1-7 December 2005

Installment #295---
Visitor #

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Join us for another
Winter Hummingbird Expedition to Costa Rica
in February 2006

Join Us for the
15th Annual
York/Rock Hill
Christmas Bird Count

19 December 2003
(Please note date change. Click on the link above for more information.)


In Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," a baby girl was left to die on the coast of Bohemia because her father (King Leontes of Sicilia) wrongly believed her to be another man's child. The abandoned girl was rescued by a shepherd who called her "Perdita"--from the Latin for "lost." Perdita was later wooed by a Bohemian prince but HIS father (another king) forbade marriage because of Perdita's supposedly poor pedigree. When "lost" Perdita's royal origins were revealed the two lovers were allowed to marry . . . and undoubtedly lived happily ever after. We include this synopsis not to impress you with our knowledge of Shakespeare--actually, we had to look up everything via Google--but to introduce why a hummingbird with which we have become intimately acquainted is called "Perdita."

Most folks would say this little fluffball--a vagrant hummingbird we banded in December 2003, recaptured in November 2004, and trapped once again this week--is indeed "lost" and well away from where she "should be" during winter months. However, Perdita the Rufous Hummingbird probably doesn't know she's in the "wrong place" at this time of year, and we're personally beginning to think she's not "lost" in the first place.

All maps, tables, charts, text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Perdita received her name in 2003 from Lenore Berry's daughter Barbara, a theater professional apparently familiar with one of Shakespeare's more obscure plays. Lenore contacted us back in '03 when a hummer stayed at her feeders in Rock Hill SC well past the time when breeding Ruby-throated Hummingbirds typically leave these parts. Familiar with our banding work, in December 2003 Lenore invited us to her home--about 15 miles east of Hilton Pond Center--to observe and try to capture her winter visitor. When we initially caught Lenore's hummer we identified it as a hatch-year female Rufous Hummingbird--a species that normally spends its life far away from the Carolina Piedmont. The breeding range for Rufous Hummingbirds, Selasphorus rufus, extends from southern Alaska through British Columbia to the northwestern U.S. and barely into northern California (see map above); the majority of rufous apparently migrate down the Rockies to spend non-breeding months in Central Mexico, with fewer numbers elsewhere in Mexico--or beyond. When Barbara Berry heard this news, she christened her family's winter hummer "Perdita," implying the little bird was hopelessly "lost."

Perdita is a very interesting hummingbird. Back in October 2003, she appeared as a recently hatched yearling, making irregular visits to the Berry feeders and even avoiding our trap the first day we tried to capture her. On 5 December that year, our pre-dawn visit to the Berry's place was finally successful, and after trapping Perdita we applied to her right leg a tiny aluminum band inscribed Y14855. The hummer then spent all winter at the Berry residence and disappeared the following spring.

As happened in 2003, a winter hummingbird made sporadic appearances at Lenore Berry's feeders throughout October 2004 and started coming more regularly in the weeks following; thus, we laid plans for another early morning trip to the Berry house on 17 November--hopeful the visitor would be Perdita. That day, after a brief appearance at 7:10 a.m., Lenore's hummer disappeared for an hour but came back and quickly entered the trap. With bird in hand, we checked its right leg and found a band that, not surprisingly, revealed the hummer to be Perdita--returned from who knows where.

This year we were more than a little eager when we heard from Lenore in late October that she again was hosting an apparent Rufous Hummingbird. We would have dropped everything and scooted to Rock Hill, but we were readying for our 16-day trip to San Andres Island in the Western Caribbean, so we encouraged Lenore to maintain her feeder until we returned. November proved to be a difficult month for numerous reasons, and we were unable to visit Lenore for a trapping sortie until 7 December 2005; on that date we arrived at the Berry home at 6:30 a.m. to set up our portable trap--a task that took about ten minutes in the pre-dawn twilight. We were pleased but not at all surprised when it only took another 16 minutes for a hummer to appear--even though the bird disappeared as fast as it came. The wait after that was very short--only two minutes--at which time the hummingbird entered the trap without hesitation. We hit the button on our automatic trigger mechanism and in a flash had the bird safely in-hand.

The plumage and well-developed markings on Lenore's 2005 hummer meant it almost certainly was an adult female Rufous Hummingbird, so we had high hopes it was Perdita--the "lost" wanderer--come back again to spend the winter. A quick check of the band number showed this indeed was the case; Lenore Berry's faithful winter visitor was now a third-year bird.

. .

#Y14855 in (left to right) Dec 2003, Nov 2004 & Dec 2005

Perdita has changed in appearance from when she was a yearling (see trio of photos above). Back then she had only three metallic, red-orange gorget feathers while last year she bore nine; this year there are eight, but one may not yet have molted in. Female Rufous Hummingbirds--unlike female ruby-throats that typically have plain white throats--almost always sport at least a few of these iridescent gorget feathers, as do young male rufous. (Adult male Rufous Hummingbirds have a complete gorget.) Perdita's plumage change is also noticeable in profile (see three photos below). In 2003, her face was grayish-green, but by 2004 the cheek region was iridescent green, with noticeable rusty color around the eye. This year the cheek is even more ornate, and the feathers of the head and face are better formed.

#Y14855 in December 2003 . . .

. . . November 2004 . . .

. . . and December 2005

Changes also occurred in Perdita's measurements from 2003 to 2004 (see table below), although there's not much difference between last year and 2005. As often happens with migratory hummingbirds, the wing chord of the young bird is slightly longer than what it acquires after its first post-juvenal molt. In Perdita's case, changes in weight and length of culmen and tail also showed small--perhaps insignificant--differences. And, as expected, the tiny etchings (corrugations) that incise a young hummer's maxilla (upper bill) when it leaves the nest are practically gone in three-year-old Perdita.

Vital Statistics for
Rufous Hummingbird #Y14855
5 Dec
17 Nov
7 Dec
Hatch Year
2nd Year
3rd Year
46.1 mm
44.4 mm
44.3 mm
28.0 mm
27.0 mm
27.5 mm
(top ridge of upper bill)
17.5 mm
18.0 mm
18.0 mm
(metallic throat feathers)

It's hard to describe just how different an adult Rufous Hummingbird looks in comparison to how it appeared as a juvenile; the difference occurs primarily because adult feathers are stronger and better-formed, giving the bird a sleeker, healthier look. In addition, adult feather colors are more intense, and--we suspect--experienced birds are probably better at preening themselves and keeping their plumage in good condition.

This year, Perdita's rectrices--her tail feathers (top view above)--are especially good examples of well-maintained, well-formed plumage. The three outermost right rectrices--numbers 5, 4, and 3--have clean, white, unworn tips, while the fourth rectrix has only a hint of white and shows the tapered "nippling" characteristic of older females. The outermost rectrix--#5--is the shortest, and the innermost rectrix--#1--is solid green and overlaps the other four when the tail isn't fanned (see below).

In 2005--her third year--Perdita also shows increasing amounts of the rufous coloring associated with her species. Although lacking the rusty head and back of adult male Rufous Hummingbirds, she still has significant amounts of rust on her undertail coverts and flanks (above). Perdita's wing feathers are also in excellent shape, and it appears she recently acquired a new set of primary coverts (below)--the short dark feathers that overlap the bases of the long primaries. Although the primaries themselves are also unworn, the outermost two (#10 & #9) are a year old--as are the tiny coverts at their bases--while the remaining eight primaries (#8 through #1) are newly molted. It's interesting the two longest primary feathers--perhaps the most important ones--are typically molted last in hummingbirds, meaning they will be newer and supposedly stronger in time for spring migration.

Where Perdita actually migrates to after spending winters with Lenore Berry's family is anyone's guess, and the same can be said about what factors brought this hummer so far east and north of where Rufous Hummingbirds typically spend the non-breeding season. Migration paths and destinations apparently are genetically imprinted in hummingbirds, so perhaps during that first fall migration back in 2003 Perdita got all the way to where her internal map told her to go--only to find that the habitat was unsuitable. Or maybe Perdita's on-board navigation system simply developed a glitch that sent her off in the wrong direction.

Rufous Hummingbirds in winter in the Carolinas aren't a new phenomenon--there are occasional records going back to the very early 1900s--but only in the past decade or two have we seen an explosion of winter vagrant hummingbird species in the eastern U.S. These numbers may have increased dramatically because more people leave up hummingbird feeders all year, or because of some other new factor such as global warming that allows hummers to survive at sites where winters were once much colder. Or maybe peregrinating birds like Perdita are simply pioneers that fly east and find suitable wintering sites they visit again in later years. If these wanderers continue to be successful, it may be only a matter of time until numbers of them stay year-round in the Carolinas, eventually breeding here and giving our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds a little summertime competition.

All this is speculation, of course, as is the question of whether Perdita the Rufous Hummingbird is truly "lost." Our guess is she isn't. Nonetheless, her wandering behavior--once thought to be very unusual--warrants continued study to see if science can figure what these winter vagrants might tell us about climate change, hummingbird opportunism, or something else in the environment we really need to understand.

All maps, tables, charts, text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Thanks to Bob Mulvihill for comments about molt

NOTE: For a complete list of vagrant hummingbirds we've banded in the Carolinas--as well as additional discussion about what might be causing increased reports of these visitors, please see Vagrant & Winter Hummingbird Banding. The page also contains info about how to care for winter hummers if you get one.

Comments or questions about this week's installment?
Please send an E-mail message to INFO.

Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, plus other nature notes of interest.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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1-7 December 2005

House Finch--2

* = New species for 2005

1 species
2 individuals

59 species
1,265 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
46,572 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

--The avian drought continues at Hilton Pond Center, with only two birds banded--both female House Finches--during the week. Following last week's photo essay about our dearth of birds, we heard from MANY correspondents in the southeastern U.S. (and beyond), nearly all of whom reported similar major drops in bird numbers at their respective locations. Our hope of banding 2,000 birds at the Center in 2005 will never come to fruition.

A third-year female Rufous Hummingbird banded at Rock Hill SC in 2003 and retrapped in 2004 was captured again at the same location on 7 Dec
(see story above).

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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