The Catawba County park ranger at Riverbend Park in Concord spends his days off in the fall and winter banding vagrant winter hummingbirds across Western North Carolina. Martin was here, in Waynesville, on Dec. 5 to do his thing.
Ruby Maloney who lives at 95 Morgan Street off Hazelwood Ave., had called me a couple of weeks prior to that Dec. 5 date to say she still had a hummer coming to her feeders. Maloney said that as October approached and the hummingbird numbers at her feeders dwindled, she still left feeders out and the food kept disappearing, then she began seeing her diner on a regular basis.
Martin arrived at Maloney’s home at 9 a.m. I had gotten there a little earlier and the bird was already in the breakfast mode. Martin set up his trap — a wire cage that looked to be about three feet long and two feet high. Martin first opened the door to the trap and hung the feeder on the opened door. The bird came to the feeder, no problems. Next Martin put the feeder inside the trap with the trapdoor opened and stood quietly about 15 feet away with a monofilament line attached to the door. After a few minutes the bird came back, checked out the door and then went for the feeder. A little tug on the monofilament and the bird was in the cage. Martin quickly and deftly removed the bird from the cage, put it in a bag and brought it inside. Here, he got a positive ID — an adult female rufous hummingbird — and then took length and weight measurements.
Because of the number of gorgets (the flat colored feathers on the hummingbird’s throat), Martin estimated that the hummer was 2 to 3 years old. She weighed in at almost 4 grams, the second heaviest of the dozen rufous hummers Martin has banded to date this season.
By 9:30 a.m. the hummer was banded. Martin was going to let Maloney do the honors of releasing the bird by placing it on her opened palm. The hummer was obviously impatient and barely touched Maloney’s hand before buzzing away scolding. It wasn’t long before she was back sipping sugar water. The bird was still present as of Dec. 8. Maloney is happy to let interested birders get a peek at her winter visitor; she can be reached at 828.456.6899.
This is the second rufous I know of to be banded in the area. Bill Hilton Jr. another hummingbird bander and executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in York, S.C., banded a female rufous at Ted and Ann Kirby’s home back in November 2002.
Any hummingbird other than our common nester, the ruby-throated hummingbird, is considered a vagrant in North Carolina. Between the months of October and March even the ruby-throated — a neotropical migrant — is considered vagrant. To date, a dozen species of vagrant hummingbirds have been recorded in North Carolina: Allen’s, Anna’s, rufous, black-chinned, blue-throated, broad-billed, broad-tailed, buff-bellied, calliope, green-breasted mango, green violet-ear and ruby-throated.
The rufous is by far the most common vagrant. There are hundreds of records from at least 30 counties across the state. No one knows why so many of these tiny birds that nest from western Alaska, across Canada down to the northwestern corner of the lower 48 states and generally winter in Mexico wind up in the Southeast in the winter.
To try and get some answers for this phenomenon hummingbird banders have been asked to take one tail feather from any hatch-year birds captured and send them along to Cathie Hutcheson, a long-time bander who is working on a project using hydrogen isotopes formed in the bird’s feathers to try and determine where the bird was hatched. The theory is that the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen differs locally according to latitude and altitude. If the ratio from the tail feathers matches the ratio from a known latitude, researchers might be able to get an idea of where the bird was hatched.
If you would like to report a vagrant hummer you can call Susan Campbell of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences at 910.949.3207.