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Feathered Friends – Hummingbird guests extend stay through holiday season

A male rufous hummingbird visits a feeder in Hampton, Tennessee, in the fall of 2016. These hummingbirds, native to the western United States, are increasingly seen as regular migrant through the eastern half of the country. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

When we invite our feathered friends into our lives, whether its by offering a well-stocked feeder, a humble abode, or a simple bird bath with fresh water, they often delight us by accepting the invitation and taking up residence.

That’s exactly what a pair of hummingbirds has done at a residence in Bristol. I received a Christmas Day email from Ralph Beamer to let me know that the sugar water feeder at his home in Bristol are still being visited by two hummingbirds. He’s also having to go to some extraordinary effort to ensure the hummingbirds have access to the sugar water held in the feeders.

“They have stayed for Christmas,” he wrote in his email. “We are changing the feeder every couple of hours to prevent freezing.”

I’ve written about Ralph’s guests in some previous columns. So, as it turns out, these two unanticipated guests showed up before Halloween, remained through Thanksgiving, and have now extended their stay through the Christmas holiday.

In his email, Ralph asked me if I had any idea how long the hummingbirds might elect to remain at his home. In reply, I admitted that there’s no way to predict when his visiting hummingbirds might decide to depart. The rufous hummingbird has become an increasingly frequent late fall and early winter migrant through the southeastern United States. The presence of these hummingbirds, which are native to the western United States, is not usually detected until ruby-throated hummingbirds depart in early October. In many cases, a visiting rufous hummingbird might linger for a few weeks into late November or early December before continuing its migration. However, there have been instances of these hummingbirds staying put into January, February and even early spring.

The rufous hummingbird is much more suited to tolerate winter conditions in the southeastern United States than the ruby-throated hummingbird is. The native range of the rufous hummingbird extends north into Canada and Alaska and south to Mexico. Those birds that do spend the winter season in Mexico elect to reside in forested areas in high-elevation mountainous areas, not in the more tropical coastal or lowland regions.

Since the late 1990s, I’ve been fortunate to observe several different species of wintering hummingbirds. Some of them, like a green-breasted mango near Charlotte, North Carolina, were extremely improbable vagrants. Others, like the Allen’s hummingbirds I’ve seen in Johnson City, Tennessee, and Mountain City, Tennessee, as well as Bristol, Virginia, are still rather rare visitors. It’s only the rufous hummingbird that has become an almost regular visitor to the region in late fall and early winter.

Even the ruby-throated hummingbird, which is the only species known to nest in the eastern United States, lingers occasionally. In fact, a few of these hummingbirds winter in southern Florida each year instead of crossing the Gulf of Mexico to spend the colder months in the tropics of Central America.

The fact that Ralph’s hummingbirds have remained so long is one of those unexpected treats. The relatively mild winter we’ve experienced thus far and Ralph’s willingness to accommodate his avian guests have worked in the favor of the hummingbirds.

After the hustle and bustle of Christmas, I received an update on the hummingbirds that proved dutiful daily visitors to Ralph’s feeder through Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Early in the new year, Ralph notified me that the hummingbirds departed ahead of 2018’s arrival.

“We had a surprise on New Year’s Day,” Ralph wrote in an email. “The hummingbirds were gone. I am glad they left ahead of the extreme cold we have had the last few days.”

Ralph noted that he had a wonderful time watching them for the past three months. He is hopeful they will come back in the future, but figured that is probably wishful thinking.

Actually, some of these winter hummingbirds, which often turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, have proven quite faithful to favorite locations. Bird banders have recaptured some individual hummingbirds year after year in the same yards. During the stay of his visitors, Ralph shared photographs and videos with me of their visits to his feeders. I enjoyed receiving his periodic updates about them.

I emailed Ralph back and told him that these hummingbirds seem to also have a knack for knowing when to leave and suggested he keep an eye out for them again next fall.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email [email protected]