All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
On 21 March 2004 we got an interesting post to the Guestbook for the Web site for Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project, an outreach initiative of Hilton Pond Center. The message was from Judy Patterson in Easley SC, who stated that her daughter--April Turner of nearby Greenville SC (Greenville County)--still had a hummingbird that had been coming to a backyard feeder since perhaps the preceding September. April was a little hesitant to report the winter hummer for fear banding would scare it away, but her mom was able to convince her that trapping the bird was scientifically important and that handling it wasn't likely to send it scurrying.
Our modus operandi is to try to catch wintering hummers at first light when they'be been fasting all night and may be more likely to enter a trap. This plan works pretty well in mid-winter when the sun doesn't come up until after 7 a.m., but at the end of March it meant we had to be in Greenville by 6 a.m. April Turner agreed to this very early morning scenario, so we departed York at 4:30 a.m. to arrive at the appointed time on 24 March--the first day we were able to get away for a banding trip.
As we pulled in at the Turner house, we were greeted by Mom Judy, who had driven over from Easley to watch the procedure. It took about ten minutes to take down April's feeder, move it into our trap, and re-hang the apparatus by the 6:10 a.m. mark, after which everyone gathered in the Turner kitchen to see if the hummingbird would take the bait. By then, April's husband Jon was up and about and asking how long it would take to capture the bird, to which we gave our usual answer that it could vary from just a few minutes to several hours.
Being optimistic, we suggested a bird that had been around all winter might enter the trap quickly and sure enough, as the digital clock in the kitchen blinked 6:15 a.m., the hummer appeared and went directly into the trap. We let the bird sit on the feeder perch and drink for about 20 seconds, after which we flipped the release button on our remote transmitter and watched as the trapdoor slid shut behind the hummingbird. April, Jon, and Judy were amazed but just as excited as we were to have captured this rather late winter hummingbird.
As we got out our banding kit and set up on the Turners' living room table, April called upstairs for daughters Ashley and Emily to join the group. Sleepy-eyed but intensely interested, the two girls looked on as we examined the family's winter hummingbird and pointed out the rusty color at the base of the bird's tail--a good sign that it likely was either a Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, or the closely related Allen's Hummingbird, S. sasin. There were a few metallic orange-red throat feathers, but not enough for the bird to be a male Selasphorus, which should have a full gorget and considerably more rusty coloration by this time of year. After a series of measurements, we determined the bird was a female Rufous--too large to be a male Rufous or a female Allen's--and the plumage characteristics indicated she probably was a second-year bird hatched out in 2003. (NOTE: The wing chord measurement--see below--was aberrational because the bird's outermost primary feathers on each wing were only partially grown, as shown in top photo. the bird also showed other molt, including a large number of "pinfeathers" at the base of the bill, below) Since the Turners' bird lacked tell-tale bill etchings that are characteristic of more recently fledged hummingbirds, we decided to take a conservative route and simply classify her as an after-hatch-year bird.
Big fans of television nature shows, the whole Turner family looked on as we banded their winter hummer and talked about how it would likely be leaving any day now for its breeding grounds in southern Alaska, western Canada, and the northwestern U.S. They wondered aloud why this bird wasn't in Central Mexico where Rufous Hummingbirds typically overwinter, and we could only speculate with our answers. Perhaps the network of banders studying these vagrant hummers will help discover the answer--an answer that may come because folks like April Turner are gracious enough to allow us to visit their homes at strange hours to capture and band as many winter hummingbirds as possible.
After banding and photographing the bird, we offered it to April, who excitedly extended her hand as Mom Judy took a few photos of her own (bottom photo). Then, as quickly as it had entered the trap, the Turners' winter hummer exploded from April's palm and took off for the nearest tall tree, perhaps for only a few days or hours before heading west. With that, we packed our trapping gear and drove back to Hilton Pond Center in time to leave for the Charlotte airport and a trip west of our own--but only as far as Iowa, where we spent the next several days leading Operation RubyThroat workshops and telling folks about our latest Rufous Hummingbird banding in Greenville SC.
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All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
If you're interested in sharing your hummingbird observations and learning from other enthusiasts, you may wish to subscribe to Hummingbird Hobnob, our Yahoo!-based discussion group. Also be sure to visit our award-winning Web site for Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project; on it you'll find almost anything you want to know about hummingbirds, including more information about Hummingbird Banding.
Students at GLOBE-certified schools may submit winter hummingbird observations as part of Operation RubyThroat and GLOBE. Students can also correlate hummingbird observations with data on abiotic factors, including atmosphere, climate, hydrology, soils, land cover, and phenology. See the "Protocols" section of the GLOBE Web site for details about this exciting collaboration.
For much more information about hummingbirds, visit:
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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: Webmaster.