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Shortly after the Carolina snowstorm that struck on 2-3 January 2002, Hilton Pond Center received a phone call from Alan Peoples, the mayor of Tryon (Polk County), North Carolina, reporting a hummingbird coming to his backyard feeder. During the ensuing conversation, we learned that Alan's wife, Harriet Byars Peoples, was a former high school classmate of ours and perhaps even a distant cousin. Needless to say, we were keen on a banding visit to Tryon--barely over the border from South Carolina--until the winter hummingbird suddenly disappeared from the Peoples' feeder. We chalked up this winter hummer as a true vagrant that ended up going elsewhere.
As it turns out, the bird indeed may have gone away, but an e-mail from the mayor in early March indicated it--or a new hummingbird--had started showing up to feed at the Peoples' residence. Our long-awaited Tryon visit was delayed for several days by other activities, and that made us nervous. Winter hummingbirds tend to leave the Carolinas in mid-February, so we knew there wasn't much time left to try to catch and band this bird.
Finally, we set out for Tryon at 5 a.m. on 14 March--slowed somewhat by pea-soup-thick fog that shrouded the central Piedmont region that morning. By 6:35 a.m. we had gotten to our destination, only to learn that the Peoples had seen the bird just five minutes before. That was much earlier in the day than any of their previous sightings, so we quickly set up our pullstring trap and retired to the kitchen, where the conversation turned to the "good old days" at Rock Hill (SC) High School.
After about 30 minutes of our reminiscing about the RHHS Bearcats, the hummingbird made its first visit to the trap and entered without hesitation, undoubtedly wanting to sip some of that sugar water that the Peoples had so graciously provided all winter. A quick pull on the string closed the trapdoor, and we had what will surely be among the last of the vagrant hummingbirds to be banded in the Carolinas in the winter of 2001-2002.
The Peoples' hummer turned out to be a very healthy female Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), the most common winter vagrant that occurs in the eastern U.S. Based on bill wear and overall appearance--including ten very bright and iridescent bronze throat feathers (top photo)--we guessed she was hatched sometime before the summer of 2001. She also had a good deal of rusty color at the base of her tail (above right).
Since immature male Rufous Hummingbirds resemble females, the best way to differentiate between them is through measurements, with males being somewhat smaller. A critical measure is the wing chord--the distance from the crook of the folded wing to the tip of the longest primary feather. We couldn't actually take this standard measurement because the outmost primary had been molted and was being replaced by a new feather that was still partly ensheathed (above left), but even without this feather, the wing still measured 43.5 millimeters--a tad longer than the longest male wing chord. The bill length of 18mm was also more typical of females, as was the relatively long 28mm tail.
After banding the hummer as #Y14795, we showed her off to the neighbors, hand-fed her some more sugar water, and watched as she zipped into the woods. For all we know, this time next week she'll be in Oregon or British Columbia, looking around for a male at whom she can flash her new jewelry.
Thanks to Alan and Harriet for allowing us to visit and to band their late winter hummingbird. "Go Bearcats!"
POSTSCRIPT: On 29 November 2003, this Rufous Hummingbird was re-trapped at the Peoples' residence after not having been seen in the winter of 2002-2003.
From October 15 to March 15
your sightings of all
Vagrant & Winter Hummingbirds
east of the Mississippi
For much more information about hummingbirds, visit
Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project
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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this website--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.