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Friday, December 14, 2012

Winter Hummingbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are often seen from March to late October in our area because this is their native breeding ground; but in late November this year, my husband spotted a hummingbird in our back garden. I kept a look out but for two weeks this hummer eluded me. Finally, I saw it at one of our feeders and I was, let's just say, more than ecstatic.  We had kept our feeders up for any late migrating hummers but never thought that we would get a hummingbird to overwinter in our garden. I always assumed that winters would be too cold in North Georgia for hummingbirds. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

 

For about a week I tried to photograph this hummingbird but it was fast, never sitting still for long especially when I had my camera ready and in hand. I later learned that this hummer has a reputation for being feisty and outflies all other species found in North America. I was finally able to get a shot of the hummer sitting amongst the rose bushes (photo above), one of its favorite places to fly around. At around the same time I found an organization called Georgia Hummers and sent them the photo for help identifying this hummer. This started a series of emails with Karen, one of their banders. The Georgia Hummers Study Group is an organization that "works at furthering scientific knowledge and enhancing the public's appreciation of hummingbirds through banding and other studies."

We set up an appointment for her to come out and try to capture the bird to band it. I was instructed to take down all the feeders but one the night before so that the hummers would only focus on the one feeder, making it easier to capture them. When Karen arrived I asked her about the possibility of having two wintering birds because I was pretty sure I saw them chasing each other. “Yes, it happens” and just as those words came out of her mouth the two hummers came zooming by. Karen quickly set up her equipment. I am not going to go into the details about how the birds where captured nor show photos because there are people that will try to do this at home and capturing hummingbirds is illegal without proper licensing and training! What I can tell you is that it is a completely safe and quick process. There are only 3 active banders in Georgia and approximately 100 in the United States. It is an arduous process requiring immense training, skill and knowledge. But what a fascinating job these dedicated volunteers have!

Photo courtesy of Penny Stowe
Photo courtesy of Penny Stowe

The first hummer Karen captured was a male Rufous. Visually, she can see a lot of rufous in its tail and knows that it is most likely a male.

male rufous

12.8.12 - 9:25AM banded hy/m Rufous
Band#J00282
Wing=###, 
Tail=27.5, 
Culmen (bill)=18.34, 
Grooving (indicates young age)=40%, 
Gorget feathers=1,
 Fat=.5 (trace), 
Molt=none, 
Weight=3.69g

She is able to confirm this through measurements, the colors in the tail feathers, striations in the beak, and the overall size of the bird. Females will be bigger than the males.

Taking tail measurements
female Rufous tail feathers
weighing the hummingbird
In addition to collecting measurements, she inspects the overall health of the bird and examines how much fat the bird is packing by blowing through a straw to see beneath the feathers. How much fat the bird is gaining is an indication of whether or not the bird will be powering up to migrate. If it is storing fat it is getting ready to head out.

belly of the Female Rufous
gorget of male rufous
gorget of female rufous

The Rufous is the most common winter hummingbird in Georgia. These birds can arrive as early as July but it is more normal to see them here in late fall. They stick around until February but some as late as April when they start their long migration to the Pacific Northwest and southern parts of Alaska to breed.

The Rufous are well adapted to handle cold weather. They can easily go in and out of torpor which is a hibernation-like state that helps them conserve energy on cold nights or when food is scarce. The hummingbird will lower its body temperature by about 20 degrees and up to 50 degrees. The hummer can raise its metabolism and get its body temperature back to normal within a few minutes but it can take up to an hour.

Karen was so incredibly patient waiting around for several hours but as the day warmed there was less activity at the feeder. The hummers were most likely out catching insects and feeding at sapsucker holes. Hummingbirds and Sapsuckers have a symbiotic relationship. Sapsuckers will drill holes in trees to get to the sap. Hummingbirds get a little help from these friends by feeding at these holes when other food sources are scarce. The hummers return the favor by fending off other birds who may try to feed there while the sapsucker is at another hole. Scientists have analyzed sap and found that it is very similar to flower nectar containing sucrose and amino acids so together with the sap and insects that fly around these holes the hummers have an excellent substitute.

Karen packed it up for the day and rescheduled to come out later in the week. She arrived first thing on a chilly morning when the hummers would be actively trying to feed at the feeder. The second attempt to capture the female was successful. This girl is definitely the dominant bird, chirping loudly and tirelessly chasing off the male.

female rufous
 12.12.12 - 7:32 banded hy/f Rufous
Band#J00283
Wing=45.15, 
Tail=28, 
Culmen=18.97, 
Grooving=40%, 
Gorget feathers=6, 
Fat=0, 
Molt=throat and wings,
Weight=3.82g


Inspecting her feathers, Karen could see that she was beginning to molt and would be getting pretty new feathers for spring.

female Rufous
These two Rufous are both young birds. Banding records show that it is likely they will return next year if they make it past their first birthday. The survivorship of these young birds probably accounts for the increase in numbers that the studies are showing (ebird.org). If you host a hummingbird during the winter it is helpful to call someone out to have it banded for species identification so the research can grow as well as our knowledge of their migration patterns.

Showing band on hummer's leg. Photo courtesy of Penny Stowe
Karen is incredibly knowledgeable and I learned so much watching her in action. In addition to her volunteer work with Georgia Hummers she is the Manager at the Bird Watcher Supply and has been an avid birder for more than 20 years. If you live in Georgia and have a sighting of a winter hummingbird I encourage you to contact Georgia Hummers on their website here or their Facebook page here.

Georgia Hummers have documented 12 species of hummingbirds that visit Georgia during the winter months. So, keep your feeders up, make sure you have some shrubs and late blooming flowers in your garden and you could find yourself with a hummer or two in your winter garden.

39 comments:

  1. How exciting. I'm always envious of all your birds but this tops it all. They are so pretty too. What fun you will have this Winter watching for the little cuties.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

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    1. their feathers are so colorful, iridescent which is often difficult to see when they are in flight unless the sunlight hits at the right angle. It was incredible to see them so close and still!

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  2. All I can say is this is incredible...how lucky to have these lovlies visit you for the winter and how lucky they are to have both of you caring for them....what an impressive post Karin!!

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    1. Thanks Donna! I am not sure I expressed it well in my post but it was truly an amazing experience. I am constantly looking out my window to see them at the feeders. I still have to pinch myself sometimes!

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  3. Congratulations on your hummers. Like you, I have a female Rufous that rules the roost in my yard, but there is also a male juvenile Rufous. They battle each other throughout the day, but they do find time to eat. Very entertaining.

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    1. That is so exciting Dorothy! The females do seem to talk a lot! Do you know if yours are banded?

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  4. This was a really fascinating post Karin. I enjoyed the images and process to weigh and band. I would love to have the Hummingbird Society here, but hummingbirds being territorial, I only end up seeing one resident bird all season.

    We only have the Ruby Throated here but it is a joy in summer. That was one of the tips in the class of shooting backyard birds... have only one feeder or close off access to all sides but the one you are shooting from.

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    1. Donna, I asked about how people got more than one hummer feeding at the same time, because like you, I only have one hummer at a time visiting any one feeder. The answer was that you have to put up lots and lots of feeders in one place so the dominant bird can't possibly monitor all those feeders. I learned that some people have as many as 20+ feeders up during the summer months and if you do that year over year you will get many more hummers finding your garden. I have 6 feeders and I am going to try putting them up in one location next summer instead of scattered around the garden and see what happens.

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    2. It does make sense since they are so territorial. But what about flower feeding? I don't put out my two feeders because they were ignoring them over the trumpet vine and the Monarda. Can you ask about this scenario? I find that when trumpet vine is flowering, they seem to allow more hummingbirds in the yard.

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    3. Donna, I inquired with Karen. Here is her reply "Hummers see feeders as a kind of flower, so having a larger garden of nectaring plants and/or feeders will attract more birds. That said, like favorite feeders they will always have favorite flowers also, like trumpet creeper. During the months of May, June and early July, most are breeding and stick close to nests and territories. Many people complain they don't have any hummers during that time (unless they are in a rural area with lots of breeding birds nearby). But it always picks up in mid July, peaking in August and September as young birds fledge and post breeding dispersal begins for the adult birds followed by the young ones. Make sure to change nectar often (every 2-3 days) during summer months - not doing so can cause them to ignore feeders."

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    4. Thank you Karen and Karin for the reply. August is when they peak in my area. They arrive at the end of April, but few are seen. May is when they will use the feeders, but then ignore them after that. I will try hanging them again next year. I was very good about changing the syrup and keeping the feeders clean because the feeders would get filled with ants within a hour or so of putting it out fresh. I guess I just have to be more patient.

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  5. Wow! Hummingbirds are one of my favorites nd to have them visit during the winter months is very special!

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    1. Mary, like you, I enjoy watching them too! They really are amusing with all their antics and chirping!

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  6. I've banded quite a few birds over the years, for various studies, but I don't think I've ever banded a hummer. Lucky you! So glad you had an opportunity to see this process up close. Sometimes it's remarkable what can be learned from banding data, as the birds age, and travel. It wasn't uncommon for us to catch birds that had been previously banded, and was always fun to look up their history, and see where they'd been!

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    1. Very cool Claire! You probably see lots of hummers all year around at your farm. It will be interesting to see if these two come back again next winter.

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  7. Karin, I'm hosting the female Rufous Julia banded on Tues Dec 11th. I think that I've been given the Best Christmas Gift Ever! I always feel so desolate when all the Ruby-throats are gone by mid November. But this female Rufous has been at my feeder and the Pineapple Sage for just about a month. Thanks for the link to your blog, you did a great job with the photos. The equipment the banders use shows what they've learned with their years of experience. Aren't we lucky to have such dedicated people who respond to our sightings!
    Casey,
    Jasper GA

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    1. Casey, I feel the same way! This is just so incredibly cool! Have you hosted hummers before, or had any return year over year? I have been enjoying seeing all the birds being banded and posted on the GH FB page. It seems like a good winter for these hummers.

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  8. That is extremely cool! The ruby throats spend the summers up here so take good care of them. I'm planting more trumpet honeysuckle to attract more of them.

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    1. The ruby throats won't be back in my garden until March and I look forward to their return. They bring so much energy to the garden so when they leave it seems very quiet. Not this year, these two rufous are very vocal and such a joy to host!

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  9. Wow! I'm always amazed by these beautiful birds as we don't have them over here and they look so exotic! Fascinating to find out how they are banded and researched x

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    1. They do look very exotic and tropical another reason it is so amazing to me that they winter in my area. They are tough little birds. Nature is so magical!

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  10. Incredible, Karin! Gosh, I was just fascinated with this entire post. How great to, first, have the hummingbirds winter on your property...second, have the experience of watching the banding process...and third, have it all documented!

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    1. I am so glad you enjoyed the post! I found out from my BIL's mother that there was a woman in Kalamazoo, Michigan that hosted a hummer during the winter some years ago. So you never know where these birds will decide to go. It just shows how much we have yet to learn.

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    2. Incredible! They're hardier than we realize I guess. By the way, I posted the Lessons Learned wrap-up today. Thanks so much for joining in!

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  11. WOW!!! This is absolutely amazing! I can only imagine how much fun this experience was :-)

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  12. OK I think this is my favorite post ever.. You did an awesome job sharing this wonderful event. I did not realize the female was so colorful.. Merry Christmas can't wait to see what all you share with us in the new year. hugs, Cherry

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    1. You are so sweet Cherry! Usually I only see how many colors there are if the hit sunlight hits them at the right angle. It was amazing to look at them close up and still! Merry Christmas to you! xo

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  13. What a fantastic experience and great photos by the way. I've never seen close ups of the feathers and features before. These were great. So lucky you have someone nearby who was able to come and band these little guys.

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    1. Absolutely! These volunteers are really dedicated and I commend all the work they are doing! I feel so lucky be able to help them in their data collection and research!

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  14. What a fantastic journey. Never heard of something so interesting. rest work on both your parts.

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  15. What a treat to have hummers this time of year. And thank you for supporting research on these fascinating birds.

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  16. I didn't realise that hummingbirds were so tiny! Excellent post.

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  17. AMAZING!! I had no idea you still had them in your garden and to hold one, is incredible! They won't return here till April or so. Your pictures are wonderful. The hummers don't look the least bit stressed. Karen must really be an expert. :o)

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  18. so tiny! must have been such a process to see! thanks for sharing!

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  19. What an amazing experience to see these tiny birds up close. You realize just how tiny these creatures are when you see them held in someone's hand. You would have to be so careful not to damage them in any way. Happy holidays Karin! All the best to you and your family for the new year!

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  20. I am glad that I read this, it is really fascinating. The comparison of neck feathers is interesting, I learned something new. I am glad you shared all the events in this banding and identifying these hummers. What a treat.

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  21. I am thrilled to find your site. We have hope of winter hummers in Ellijay, Ga? How exciting!

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