A Humdinger Winter for Hummers

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, like this one, usually fly south the Mexico or Central America for the Winter, but more and more they're being spotted on the N.C. coast. Photo: Louise McLaughlin, National Park Service

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, like this one, usually fly south to Mexico or Central America for the Winter, but more and more often they’re being spotted on the N.C. coast. Photo: Louise McLaughlin, National Park Service

OCRACOKE — Stepping out onto my front porch, I did a double-take. Looking again, I confirmed what I saw. A hummingbird was hovering nearby and perusing my late blooming lantana. It was unusual to see hummers here, even in the summer; and this was late December. Hummingbirds were not supposed to be here in winter. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the hummers which live in the eastern part of North America, were supposed to be far south, wintering in Mexico. Or, so I thought.

A few weeks later another Ocracoke resident mentioned his surprise at seeing a hummingbird in his yard. Then, listening to the radio, I heard an intriguing snippet of news. In recent years not only ruby-throats but several western species of hummingbirds had been observed wintering in North Carolina. “Look in any bird guide,” the voice on the radio said, “and you’ll find no mention of hummers here in winter, but they’re showing up more and more.”

Susan Campbell, who bands hummingbirds for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, is considered by many to be among the hummingbird experts in the state. A former member of Hummer/Bird Study Group, she has been studying hummingbirds in North Carolina for 15 years and has seen the number of winter residents reported increase dramatically.

Campbell believes that the ruby-throated hummers we see in summer still fly south and that the winter birds are arrivals from farther north. The first wintering population of ruby-throats was documented in Dare County, according to Campbell. These hummers seem to prefer coastal North Carolina where the Gulf Stream keeps temperatures warmer, so that more insects are present. Lake Mattamuskeet, which has lots of water and lush vegetation, has an inland wintering population, not large but unexpected since it is an inland location.

Many of the western species have changed their migration patterns from vertical — south to Mexico and Central America — to horizontal, flying east to North Carolina and other southern states. Up to 14 western species have been documented in North and South Carolina, Virginia and other southern states. Many return to the same wintering areas year after year. Rufous hummingbirds, a species of the Northwest, are the most numerous, followed by black-chinned. Other species documented include broad-billed and calliope along the coast, Anna’s, buff-bellied and broadbills in the New Bern area, green-violet ears in the mountains, broad-tails near Gibsonville, and green-breasted and mango near Charlotte. The state’s first Allen’s hummingbird was spotted in Manteo in 2003.

Hummingbirds, family Trochilidae, live only in the Western Hemisphere. Their common name comes from the humming sound their wings make as they vibrate, up to 70 beats per second or faster. Audubon naturalist John Terres calls the bird “a living helicopter,” describing its ability to fly sideways, backwards, straight up and down and hover in one place. Hummers are swift fliers, having been clocked at between 25 and 50 mph, and they fly long distances when they migrate.

The rufous hummingbird is a western species. Photo: Brian E. Small.

The rufous hummingbird is a western species. Many of the western species have changed their migration patterns from vertical — south to Mexico and Central America — to horizontal, flying east to North Carolina and other southern states. Photo: Brian E. Small.

Among the smallest of birds, they are bright and colorful, especially the males, which may have iridescent throat feathers called “gorgets.” Hummingbirds have needlelike bills and extendable tongues, which allows  them to sip the nectar in flowers. While they are primarily nectar feeders, they also eat all kinds of insects. They have an extremely high metabolism and, according to the Birder’s Handbook, have to consume their weight in nectar daily. They may become torpid at night or in cold weather, a mechanism that helps them conserve energy by lowering heart rate, breathing rate and metabolism.

According to the National Audubon Society, “to date 10 species of western hummingbird have been documented while visiting North Carolina during the non-breeding season. Identification of these birds is difficult since most are nondescript females or juveniles, and they tend to look very similar. Identifying them is often based on the color, shape or size of just a few feathers.”

While this is all new territory for ornithologists, there are several theories about what is going on. Curtis Smalling of Audubon North Carolina says that “there is definitely more movement than there used to be, and patterns have changed. Whether it is because of climate change, loss of habitat or other reasons is not certain. The number of rufous hummingbirds wintering in North Carolina has gone up exorbitantly.”

It may be that there were always hummingbirds here in winter and no one realized it. Cornell University’s “Project Feederwatch” makes the following observation: “It is possible that more people are now keeping an eye out for hummingbirds in winter and maintaining their hummingbird feeders year-round, so the likelihood of seeing and reporting a hummingbird in winter has increased.”

“Hummingbirds at Home” is an Audubon project dedicated to studying and trying to help these errant hummers. “There is a growing mismatch between flowering times and the arrival of hummingbirds in their breeding areas and we don’t know how this is going to impact hummingbirds,” according to the website. The purpose of the site is to collect data on how hummingbirds interact with nectar sources in order to better understand what is happening, and what effect providing nectar feeders has on hummingbirds. This is considered “the first step towards ensuring the survival of these miraculous birds in the face of climate change.”

Participants in the program are provided with guidelines for documenting their sightings, whether they’re in natural gardens or at feeders. Everyone is encouraged to participate by going to this website.

The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences sponsors an “Adopt a Hummingbird’ program, in which hummers banded by Campbell can be adopted for $20 to help fund additional research. Checks can be sent to Friends of the Museum Hummingbird Fund at Box 27611-6928. Campbell encourages anyone who sees a wintering hummingbird to call her at 910-585-0574 or email her at susan@ncaves.com.

The extreme cold North Carolina saw last winter had an effect on the wintering hummers, according to Campbell. People reported to her that, particularly along the coast, the hummers they fed did not show up after the cold snap. Whether they flew further south or died is not known. The population of the far more cold-hardy rufous hummers does not seem to have been affected by the cold.

Whatever the reasons we in North Carolina are seeing more hummingbirds in the winter, it is a treat for those of us who love watching the amazing little birds. What better way to get through the cold, gray days of winter than to put up a hummingbird feeder and enjoy their antics!

About the Author

Pat Garber

Naturalist Pat Garber washed up on Ocracoke Island in 1984. She immersed herself in the island’s natural environment and later wrote a series of award-winning columns based on her experiences for the "Island Breeze." She later published the columns as a collection of essays, called "Ocracoke Wild." Garber’s stories are gleaned from her experiences as an environmental anthropologist, wildlife rehabilitator, teacher, kayak guide and volunteer at the Hatteras National Seashore.