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Wildlife: Cool sightings -- hummingbirds that don't go south
Sunday, December 11, 2005

By Scott Shalaway

December may seem an odd time to write about hummingbirds, but thanks to some
adventurous western species, they're getting hard to ignore. Since October, rufous
hummingbirds have been seen in Ohio, Pennsylvania and several other eastern states.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the common species in the east, head south by mid October.
Any hummingbird seen after that time is likely to be a stray from the west, and it
should be reported. In recent years the Hummer/Bird Study Group has documented 13
species of hummingbirds wandering east in the fall and winter. Most have been rufous hummingbirds.

I first learned of winter hummingbird sightings in October 1997 when a female rufous
hummer showed up at a feeder in Delmont near Greensburg. "Ruthie," as she came to be
known, became a topic for discussion on my radio show (2-4 p.m. Saturdays on WPTT-AM,
1360, and on the Internet at www.1360wptt.com

In December 1997, banders from the Hummer/Bird Study Group captured and banded the bird.
Amazingly Ruthie returned to the same backyard in October 1998. She died in January 1999
and is now a specimen in the bird collection at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Since then, numerous rufous hummers have shown up throughout the east each fall. Some
stay for several months before heading south to warmer climates. What's most remarkable
about this is that the normal range of rufous hummingbirds is the Pacific northwest --
from Oregon and Idaho north to Alaska. They are tough little birds and easily survive
sub-freezing night time temperatures. Their normal migratory path takes them south
through the western states to wintering grounds in southern California, the Gulf coast
and Mexico.

Birds' migratory routes are at least partly encoded in their genes, and hummingbird
bander Scott Wiedensaul believes the wandering hummers that appear in the east are the
result of genetic mistakes.

"If a rufous hummingbird's innate fall migratory instructions send it west, it will die
in the Pacific Ocean," Weidensaul said. "If it goes north, it will die in the Arctic.
But if its bearing takes it to Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Virginia, it has a good
chance of surviving and working its way south to Florida or the Gulf coast. And those
genetic instructions remain in the population to be passed on to the next generation."

That's a reasonable explanation for why oddball hummers keep showing up in the east.

And thanks to Robert Protz, a hummingbird enthusiast from the Pittsburgh area, I've
learned that Pennsylvania's rufous sightings date back to 1975. The first one was
reported that year in Chester County outside Philadelphia and the bird ended up in the
Philadelphia Zoo. To access Protz's information, visit his web site pahummers.tripod.com

If you'd like a chance, and I emphasize "chance," to see a winter hummingbird, expert
Bob Sargent of the Hummer/Bird Study Group suggests keeping a nectar feeder filled all
winter. You just might be one of the lucky few to see a wandering winter hummingbird.

The Hummer BSG Web site (www.hummingbirdsplus.org) offers instructions for heating a
nectar feeder to keep the nectar from freezing.

And the possibilities aren't just limited to rufous hummers. Just last week, an Anna's
hummingbird was reported near Cincinnati, a first record for Ohio. Normally Anna's
hummingbirds nest from southern Arizona north to British Columbia and their migratory
habits are not well known. In fact, many do not migrate at all, so an appearance in Ohio
is noteworthy.

If you ever see a hummingbird in winter, there are people who want to know. The staff at
the Powdermill Avian Research Center (724-593-7521) in Western Pennsylvania or Sargent
(205-681-2888; Rubythroat@aol.com) can put you in touch with banders in your area.

To keep abreast of unusual bird sightings, consider joining your state birding
organization. Google "birding list serve" for your state to work your way to many
sources of valuable current information. And for hummingbird news and information,
consider joining HUMNET at www.museum.lsu.edu/~remsen/HUMNETintro