Wild Ideas: Cold-hardy hummers show up at local feeder

When I was growing up, I knew there was only one species of hummingbird I was likely to see in Virginia — the ruby-throated, and that was only in the summer. If I’d seen a hummer after early October, I would have thought that it was a migration-challenged member of that species. Then, in the fall of 2010, I saw a message on one of my birding lists about a rufous hummingbird that had been visiting a hummingbird feeder someone in the Northern Neck had left out.

Photo of “Tink,” identified as a juvenile or female rufous hummingbird that spent last winter at the nectar feeder of Rappahannock residents Jimmie and Beth DeBergh.Beth DeBergh
Photo of “Tink,” identified as a juvenile or female rufous hummingbird that spent last winter at the nectar feeder of Rappahannock residents Jimmie and Beth DeBergh.

I knew the rufous was a hardy bird. I’d seen them up at my brother’s, in Alaska, which is part of their breeding range. However, I had a hard time believing we had rufous here, so I did some research. What I found was that the rufous had started expanding its range into the East in the 1980s and their numbers had been increasingly steadily. The one reported on the Northern Neck that fall was indeed a rufous, as I wrote about on Nov. 10, 2010.

The rufous hummingbird is now considered the most widely distributed hummingbird in North America. They have been sighted in small numbers in the winter all along the East Coast to as far north as Canada, thanks to people leaving out nectar feeders through the winter (see sighting maps at eBird.org). The birds typically arrive in August, after their breeding season has ended, but can appear at feeders later in the fall or winter.

Female and juvenile rufous hummingbirds can be hard to tell apart, since both have spots on their throats. Some females have a small orange throat patch.Oregon Department of Transportation via Wikimedia
Female and juvenile rufous hummingbirds can be hard to tell apart, since both have spots on their throats. Some females have a small orange throat patch.

In January, Rappahannock County residents Jimmie and Beth DeBergh had invited me, along with other conservation-minded folks, to dinner at their house. The DeBerghs were interested in attracting more wildlife to their property and were looking for suggestions on how to do this.

Before dinner, Beth showed her guests photographs she had taken of a hummingbird that had come in the fall of 2012 and stayed until April, which the DeBerghs had named Tink. She also showed us photos of what appeared to be another hummer, which they had named “Tink II,” that she said had shown up late this fall but disappeared in early January, when temperatures had plunged.

Ruby-throated hummers are not cold hardy and usually go south by early fall, although a few have been sighted in winter on the Virginia coast. I thought that the DeBerghs’ winter visitors more likely were rufous hummingbirds. The other dinner guests, who are better birders than I, had similar thoughts. The photos had been shot under difficult conditions and were a bit dark, so it was hard to tell conclusively.

After the party, Beth sent the photos to all of us for further study, so I played around with them on my computer until I could make out more of the birds’ coloring and markings. The name for this hummer can be confusing, since “rufous” means red, but when applied to bird species can refer to orange, red or either color tinged with brown. AllAboutBirds.org provides a vivid description of the rufous hummingbird:

“In good light, male rufous hummingbirds glow like coals: bright orange on the back and belly, with a vivid iridescent-red throat. Females are green above with rufous-washed flanks, rufous patches in the green tail and often a spot of orange in the throat.”

Male rufous hummingbirds, such as the one above, are easier to identify from their bright-orange throat patch. As with ruby-throated hummingbirds, the patch is iridescent and may appear dark until sunlight reflects off of it.Ciar via Wikimedia
Male rufous hummingbirds, such as the one above, are easier to identify from their bright-orange throat patch. As with ruby-throated hummingbirds, the patch is iridescent and may appear dark until sunlight reflects off of it.

The throat markings on the hummers in Beth’s photos also became easier to see when I lightened the photos. Neither of the hummers in them had the flashy throat coloring typical of the males, but did have small spots.

Not being able to sort out females from juveniles is tricky. Near the bottom of the home page for each bird species at AllAboutBirds.org are photos and descriptions of similar species. The page for the rufous has a photo of a rufous with spots on its throat that is identified as being an “adult female or immature.”

Similarly to Beth’s photos, spots on the throat indicate the birds are not mature males, but do not definitively show whether they are females or are juveniles of either gender. Ruby-throated juveniles also have similar spots, which makes it harder to sort the two species out.

Bruce Jones, who was one of the dinner guests and an avid birder, consulted Ian Topolsky, a local bird expert who often leads bird walks, about Beth’s photos. Ian concurred that the DeBerghs’ visitors were likely rufous hummingbirds. Another possible species would be the Allen’s hummingbird, which is very similar to the rufous and has also been expanding its winter range, but is much less common than the rufous.

The DeBerghs also showed us photos of a young bald eagle, along with a more mature one, that had been visiting their property. I thought how lucky Jimmie and Beth were to have had such great bird sightings there and how many more species they are likely to see with a bit more naturalizing.

In visiting the DeBerghs again the week after the dinner party, I found they were going forward with their habitat plans. Following some suggestions that were put forth at the dinner party, they said they had consulted David Massie at Culpeper Soil & Water Conservation District about fencing off their streams from the cattle on their property — a great first step to conserving wildlife and to keeping water clean for all downstream users.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 275 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”