I added a new bird for the year — thanks to a timely tip from Brookie and Jean Potter — when I observed a Northern Pintail drake at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park on Jan. 9. It’s the only new bird for the year that I saw last week. I’ve still not decided whether to pursue another 200 species year in 2014, but I am keeping a list just in case.
Male pintails are elegant ducks that get their name from elongated central tail feathers, which constitute a fourth of the drake’s body length. Males have chocolate-brown heads and a body plumage consisting of black, gray and white. As is the case with most ducks, females are much more drab in appearance. However, female pintails are still easily identified by their streamlined shape, a relatively long neck and a slender grey bill.
Pintails have a circumpolar range, extending across North America, South America, Asia and even Africa. In North America, these ducks breed in Canada, Alaska and the midwestern United States in prairie and tundra habitats.
It’s a cruel fact that our smallest birds lose heat faster during cold spells while also having to expend more energy to find food. That can sometimes have lethal results.
Dawn Duncan on Stoney Creek emailed me on Jan. 6 to let me know of a wintering hummingbird at her home. She sent along some photos of the bird.
“The poor thing sure picked an awfully cold winter to stop here,” Dawn wrote during the recent cold snap that saw temperatures plunge below zero for several days.
“I’ve been trying to keep sugar water out for her, but I’m having to change it out pretty often because it keeps freezing,” Dawn wrote.
As the cold temperatures generated by an Arctic blast continued, the battle to keep this tiny bird alive began to turn grim.
I had suggested that she use two feeders, alternating them to keep a fresh supply of sugar water available at all times. Dawn wrote me back to inform me that she was already using two feeders and swapping them out frequently.
“It’s unbelievable how quickly they were freezing today,” Dawn wrote. “Sadly, when I checked for the last time in late afternoon, she was on the feeder and looking a little stunned.”
As she continued to observe the bird, matters got worse.
“Then before I knew it, she just feel off the feeder onto the ground,” Dawn wrote. “I picked her up and brought her in and held her to try to warm her up.”
Dawn succeeded in warming the hummingbird. Rather than return her outdoors to certain doom, she tried to make the bird comfortable in a makeshift bird cage made from an upside down laundry basket. Dawn continued to provide sugar water and a perch.
“I felt so bad for her,” she wrote. “She must have begun to freeze. I hope she survives tonight in here. It is supposed to really get unbearable tonight and cold again tomorrow.”
Despite her best efforts, Dawn was unable to get the bird through the cold snap. I was saddened when Dawn emailed me to let me know the hummingbird had died.
“Well, I tried,” Dawn said.
Although Dawn saved her from the frigid temperatures, the little bird became stressed and wore herself out flying back and forth beneath the laundry basket.
“We put a little rod running from one side to the other so she could perch,” she wrote.
“The hummingbird feeder was also in with her. She would sit on the feeder and just would not eat.”
The tiny bird spent 24 hours in the makeshift cage. By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, Jan. 7, she was sitting on the feeder more than anywhere else but not eating.
“She would sit awhile and then loose her balance and almost fall off, like she was falling asleep or something,” Dawn wrote.
She continued to monitor the bird and eventually found her lying on the bottom of the cage with not enough strength to move.
“I picked her up and tried to feed her, but she was almost lifeless,” Dawn wrote. “Her heart was beating very slowly. She only moved her wings and feet maybe twice while I held her. I laid her on a small towel and she was about lifeless.”
The next morning, the tiny bird had given up the struggle.
“It made me so sad,” Dawn wrote. “I wanted so bad to be able to help her.”
During the bird’s stay, Dawn became convinced that her visitor was a Rufous Hummingbird.
“They normally live up and down the Pacific Coast and the southern part of Alaska,” Dawn wrote to me.
The hummingbird had been at Dawn’s home since early December.
“She was sitting on a rose bush on the front end of the house,” Dawn wrote. “I couldn’t believe my eyes at first and dismissed it.”
But, the tiny visitor wasn’t content to be ignored.
While sitting in her sunroom on Dec. 7, Dawn saw the bird again.
“There are some artificial flowers in the front window,” Dawn wrote. “She must have noticed them and thought they were a source of food.”
Realizing she was really seeing a hummingbird, Dawn quickly made some fresh sugar water for her and refilled the feeder.
“Then I just made sure there was always water out for her, and it wasn’t frozen,” Dawn explained. “She basically stayed on some brush on the back side of the house. I could see her from the bedroom window or on the feeder. No matter what the weather was doing, that’s the two places she could be seen.”
A post on the Star’s Facebook page during the time Dawn’s hummingbird was struggling for life came from Wanda Scalf Daniels, a former Stoney Creek resident now living in West Virginia. Wanda, too, tried her best to help a visiting hummingbird make it through the frigid days.
“Sadly, mine didn’t make it either,” Wanda messaged me on Facebook after I inquired about her bird’s fate. “He was here that night until dark, then the temperatures dropped to 6 below zero that night with wind chill of 20 below.”
Wanda never saw the hummingbird again.
“I have been heartbroken over the little fellow,” she shared.
Wanda said that she is a native Stoney Creeker and moved to West Virginia in 2004.
“I love Tennessee, but where I am now is just like the old Stoney Creek road before they widened it,” Wanda wrote. “So I really feel right at home.”
The stories shared by Dawn and Wanda are sad, and I hate having to report on the demise of their special little birds. Most winters, these hummingbirds manage just fine and weather occasional temperature dips without any difficulty. However, periods of extended bitter cold can be lethal. For instance, a few years ago temperatures near zero in Mountain City killed a visiting Allen’s Hummingbird.
This Arctic freeze, which lasted for several days across much of the country, may prove to have some lasting effects on the population of hummingbirds that migrate through the southeastern United States. Although the Rufous Hummingbird is equipped to survive cold temperatures, no hummingbird has evolved to endure temperatures below zero for long periods.
Throughout the southeastern United States, there were probably dozens if not hundreds of these little birds caught unaware by the sudden deep freeze. If the Arctic freeze of 2014 eliminated many of them, that could have unforeseen consequences for the gene pool of hummingbirds that has made the southeastern United States a winter home for the past few decades.
It’s too early to tell, however, if that will be the case.
Some of the local cases offer some hope.
Fellow birder Glen Eller relayed an interesting story about a Rufous Hummingbird that had been staying for months at the home of his daughter, Lia, in Fall Branch.
“My daughter Lia and I are amazed at the strength and endurance of this little female Rufous Hummingbird as she seems to survive all this cold weather and sits patiently waiting on my daughter to replace a quickly freezing feeder about every two hours,” Glen wrote on Tuesday, Jan. 7, in the middle of the freeze. “The little hummer spends a lot of time in the two evergreen trees about 50 feet behind the feeders. We hope she is able to continue to amaze us with her endurance until she decides to return to her summer home.”
Glen’s daughter did all she could to help her visiting hummingbird make it through the cold. At one point, the bird seemed to “thank” Lia for her efforts.
According to Glen, the bird hovered for several minutes in front of his daughter’s face when she was changing the sugar water feeder. In Glen’s opinion, the bird was saying goodbye and perhaps thanking her for the effort she had expended on its behalf. After this strange behavior, the bird wasn’t seen again.
Did it fly as quickly as its wings could take it in search of warmer territory? Ruby-throated Hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico in less than 24 hours during their annual migration flights. It’s possible that, if it flew without stopping, Lia’s hummingbird could have reached milder temperatures farther south.
That’s probably a long shot, but that’s what I prefer to think. Maybe a few of the hummingbirds managed to escape from the zone of brutal temperatures.
We’ll probably never know.
Elizabethton residents Tom and Helen Stetler emailed to let me know they hosted a few Cedar Waxwings in the back yard at their home in the Hunter community on Jan. 8. A couple of days before the waxwings showed up, they also hosted about 30 American Robins.
I’ve noticed that American Robins have seemed common this winter, but I haven’t yet encountered any Cedar Waxwings.
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