummingbird offers mysteries that curious humans can attempt to understand.

While I can’t guarantee hummingbirds, I want to remind readers of the bird walks at 8 a.m. each Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Remaining walks, which are free and open to the public, are scheduled for Oct. 21 and Oct. 28. Meet at the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing pleasure.


Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at


Hummingbird numbers spike as summer season advances toward autumn


From the shade of my front porch, I watched about a half dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds cavort among the blooms of a large mimosa tree on a recent evening. The tree apparently holds an extraordinary attraction for the hummingbirds, as well as the pipevine swallowtail butterflies and other pollinating insects. I enjoyed watching the greenish hummingbirds zip among the profusion of pink mimosa blossoms, which have always reminded me of the thin fiber-optic filaments popular on some artificial Christmas trees and other decorations during the holidays. To draw so many different insects, as well as hummingbirds, the mimosa blooms must provide a rich source of nectar.

While I have almost wilted from the recent extended heat wave, the ruby-throated hummingbirds at my home appear to have downright thrived during these sunny, hot days of mid-summer. Once again, these tiny birds must have enjoyed a successful nesting season, based on the numbers of young hummers visiting both my feeders and flowers. The uptick in the presence of hummingbirds took place without much fanfare, but after a couple of months of “hummer doldrums,” it was impossible for any observer to miss the way these tiny birds have become much more prevalent in recent weeks.

Coinciding with this resurgence of the hummingbirds at my home, I received a post on Facebook from Philip Laws, a resident of Limestone Cove. Apparently, Philip, too, has noticed that hummingbird numbers are on the rise.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches near a feeder that he is ready to defend from all comers.

“Seemed like a slow hummingbird summer,” he wrote. “But two days ago the babies started hitting the feeders and everything looks much brighter!”

I also enjoyed a recent phone conversation with Erwin resident Don Dutton, who wanted to know why hummingbirds have been scarce around his home this summer. I’ve noticed fewer hummers at my own home this summer, but it’s natural for numbers to fluctuate from year to year. I anticipate that numbers will rise as hummingbirds begin migrating south again in the coming weeks. At that time, the adult hummers will be joined by the young birds from this season’s successful nesting attempts.
Don shared that when he lived out west, he often visited Mount Charleston near Las Vegas, Nevada, where he saw swarms of hummingbirds comprised of various different species. In the eastern United States, the only nesting species is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

For readers who have felt slighted by hummers so far this season, perhaps it’s time to try your luck again at attracting them. The surest method is to keep a sugar water feeder available to attract them on their way south later this summer and into the fall. A visit to a plant nursery can also provide an abundance of blooms to use to lure hummers to your gardens. Some late-blooming summer flowers attractive to hummingbirds include canna, cardinal flower, gladiola and crocosmia. While the widely held belief is that hummingbirds prefer red blooms, they will gladly visit any flower that rewards them with a sip of nectar.501-7006-blk

Late summer and early fall, even more so than spring, are usually the best times to enjoy hummingbirds, when they are usually at their most common. There are a couple of reasons for this annual increase. First, nesting female hummingbirds have reared their young, which then begin visiting feeders and gardens to compete with their elders at flower blossoms and sugar water feeders. Second, adult males and females that migrated farther north usually begin swinging southward again in late July and early August.

According to the website, mature male hummingbirds usually follow an earlier departure date than adult females and immature birds. The organizers of the website theorize that by leaving early in the fall, the adult male hummingbirds free up resources for their developing offspring. After all, it’s the least they can do since adult male hummingbirds play absolutely no role in helping females with the process of nesting and rearing young. All young hummingbirds are, in effect, raised by single mothers.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches at a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

Despite their tiny size, hummingbirds are tough birds. One species, the rufous hummingbird, ranges as far north as Alaska. Several tropical species have adapted to the frigid conditions that occur at the higher elevations of the Andes Mountains.

As I have done in years past, I advise a patient but proactive approach for attracting hummingbirds. Keep feeders readily available. If possible, offer flowers, too. Don’t keep your landscape too tidy. A perfectly manicured lawn is like a desert for hummingbirds. Provide some shrubs and trees to provide cover and perching branches. Water features, particularly waterfalls and fountains, are also a reliable means of attracting hummingbirds, as well as other birds.

If you have felt slighted by hummers so far this year, keep a sugar water feeder available to attract them on their way south later this summer and into the fall. To share a sighting, make a comment, or ask a question, send email to


Bryan Stevens has been writing about birds since 1995. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email

Woman gets glimpse into life of a nesting ruby-throated hummingbird


Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                        This nest, filled with two tiny eggs, was discovered in a maple tree in a Bluff City yard by Donna Ottinger.

For Bluff City, Tennessee, resident Donna Ottinger, the show in her front yard beats anything you might find on television this summer. Since late July, Donna has been watching a female ruby-throated hummingbird that she has named Bliss carry out her nesting duties.


Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                  Bliss the ruby-throated hummingbird visits a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

Like all female ruby-throated hummingbirds, Bliss produced two eggs for containment in a delicate nest of spiderweb, lichen and plant fibers woven onto a maple tree branch. There are some reasons why it’s always a pair of eggs for hummingbirds. First, the nest is so small — about the size of a walnut half-shell — that there is barely room for two eggs, let alone more. Second, once the young hatch, the nest has just enough room to accommodate them as they grow, fed well by their mother. Third, feeding two hungry young hummingbirds is a demanding task. A female hummingbird has to find enough food to fuel her own body and help her young in the nest grow and thrive. It’s a full-time job during the daylight hours. She’s pressed hard to succeed at raising two young. Attempting to rear more would most likely prove impossible.

Donna compared the two tiny eggs to Tic Tac mints. The entire process — from building the nest to incubating eggs to tending hatchlings — requires a commitment of more than two months. Donna noted that even after the young hummingbirds hatched, Bliss continued to reinforce the nest with collected silk from spider webs.

Donna kept the nest under observation after she discovered it in late July. As she noted on her Facebook page, finding a hummingbird nest is not an everyday occurrence. The nest is on one of the lower branches of a large maple tree in her front yard only a short distance from her porch. She was able to sit comfortably while watching Bliss come and go to her tiny nest.


Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                                           Bliss, a ruby-throated hummingbird, sits on her nest to incubate her two eggs.

“It’s been a real blessing,” Donna told me when we met in person on Aug. 19. She was gracious enough to permit my mom and me to sit on her front porch and enjoy the show. During our visit, we got to watch as Bliss arrived to feed the babies. It’s not a spectacle for the squeamish. Bliss plunged her long bill deep into the throats of each baby bird in turn and pumped some nutritious contents into the growing youngsters. Despite the fact that it looked like she could easily impale the babies, they suffered no ill effects and looked quite full and satisfied after the visit.


Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger              On Aug. 1, one chick hatched. The second chick hatched the following day, making for a very full nest.

The two babies were hatched on Aug. 1 and Aug. 2, respectively. The staggered hatching reflects the fact that Bliss also laid the eggs on separate days. Not knowing the gender of the babies, Donna named the Aug. 1 hatchling Monday for the day of the week hatching took place. In turn, the second baby, which escaped its shell on Aug. 2, was named Tuesday.

Once hatched, young hummingbirds remain in the nest about 28 days (nearly a month) and depend on their mother to bring them regular meals. If that’s not enough, the ruby-throated hummingbird is known to nest twice in a season. It certainly must rank a female hummingbird as one of the busiest of our summer birds. At the time I wrote this column, Monday and Tuesday had still not left the nest.

The young hummers have grown at an astonishing rate and Donna has witnessed their progress day by day. She noted that young hummers start off life with a short bill. Like the rest of their bodies, however, their bills have grown accordingly as Monday and Tuesday received regular feedings from Bliss.


Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                Having grown at a rapid pace, hummingbird chicks Monday and Tuesday find their nest growing rather cramped by mid-August.

Female hummingbirds receive no assistance from their mates. Males don’t assist with the rearing of their own young. For male hummingbirds, summer is mainly a time to thrive on the abundance of nectar-bearing blooms, as well as a profusion of tiny insects and spiders that also make up a good portion of their diet.

When I saw them, I knew that little Monday and Tuesday would be out of the nest in a short time. It would also be necessary for them to soon begin fall migration. On Aug. 23, Donna reported on her Facebook page that the young hummers had left the nest.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                   Bliss feeds her two young hummingbirds.

“Just three weeks after hatching, the baby hummers have both left the nest,” she wrote in her post. “They didn’t go far, and Bliss is still feeding them in a nearby tree where they have taken up new residence.”

The next generation of hummingbirds always helps swell the number of these tiny birds in our yards in late summer and early fall. Keeping visiting ruby-throated hummingbirds can be as simple as planting an abundance of the flowers they love, but offering multiple sugar water feeders also helps. Keep the sugar water mix at a four parts water to one part sugar ratio. Don’t offer honey in your feeders. When mixed with water, it can spoil and spread fungal diseases. Remember that hummingbirds don’t subsist on sugar water alone. They also eat numerous tiny insects and spiders to obtain the protein they need for their dietary needs, so don’t use insecticides near feeders or flowers that hummers are likely to visit.


Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger  Monday and Tuesday find the nest increasingly crowded in the days before they fledged.

It was absolutely wondrous to observe Bliss and her babies. The experience has motivated me to keep a closer watch on the hummingbirds in my yard. There are female hummers present every summer. They have to be nesting somewhere, and I’d like to find a nest in my own yard.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email


Photos Courtesy of Donna Ottinger            Monday and Tuesday share a compact nest.


Bliss incubates her eggs at her nest in Bluff City, Tennessee.

Hummingbirds receive warm welcome upon their return


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    The last Ruby-throated Hummingbird to visit my feeders in 2015.

My last ruby-throated hummingbird in 2015 visited my sugar water feeder close to dusk on Oct. 10. I never saw any hummingbirds after that date.

I’m always a little wistful when the last hummingbirds depart in the autumn, but I know they’ll return in the spring. This year, a male ruby-throated hummingbird returned on April 12, 180 days after the last hummingbird departed last fall.

What do the hummingbirds that make their homes in our yards from April to October do during the five months they are absent from the region?


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                       The first male Ruby-throated Hummingbird to visit my feeders in 2016 was a bit camera shy.

Most ruby-throated hummingbirds retreat to southern Mexico and Central America, some winging their way as far south as extreme western Panama, as well as the West Indies and southern Florida. They utilize a variety of habitats, ranging from citrus groves and forest edges to tropical deciduous forests and the edges of rivers and wetlands.

Those ruby-throated hummingbirds that make it as far south as Panama may find that they must compete with 59 other species of hummingbirds that call the Central America country home. Panamanian species that a ruby-throated hummingbird might possibly come into contract with include violet sabrewing, purple-throated mountain gem and white-necked jacobin.

In this region, we can only expect with any confidence to enjoy a single species — the aforementioned ruby-throated hummingbird — for half the year. It’s always great to welcome them home. Here are some of the other hummingbird enthusiasts who shared their “first arrivals” with me.


Doris Cochran in Marion, North Carolina, saw her first hummingbird on April 6.

“I was having my morning coffee … looking out at the frost we got in Marion last night,” she wrote. Then, from inside her home, she happened to notice something. Giving her sugar water feeder a closer look, she was surprised to see a hummingbird perched on it.


Beverly Puerckhauer sent me an email on April 5. She informed me that she has house finches visiting at her home, but she hasn’t yet seen a hummingbird.


Jimmie Daniels, Newland, North Carolina, reported her first hummingbird on April 8.

“I just saw a hummingbird at my house and my feeder was inside,” she informed me by email. “The feeder is out now, but he had already left. I sure hope he comes back.”


Glen Eller, a resident of Kingsport, Tennessee, saw his first ruby-throated hummingbird of the season on Sunday, April 10, at 6:35 p.m. He shared his observation through a post to the list-serve bristol-birds.


Pat Stakely Cook notified me of a first hummingbird sighting by Facebook post. “We had our first one here in Marion, North Carolina, on Sunday, April 10,” Pat reported, adding that there had been lots of activity around the feeders once that first hummer showed up.


Philip Laws, a resident of the Limestone Cove community in Unicoi County, Tennessee, reported his first hummingbird on Monday, April 11.

“I just saw my first hummingbird in Limestone Cove, a male of course, about noon,” he reported in a Facebook message. He added that he hadn’t had time to check his feeder on the previous day, but that the sugar water level was down enough to suggest that the hummingbird had probably been feeding on Sunday, too.


Susie Condrey of Marion, North Carolina, welcomed back a hummingbird on April 11 at 4:15 p.m.


Janice Denton of Bristol, Tennessee, reported her first spring hummer arrived on April 11.

“I was sitting on my front porch about 7 on Monday evening when a hummingbird went flying by,” she wrote in an email. “I have my feeders in front of three different windows, so when I went inside, I saw the ruby-throated hummingbird feeding at each of my feeders.”

Janice added that she loves watching the hummingbirds feed. “They are such amazing creatures of God,” she wrote.


Debbie Oliver, also of Bristol, Tennessee, also reported that her first hummer arrived on April 11.

“I just saw my first hummingbird this spring,” she wrote in her email. She noticed the bird flying around the hummingbird feeder at 7:35 p.m.


Lorraine Hale posted on bristol-birds that she saw two hummingbirds on Monday, April 11, at her home in Bluff City, Tennessee.


Karen Andis saw her first hummingbird at her shop on Smith Creek Road in Washington County, Virginia.

“I wanted to let you know we saw our first hummingbird on April 12 at 12:25 p.m.,” she wrote. She added that she has only one feeder out, which still managed to attract this hummingbird.


Joan Moffitt posted on my Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on Tuesday, April 12, around 2:45 p.m. She put out her feeder on Saturday, April 9.


Harold and Elizabeth Willis saw their first hummingbird at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, April 13. The couple resides in Marion, North Carolina, in the Hankins community near Lake James.



Photo Courtesy of Linda Kessinger Rhodes Linda Kessinger Rhodes photographed her newly-arrived hummingbird and shared the photo on Facebook.

Linda Kessinger Rhodes sent me a Facebook message reporting her first hummingbird of spring on Thursday, April 14. “There he was — the first hummer I’ve seen at my waiting feeder off Volunteer Parkway in Bristol near the racetrack,” she wrote.


Marty Huber and Jo Ann Detta of Abingdon, Virginia, spotted their first spring hummer on April 14.

“Our hummingbird arrived  April 14 at 8:10 p.m. just before it got dark,” they shared in an email. “it was so exciting to see the hummer sitting and relaxing on our nectar feeder.”

This year’s hummingbird arrived two days later than last year.

“We hope this one stays around as last year it was ten days before we saw another hummer,” they added.


Bill and Judy Beckman, who reside on Spivey Mountain in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw their first hummingbird — a male — around 2 p.m. on Thursday, April 14.


Steve Meigs saw his first hummingbird of the spring at 11:30 a.m. on April 14 at his home in Foxhound Hills in the Limestone Cove community of Unicoi. “That’s a few days earlier than the last few years,” Steve noted, adding that his home is located at an elevation of 2,800 feet.


Phyllis Moore informed me via Facebook that her hummingbirds are back in Bristol, Virginia, as of 7:30 p.m. on April 20.



Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     Now that they’re back, hummingbirds will probably stick around until early October.

James Noel Smith of Unicoi informed my via Facebook that the hummingbirds are back at his Unicoi, Tennessee, home as of April 26.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email

Jonesborough couple hosting wintering hummingbird

I received a phone call in late November from Elizabethton resident Susan Peters, who informed me that one of her friends in a local hiking organization was hosting a hummingbird.

But hummingbirds are summer birds from the tropics, right? Doesn’t the cold weather present a shock to these visitors?

Actually, many hummingbirds are adapted to frigid conditions. Rufous Hummingbirds are quite capable of surviving freezing conditions, as long as they have access to a source of food. In spring, they migrate through California, before eventually spending the summer in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

Photo courtesy of Faye Guinn Not even an occasional bout of snowy weather has deterred this hummingbird from visiting a feeder at the home of Howard and Faye Guinn.

Photo courtesy of Faye Guinn
Not even an occasional bout of snowy weather has deterred this hummingbird from visiting a feeder at the home of Howard and Faye Guinn. The brownish hummingbird is hovering in front of the feeder. Notice a male Northern Cardinal is present in the photo’s background.

The bird in question has been coming since Oct. 19 to a feeder at the home of Howard and Faye Guinn, who live near Jonesborough. Faye and I have corresponded by email about her hummingbird, which has already weathered a couple of snowstorms.

“I was delighted to have a late hummingbird but never expected him to stay this long,” Faye wrote.

When Susan contacted me, she said that the Guinns wanted to know if they should continue feeding the hummingbird or remove the feeder to encourage the bird to fly south.


Photo Courtesy of Faye Guinn                           A heat lamp positioned near the feeder keeps the sugar water solution from freezing during bouts of frigid weather.

I advised Faye in my email to continue to offer the sugar water, especially since other resources are scarce. These wintering hummingbirds are not entirely dependent on feeders, but they can make the difference during prolonged bouts of freezing weather. These hummingbirds will also sip from sap wells drilled into trees by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Hummingbirds also feed on tiny insects.

“Thanks for letting me know to keep feeding because some friends have said I should stop and he would go, but they are not birders,” Faye responded to my suggestion. “I am only backyard birder but do know a little.

The hummingbird is somewhat camera shy and the photographs Faye has managed to get have been taken from inside her home.

“Any movement outside and he is gone,” she explained. “He comes and goes very quickly. His coming and going has no schedule but in the mornings he is soon there. He looks like he is beefing up so I expect he soon will go.”

She has gone to extra effort to provide for her visiting hummingbird.

“I take the feeders down — I have two so he has a choice — about two hours after dark on the nights it is to freeze and put it back out about 6:30 with a heat lamp,” she wrote.

So far, her efforts have kept the bird healthy and content.

“I never expected him to stay this long,” she said.

When she noticed the hummingbird for the first time on Oct. 19 she saw the bird at her Mexican sage plant. Her feeder was still available at the time, too.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers in front of the camera. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds typically depart the region by mid-October.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers in front of the camera. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds typically depart the region by the middle of October.

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 is: are these hummingbirds 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.

The Rufous Hummingbird has basically become an expected winter visitor with a few reports being received each winter. I have observed Rufous Hummingbirds in many different locations, including Bristol, Blountville, Flag Pond, Elizabethton and Hampton. I have also observed Allen’s Hummingbirds in Mountain City and Johnson City. I know of records of these small birds from Erwin, Roan Mountain, Johnson City and many other locations throughout the region.

Photo by Ryan Hagerty/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service A Ruby-throated Hummingbird is held with its wings spread during a study at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama.

Photo by Ryan Hagerty/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird is held with its wings spread during a study at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama.

Mark Armstong, who works at the Knoxville Zoo, has banded many of the western hummingbirds that migrate into the region on an annual basis.

I have continued to correspond with Faye, who confirmed that the bird has remained resident throughout November. As of Dec. 7, the hummingbird was still visiting the feeders at the Guinn residence.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service A Rufous Hummingbird perches on a flowering vine.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A Rufous Hummingbird perches on a flowering vine. This hummingbird nests as far north as Alaska.

Bob Sargent leaves behind legacy of decades of hummingbird research

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                        Bob Sargent works diligently to band a Rufous Hummingbird at the home of Gary and Brenda Wallace in Elizabethton, Tenn.

I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of Bob Sargent. With his wife, Martha, Bob was the co-founder of the The Hummer/Bird Study Group. This non-profit organization founded by the Sargents was based in their hometown of Clay, Alabama, and dedicated to the study and preservation of hummingbirds and other neotropical migrants.

Their research programs with hummingbirds and migrating songbirds got underway back in 1987. The HBSG was formed in 1994. The Sargents have described the HBSG as a child born of the necessity to support their continuing research.

 Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                          A Rufous Hummingbird gets a sip of sugar water midway through the banding process.

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                  A Rufous Hummingbird gets a sip of sugar water midway through the banding process.

It was also a way to reward those who contributed financially to that effort. In the early days the Sargents’ savings account paid the expenses incurred by the HBSG. Many friends and bird conservationists contributed financially to the cause, and the Sargents wanted these donations to be tax-deductible.

The Sargent also became ambassadors in the promotion of hummingbirds. Their specialty became those species of western hummingbirds that have been gradually shifting their migration routes and wintering grounds to include forays into the eastern half of the United States.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                            Martha Sargent takes a photo as her husband, Bob, lets Brenda Wallace hold a Rufous Hummingbird ready to be released after the banding process.

In the late 1990s, the Sargents presented a well-attended program sponsored by the Bristol Bird Club. That was the first occasion I had to meet this energetic and dedicated couple. I wrote about the fascinating program in my bird column and shared with readers Bob’s emphasis on keeping sugar water feeders available during the winter months. It was an eye-opening program that tuned me into the phenomenon of wintering hummingbirds.

Not too long after that column ran, I received a call from Bennette Rowan, an artist and Johnson City resident, in November of 1997. She had one of those western hummingbirds at her feeder. After she got in touch with me, the Sargents were also alerted. The couple arrived in Johnson City on Dec. 3, 1997, to band and identify the bird. To the surprise and delight of everyone present, the bird turned out to be an Allen’s hummingbird — the first of its kind ever found in Northeast Tennessee and only the fourth for the entire state. Bennette, who had orginally named her bird “Rusty,” modified the name to Rusty-Allen. The bird remained at her home until Dec. 16 of that year.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                       From left: Bob Sargent, Brenda Wallace, Martha Sargent and Gary Wallace pose for a photo after the Sargents successfully banded a Rufous Hummingbird at the Elizabethton home of the Wallaces.

A few years later I got to watch the Sargents band another hummingbird at the home of Brenda and Gary Wallace in Elizabethton. On that occasion, I also photographed the couple as they went expertly about the precise job of capturing, documenting, identifying and banding the hummingbird. It turned out to be a female Rufous hummingbird.

As more of these reports arrived every late fall and early winter, the Sargents became overwhelmed and could not respond to each and every case. They began to bring other hummingbird banders under their wing, so to speak. Individuals such as Chris Sloan and Mark Armstrong became principally involved with the documentation and banding of hummingbirds found within the Volunteer State.

I feel extremely fortunate to have known Bob Sargent, who died Sept. 7, 2014, at the age of 77.  An electrician by trade, he leaves a lasting legacy of more than a quarter-century of research into the mysteries of some of our tiniest birds.

Several birders across Tennessee posted tributes to Bob on the TN-Birds list-serve forum.

Cyndi Routledge of Montgomery County described him as a “dear friend and mentor” who “positively impacted my life in infinite ways as he did with endless others. He leaves a legacy of hummingbird banders and hummingbird lovers across the United States and even beyond its borders.”

She also made a suggestion to those reading her post.

“And perhaps at some point today, go outside, sit near your hummingbird feeders, listen for the hums and chirps of those tiny miracles and give thanks for Bob, for his life and for those birds,” she wrote in her post.

Jud Johnston of Waynesboro, Tennessee, commented on Bob’s death. “A great loss for birders and birding in the Southeast,” Jud wrote.

In the years since I saw that program, presented in such educational and entertaining fashion by Bob and Martha Sargent, hardly a year has gone by when a reader hasn’t alerted me to the presence of one of those “brown hummingbirds” that show up at their feeders when the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have already flown south for the winter season.

In the next couple of weeks, the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that have made our spring, summer and fall so delightful will once again disappear. They’ll return in about six to seven months, but our lives will be a bleaker without them.

This is where things can get interesting. Don’t take down your feeders. Keep a supply of sugar water available as “bait” to attract any Rufous Hummingbirds, or even Allen’s or Black-chinned Hummingbirds that might decide to spend late fall and early winter with you.

So, be very attentive to any hummingbird that arrives at your feeders in late October or early November. Most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds depart the region in early October. Many of these winter-visiting hummingbirds show a great amount of brown plumage instead of the usual green. Any of these conditions may indicate you’ve been gifted with a rare visit from one of these exceptional little birds. If you are so fortunate, please send me an email at

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Dave Menke The Rufous Hummingbird is increasingly becoming a migrant/winter resident  in the eastern United States.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Dave Menke
The Rufous Hummingbird is increasingly becoming a migrant/winter resident in the eastern United States.