1-7 January 2008

Installment #386---
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This week, shortly before we were to depart Hilton Pond Center for a meeting on Kiawah Island on South Carolina's coast, we got an interesting e-mail message from Annabeth Proctor who lives not far from there on Wadmalaw Island, just southwest of Charleston (see green arrow on map above). Annabeth said she had several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds coming to feeders this winter--a phenomenon increasingly common in southern U.S. coastal areas, and even inland. But Annabeth's real reason for writing was that her husband Donald had been standing close to a feeder that day when he realized one of their hummers was obviously NOT a ruby-throat; its vocalization was different, it was darker, and had a metallic blue throat instead of a red one. Familiar with our vagrant hummingbird banding work, Annabeth e-mailed us to ask if the bird might be a Cuban Emerald but reconsidered when we told her that particular species was non-migratory and had never been recorded in the continental U.S.

After consulting photos on our Web site for Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project ( Annabeth concluded her bird actually must be a Broad-billed Hummingbird. A Wadmalaw neighbor, Erik Heerlein, was kind enough to take a quick hand-held snapshot of the bird in waning light (above right) and forward it via e-mail, leaving little doubt Annabeth's revised opinion was correct. When Annabeth asked us to come observe and band her bird we contacted her by phone and gladly accepted the invitation--especially since we were already going to be heading in that direction.

Although our Kiawah meeting wasn't until the afternoon of Sunday, 6 January 2008, we laid plans to be at the Proctor home that day by 6:30 a.m. In our experience it's more effective to catch winter vagrant hummingbirds at first light; they've been fasting all night and often make their first feeder runs just at dawn. To facilitate a quick departure from Hilton Pond, we loaded banding gear and a portable trap into our van on Saturday evening and set the alarm for 3 a.m. Excited by the day's potential, we were already up and moving when the buzzer went off and had the van rolling down a dark and deserted highway by 3:15 a.m.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Three-and-a-half hours and 220 miles later we arrived just prior to sunrise at the little town of Rockville on Wadmalaw Island, were warmly greeted by the Proctors, and immediately went to the feeder the apparent Broad-billed Hummingbird had taken over as his own. We took down the feeder--which was beside the door of a second-floor porch--placed it in our portable trap, hung the whole contraption back on the same hook, and retreated to ground level at 7 a.m. to await the hummer's arrival. Although skies were heavily overcast and it was still too dark to see any hummingbirds, Annabeth detected the broad-billed's early morning vocalization--which she described as "like a Ruby-throated Hummingbird with a frog in its throat." Annabeth remarked she had been hearing this call coming from a big Southern Magnolia tree since at least mid-December but hadn't put two and two together until Donald spotted the blue-throated hummer on 4 January. Annabeth doesn't consider herself an expert birder, but we were impressed with her keen ear, her knowledge of many species on the Proctors' oak-shaded, Spanish Moss-festooned property, that she has fed hummingbirds for perhaps two decades, and that she has been maintaining winter hummer feeders for at least the past 15 years. (We should mention Donald himself was a pretty sharp observer.)

As dawn started to overrun darkness at the Proctor homestead, we began to hear Ruby-throats chittering and scolding from nearby shrubs and trees--probably because we had taken down ALL Annabeth's several feeders to steer the Broad-billed Hummingbird toward its favorite feeder . . . and our trap. At 7:05 a.m. we thought we saw a dark hummer swoop past the feeder, and at 7:10 a.m. could see the bird for sure as it began investigating the trap. The hummingbird made several return trips as we watched from the ground below, finally entering the trap at 7:21 a.m. We quickly flipped our remote control lever and watched as the trapdoor slid shut, securely enclosing the object of our visit.

As we climbed the stairs toward the trap, Annabeth and Donald returned a few feeders to their respective hooks; there was no sense depriving those ruby-throats of their breakfast while we worked with a more exotic species. When we reached the landing where the trap hung there was no doubt we had snared a Broad-billed Hummingbird. Even in dim morning light its fully iridescent body glistened blue and green, and its red and black bill almost glowed. This was a pretty exciting time for us, in that we'd just captured the first broad-billed we'd ever even seen.

We removed the hummer from the trap and placed it in a soft cloth bag for transport, re-hung the trap and feeder, and descended the stairs with our prize. Donald escorted us to a cottage on the property and we set up shop inside where light was better and we had a table on which to process the hummingbird. Donald even brought in an electric heater to warm our hands and some work lights to improve visibility.

When we removed the hummer from the bag all three of us admired its dazzling iridescence and the remarkable colors of its bill. There was no question this was an adult male Broad-billed Hummingbird, Cynanthus latirostris. Females of the species are drab and except for a reddish lower mandible look a lot like female ruby-throats. The only hummer with which our in-hand bird might be confused is its congener, the adult male White-eared Hummingbird, C. leucotis. The latter has a similarly colored body and bill but typically sports a prominent diagonal white stripe behind its eye; in addition, the white-eared male's head is purplish. Both species have bright white undertail coverts--visible in the broad-billed photo above--but in the white-eared the white usually extends as a central line up the abdomen.

Another way to differentiate Broad-billed Hummingbirds from closely related white-eareds is to look at the tail. When the Proctor's broad-billed first approached the feeder, even in silhouette we could see its tail was heavily notched; the tail in white-eareds is square. In the hand, the top of the broad-billed's tail was dull green while the undersides of the rectrices were metallic gun metal blue (above). It's quite interesting the tail's ventral surface--the part that would show when a courting male is facing a female--is more colorful than the dorsal side.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

While the Proctors were marveling at their Broad-billed Hummingbird's external attributes, we placed his bill into the port on a sugar water feeder Annabeth had brought in for that purpose. The hummer drank readily--a good sign he wasn't traumatized by the capture experience. We fed him several times during the banding process, so he certainly wasn't going hungry. And by they way, if you've ever wondered why this species is called "broad-billed," take a gander at our close-up photo of the base of its top mandible (above); it is indeed significantly broader than that of a ruby-throat.

After the first hand-feeding we slipped the hummer into a paper tube that kept the him from struggling and allowed us to place him on a small electronic scale for weighing. Since the broad-billed was roughly the size of a ruby-throat, we anticipated it would weigh about the same; such was the case, with the Broad-billed Hummingbird tipping the scale at 3.37g. We took several other measurements (see table below) and were quite surprised by the bird's wing chord--the distance from the bird's wrist (bend of the wing) to the tip of its longest primary feather. In an adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird this distance is typically 37-39mm; in the broad-billed it was a whopping 50.99mm!

After completing our measurements, we showed Annabeth and Donald Proctor how we make a hummingbird band, cutting it from a sheet of thin, flat aluminum and then forming it into a tiny ring. Using special pliers we gently placed band #Y14597 on the Broad-billed Hummingbird's left leg (photo above right)--the only way to permanently mark a hummer for studies of migration, site fidelity, and longevity. At that point the Proctor's bird became the first Broad-billed Hummingbird ever banded in South Carolina, the first one photographed here, only the second one documented for the state, and the first winter record.

South Carolina's only other broad-billed occurred back in the summer of 1985; that bird was observed and reported by David and Julia Wise in the extreme northwest Mountain Province of the state. An account (slightly edited) from American Birds (1986) reads: "Although it could not be documented by photograph or by expert birders, an adult male Broad-billed Hummingbird at a Seneca SC feeder 30 July 1985 was impeccably described and compared with noticeably smaller Ruby-throateds to rule out all other species. This was, of course, a first for the Southern Atlantic Coast Region if not for the entire Atlantic Coast."

Broad-billed Hummingbirds are indeed rare in the U.S.--especially as far east as the Carolinas. (North Carolina's first broad-billed appeared near New Bern in the fall of 2001, and another was at Kill Devil Hills in mid-summer 2005.) The species breeds in extreme southeastern Arizona and throughout northern and central Mexico. The Arizona population migrates south, but it is believed Mexican broad-billeds are primarily year-round residents that would not be expected to show up at northerly locations. (See map above, on which yellow is the breeding range and green dots represent extralimital reports.) Nonetheless, there are now Broad-billed Hummingbird records for at least 19 states as far away as Oregon and Idaho or Michigan and Wisconsin. There are even reports of broad-bills from Ontario and New Brunswick--a far piece for a "non-migratory" hummingbird. What causes these birds to stray from their "traditional" breeding and wintering grounds is anybody's guess.

Based on careful examination, we suspect the Wadmalaw broad-billed was a second-year male that hatched out sometime in 2007. We came to this conclusion especially because of the extent of black on the bill, brown edging on much of the body plumage, and the pale gray tips on the central tail feathers. However, since we haven't handled other broad-billeds--particularly in mid-winter--we'll take the conservative approach and simply call the bird an "after-hatch-year."

After ageing, sexing, measuring, and banding the Proctor's Broad-billed Hummingbird, we took him outside to attempt photographing the hummer in the overcast, post-dawn light. Try as we might, we fear the poor lighting didn't allow us to do justice to this out-of-range winter hummer's plumage. Just the same, our mental image of this amazing Wadmalaw Island hummingbird will be with us for a long time. It was a privilege to journey from Hilton Pond Center to visit with Annabeth and Donald Proctor at their Rockville home, to capture and band South Carolina's second Broad-billed Hummingbird, and to help Annabeth release her hummer safely back into the wild less than an hour after we captured it.

Vital Statistics for
Broad-billed Hummingbird #Y14597

Date of Capture--06 Jan 2008
Age/Sex--After hatch year male
Wing Chord--50.99mm
Tail Length--35.0mm
Tail Fork--9.0mm
Culmen (upper bill)--21.0mm
Bill Corrugations--none
Molt--none noticeable

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center
In-flight hummingbird photo ©
Erik Heerlein
Map of Wadmalaw Island © GoogleMaps
Distribution map compiled from various sources, including
Thanks to Sheri Williamson, Nancy Newfield, Bill Pranty,
Jim Ingold & several CarolinaBirds members for helpful info

POSTSCRIPT #1: In a follow-up e-mail after our trip to the Proctor's Wadmalaw Island home, Annabeth wrote: "About three hours following his release, the little Broad-billed Hummingbird reestablished his territory and returned to his normal behavior. It is amazing how quickly the other hummingbirds tried to take over his feeders." We asked Annabeth and Donald Proctor if it would be acceptable for birders to visit their Rockville home on Wadmalaw Island. Upon seeing the hummer return to and defend his territory, they replied in the affirmative but would like for folks to call before coming. If you are interested in viewing this bird, please respect their wishes. Send an e-mail to RESEARCH at Hilton Pond Center for contact information.

POSTSCRIPT #2: An unexpected follow-up on the Proctor’s bird at Rockville SC came in early August 2008 when a Broad-billed Hummingbird first appeared at a feeder at the New Bern home of Patti Holland in coastal North Carolina, on the Neuse River about 300 miles due northeast of Rockville. The bird was recaptured on 9 November by Susan Holland and confirmed to be the individual we banded at the Proctors’ ten months previously. This was the third state record for the species in North Carolina. The bird was present at New Bern at least until late December 2008. One can only speculate whether this Broad-billed Hummingbird spent the months between February and July in the Carolinas or whether it returned to its typical breeding grounds in Mexico and then made another trip to the Southeast.

POSTSCRIPT #3: See Vagrant and Winter Hummingbird Banding for complete list of wandering hummers we've banded at Hilton Pond Center and elsewhere.

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

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1-7 January 2008

American Goldfinch--16 *
Dark-eyed Junco--1
House Finch--1 *
Purple Finch--3
Blue Jay--1
Mourning Dove--2 *

* = New species for 2008

6 species
24 individuals

6 species
24 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
50,191 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)
American Goldfinch (1)
02/28/05--5th year female

Dark-eyed Junco (1)
01/09/07--after hatch year unknown

White-throated Sparrow (2)
11/12/05--4th year unknown
12/07/06--3rd year unknown

House Finch (1)
06/08/03--6th year female

Mourning Dove (1)
02/25/06--after 3rd year male

--The view of Hilton Pond from our office in the old farmhouse is more open as of late, what with the work of a herd of 6-8 White-tailed Deer that have been browsing their way through shrubs and forbs that grow along the pond's former margin. When the water was at full pond deer weren't able to get at vegetation that is easy pickings from now-exposed banks.

--We've also been entertained this week by a small raft of Hooded Mergansers patrolling what waters are left in Hilton Pond. Most days three drakes have been doing their best to attract the attention of a lone female, flashing their bright white head patches that gleam conspicuously against a dark pond surface.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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