Carter County is once again providing a temporary home for wintering Rufous Hummingbirds. Visits by wintering hummingbirds are surprising, but these unexpected visitors have become almost annual occurrences in the region.
I know of at least five hummingbirds currently present at residences in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina.
Two of the hummingbirds are coming to feeders belonging to Diane McNeeley, a resident of Elk Park, N.C. She had been seeing two hummers for several weeks, but on Dec. 2 the smallest of the two birds was not seen.
In Hampton, Barbara and Jerry Lake had been hosting a single hummingbird until that bird, too, ceased its daily visits on Dec. 1.
A Rufous Hummingbird has been confirmed at the home of Eric and Kathy Noblet. The Noblets reside at a Johnson City address within Carter County’s borders. That bird’s identity has been confirmed thanks to a banding trip by Mark Armstrong to Northeast Tennessee.
Armstrong, the curator of birds for the Knoxville Zoo, is a long-time licensed bander of hummingbirds. I’ve had the honor of being present at several of his banding procedures for some of the wintering hummingbirds that have shown up in the region through the years.
“I banded an adult female Rufous last weekend (Nov. 23-24) in Erwin at Candy Casey’s home and one in Johnson City at Kathy Noblet’s home,” Mark informed me in an email after I reported the bird at the Lake home in Hampton.
He also provided some additional information about the two Rufous Hummingbirds in Erwin and Johnson City.
“Candy said it was there last winter also,” Mark wrote. “The one at Kathy’s was the third Rufous that I banded at her home.”
Kathy is a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society. Her yard is a magnet for not only Ruby-throated and Rufous Hummingbirds, but warblers and other colorful songbirds, too.
“It is turning out to be a pretty good year,” Armstrong said of his banding and documentation of wintering hummingbirds so far this season. “I’ve banded five birds so far and have recaptured three return birds. I probably have three new birds waiting on me and one recap waiting on me to get to them. So things are going well and with the cold weather coming more birds will probably pop up.”
Armstrong said he has banded birds in Signal Mountain, Erwin, Johnson City, Russellville and Knoxville.
“I have birds waiting in Oak Ridge, Telico Village and Tazewell,” he said. “The recaps were in Mountain City and Knoxville plus the recap I haven’t gotten to in Sevierville.”
Returning birds, which are birds captured and banded in previous years, help researchers study the migratory movements of these hummingbirds.
“The return birds in Mountain City were pretty interesting,” Armstrong said. “Last year, I banded three birds in John McClellan’s yard.”
This year, two of the three birds were back, which Armstrong described as “pretty neat.”
Last year, Armstrong only banded one return bird. So far, he is encountering many more return birds this year.
I last observed one of Mark’s banding sessions a couple of winters ago at the home of Betty Kirby on Swimming Pool Road in Hampton. That bird was captured, banded, documented and then released.
That particular bird turned out to be a hatching year male Rufous Hummingbird, known by the scientific name of Selasphorus rufus. Some of its relatives, which have been found in Tennessee, include Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) and Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus).
Through the years, I have seen several of these seemingly out-of-place hummingbirds. Some of them remain at their host’s feeders for a brief stay of a few days or a couple of weeks, but some of these hummingbirds have extended their stay for several months, lingering throughout the winter months before eventually departing in February or March.
The big question is: are these hummingbirds truly lost and out of place? The answer is probably that these hummingbirds are precisely where they want to be. For still unknown reasons, some of these western hummingbirds make a migration swing through the eastern United States. The Rufous Hummingbird has basically become an expected winter visitor with a few reports being received each winter. I have observed Rufous Hummingbirds in Bristol, Blountville, Flag Pond, Elizabethton and Hampton. I have also observed Allen’s Hummingbirds in Mountain City and Johnson City. I know of records of these small birds from Erwin, Roan Mountain, Johnson City and many other locations throughout the region.
But hummingbirds are typically regarded as summer birds from the tropics, right? Doesn’t the cold weather present a shock to these visitors?
Actually, many hummingbirds are adapted to frigid conditions.
In the book, The Life of the Hummingbird, naturalist Alexander Skutch pointed out that the center of abundance for hummingbirds is the equatorial belt of South America.
Skutch wrote more than 40 books and over 200 papers on ornithology. Born in Baltimore, Md., he moved to Costa Rica in 1941, and lived there until his death in 2004. Although he received a degree in botany, he became fascinated with birds of his tropical home and became a renowned expert of the birds of that region.
“Let it not be inferred from this that all hummingbirds are delicate creatures, unable to withstand a touch of frost,” Skutch wrote. “Quite the contrary, some are extremely hardy; equatorial South America could not boast so many kinds if it did not include the high Andes of Ecuador, Colombia and Peru, with their dazzling array of species, many of which dwell at altitudes where the temperature of the thin atmosphere quickly falls to the freezing point after the sun sets.”
Skutch pointed out that the hardiest of these tropical hummingbirds reach elevations exceeding 15,000 feet, on the verge of perennial snowfields of many Andean peaks.
As for the Rufous Hummingbird, it is quite capable of surviving freezing conditions, as long as it has access to a source of food. In spring, they migrate through California, before eventually spending the summer in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. By fall, they are in the Rocky Mountains as they make their migration back to wintering grounds in Mexico and, sometimes, the eastern United States.
Other western hummingbirds that have been documented in Tennessee include Black-chinned Hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird and Calliope Hummingbird, which is the smallest bird in the United States. I actually got to add a Calliope Hummingbird to my life list several years ago when I made a trip to Nashville to see one of these tiny hummers that was spending the winter at a home with a sugar water feeder.
This small bird, which is only 2.75 inches in length, typically winters in Mexico. In comparison, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is three inches long.
If any other readers are still hosting hummingbirds, I’d love to hear about it. Give me a call at 297-9077.
I observed a Swamp Sparrow on Sunday, Dec. 1, in the field with the cattail stand at home on Simerly Creek Road. The sighting extends the presence of this species into a third month at my home. I first saw Swamp Sparrows at home this fall in late October. I’m also seeing a lot of the winter resident birds, including Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches.
Make a comment, ask a question or share an observation by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. I am also on Facebook.