Category Archives: Migration

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.

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

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Hurricanes: bane for birds, boon for birders

During a program I presented on birds and birding at the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library, an attendee asked me if I knew what happens to birds in a hurricane? The question, no doubt prompted by such recent storms as Harvey and Irma, is of particular concern now that many of our favorite birds are migrating south along paths that could take them into harm’s way.

 

Well-known birder Kenn Kaufman shared his knowledge about birds and hurricanes when interviewed back in 2011 on the Audubon website. Among some fascinating insight he shared, Kaufman noted that the way intense storms affect birds depends on the species. He noted that a whimbrel, a large shorebird, would be more likely to fly through a major hurricane and live to tell the tale. On the other hand, such a storm would likely prove lethal for songbirds like warblers and thrushes.

 

To the questioner at my program, I also admitted that dedicated birders are, at times, rather atypical people. For a birder looking to find a totally unexpected bird, every hurricane comes with a proverbial silver lining. In the case of birders, that lining involves some of those stronger flyers — birds like whimbrels, noddies, terns, jaegers or tropicbirds — that get swept into the eye of the storm, carried far inland and dropped onto large lakes as the storm weakens.

 

My first direct observation of one of these hurricane-transported displaced birds took place back on Sept. 8, 2004. I had been drawn to Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake by reports of an incredible fallout of such birds, which included species like whimbrel and red knot. More than a dozen fellow birders were present in the swirl of wind, mist and rain when a graceful bird with a dramatic two-toned black and white plumage flew overhead. I had no idea of the bird’s identity, but I knew instantly it was a species I’d never observed. I heard someone yell “sooty tern” — the identity of the shouter turned out to be area birding legend Rick Knight — and then pandemonium broke out as birders in rain gear got their binoculars into position to track the bird before it flew out of sight.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Sooty Terns nests in the Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys. One was blown into Northeast Tennessee with Hurricane Frances in 2004.

 

We needn’t have worried. The bird lingered long enough for all those present to get a good look. I was accompanied that day by the late Howard P. Langridge, a well-known birder in both Florida and Tennessee. Howard had seen sooty terns, but he had found them when visiting the islands of the Dry Tortugas, west of the Florida Keys.

 

Two months after the exciting observation of that sooty tern, Howard passed away at age 81. So, even to this day, memories of that bird are tinged with some bittersweetness from the fact it was one of my last birding adventures with a man who served as a bit of a birding mentor for me. On our drive back home after that exciting encounter with the storm-driven tern, Howard talked excitedly about sooty terns and some of the other rare birds he had seen in a birding career that spanned more than 50 years.

 

In addition, we learned a valuable lesson that day. It’s an accepted fact that no bird is worth risking life or limb. It’s also a good idea to be careful where you park when going out to a rain-drenched lakeshore to look for birds from a diminished hurricane. Howard and I lingered after the other birders departed. When we started to leave, he discovered his car’s back tires had gotten stuck in the clay mud. With Howard behind the wheel, I pushed his car as the tires spun madly for traction. I ruined a new pair of denim jeans, but I got the car out of the mud. It’s one more memory that will put a smile on my face to this day.

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Photo by Jean Potter Caspian Terns at Holston Lake in Northeast Tennessee.

 

The sooty tern, blown to a Bristol lake in 2004 by Hurricane Frances, remains a highlight of my birding; however, it’s hardly the only unusual bird to be dumped on area lakes thanks to hurricanes that formed in tropic waters.

 

Hurricane Hugo back in 1989 remains one of the most legendary storms in the minds of most long-time birders in the area. I hadn’t yet taken up birding, but birders like Howard made sure I knew all about the bird bounty stirred up by Hugo. Two species of jaegers — parasitic and pomarine — were among the birds blown inland to Watauga Lake in Carter County. Seeing these birds usually requires a seat on a boat capable of traveling far out to sea to look for birds that hardly ever venture near the shoreline except for nesting.

 

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A Forster’s Tern observed at Boone Lake in Northeast Tennessee.

Hurricane Hugo also blew more than 50 Forster’s terns — a record number for the region — to Watauga Lake. In addition, a single royal tern — a first record for Tennessee — was also detected by birders looking for birds displaced by Hurricane Hugo.

 

Much farther back, a high count of Caspian terns was recorded Sept. 5, 1964, at Boone Lake in the wake of Hurricane Cleo. The late Wallace Coffey, a well-known birder in Bristol, was present to witness those 130 Caspian terns. Both Caspian and royal terns are birds usually found along the Atlantic Coast in places like Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.

 

As I write this week’s post, I’m keeping track of the progress of more hurricanes forming in the Atlantic. The season has already produced some historically powerful storms. Could the projected path of one of these hurricanes bring storm remnants over Tennessee. Will area lakes see another incredible fallout of birds uprooted from their tropical homes? Time will tell. If something unusual does make an appearance, I hope to bring it to the attention of readers in an upcoming column.

 

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Join Bryan Stevens on Saturday, Sept. 30, for a one-hour morning bird walk on the trails at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. The walk will begin at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Bring binoculars to help increase your chances of seeing some migrating birds along the park’s trails.

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.

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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 hummingbirds.net, 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.

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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 ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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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 https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.