The ruby-throated hummingbird is the expected hummingbird in the eastern United States spring through fall. These birds are rare winter visitors, however, which makes the one living in a yard in Fall Church, Virginia. (Photo by Mariedy/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

I have been corresponding by email with Ellen Haberlein since around Thanksgiving of last year about a hummingbird that is wintering at her home in Fall Church, Virginia, which is located only a few miles from Washington, D.C.

The hummingbird’s presence has brightened the winter season for the Haberlein family since it showed up in late October of 2018.

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, based on everything I have managed to learn, is 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.

Many of the visiting winter hummingbirds turn out to be Rufous Hummingbirds, which is a species native to the western United States. The bird visiting Ellen’s feeder, however, is a ruby-throated hummingbird. In the summer months, the ruby-throated is the expected species of hummingbird in the eastern United States. In the winter months — not so much. However, in some regions in Virginia, as well as along the Gulf Coast, a few ruby-throated hummingbirds are attempting to overwinter.

The Rufous Hummingbird has basically become an expected winter visitor with a few reports being received each winter. I have observed Rufous Hummingbirds in many different locations, including 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. Winter hummingbirds are a delightful surprise for their hosts, but their presence no longer shock long-time birders.

“Hosting a hummingbird in winter is a first for us, so we enjoy having him here,” Ellen wrote.  “I feel that I am responsible to keep the little guy alive through the cold months.”

Doing so has meant staying atop some challenges.

“I monitor the feeder to make sure it doesn’t freeze,” Ellen wrote. “I have read the nectar doesn’t need to be replaced as often in winter, but I still change it every 2-3 days.”

She’s taking no chance with the health of her tiny visitor. “I think he needs to have fresh food to stay in good health,” Ellen wrote. “I have two feeders, so when I remove one, I immediately replace it with another. That way his food source is not disrupted.”

Ellen noted that the hummingbird seems to be able to stand the cold nights. “I take in the feeder at night, and he looks for it just at dawn in the morning,” she wrote.

She contacted Bruce Peterjohn at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Her visiting ruby-throated hummingbird is the first he has heard of in Virginia for the winter season this year, although Peterjohn informed Ellen that some ruby-throated hummingbirds usually overwinter close to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

Peterjohn, the chief of the US Bird Banding Laboratory for USGS, is the person responsible for administering the national bird banding program and the data management system for bird banding and band encounter datasets. His personal banding activities are focused on banding hummingbirds in the mid-Atlantic region, especially hummingbirds that appear during late autumn and winter.

With the dawning of the new year, Ellen’s visiting hummingbird remained present. “I am happy to help this little bird get through the winter,” Ellen said.

I checked back with Ellen on Jan. 29 to see if the hummingbird remains in residence.

“He made it through the last storm with wind chills at zero or below,” she replied to my email. “Now we have more cold coming and I am hoping for the best.”

I imagine Ellen is a good host for many birds, not just the unseasonable hummingbird, that visit her yard and gardens.

In our correspondence, she shared some sightings of warblers, which is my favorite family of birds.

“By the way, I have not seen a hooded warbler,” Ellen wrote. “I see warblers pass through during spring, like Tennessee warblers and black-and-white warblers.”

I’m hopeful that she will spy a migrating hooded warbler, perhaps this spring. In the meantime, she’s hosting a wintering hummingbird. “I am happy to help this little bird get through the winter,” Ellen wrote.