By Pat Garber
Stepping 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 on Ocracoke–even in the summer–and this was late December. Hummingbirds are 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 hummingbird had been observed wintering in North Carolina.
“Look in any bird guide,” it said, “and you’ll find no mention of hummers here in winter, but they’re showing up more and more.”
I wanted to learn more. So I called Susan Campbell, a licensed hummingbird bander affiliated with the North Carolina Museum of Natural History. Considered by many to be the expert in this area, she has studied hummingbirds in North Carolina for 15 years and has seen the number of winter residents reported increase dramatically.
She believes that the ruby-throat 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, Campbell said. These hummers seem to prefer coastal Carolina where the Gulf Stream keeps temperatures warmer so that more insects are present.
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.)
According to the Audubon Society, to date 10 species of western hummingbird have been documented 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.
Many of the hummers demonstrate site fidelity, which means they return to the same wintering areas year after year. Rufous hummingbirds, a species of the northwest, are the most numerous. Broad-billed, Allen’s, and calliope hummers have also been seen along the coast.
While this is all new territory for ornithologists, there are several theories about what is going on.
“There is definitely more movement than there used to be, and patterns have changed,” said Curtis Smalling of Audubon NC. “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 some hummers here in winter, but now more people are keeping feeders up, so they may be seeing them more.
The Carolina Bird Club encourages folks to use hummingbird feeders all year.
“The early view that hummingbird feeders left hanging in the fall deter ruby-throats from migrating is false,” according to the club. “These tiny marvels begin to head south as early as late July due to hormonal changes when the days begin to shorten. Neither food supply nor weather has any effect on their behavior. Therefore, feeders left up can only help late migrants or supplement the diet of winter visitors.”
The recommended mix for hummingbird feeders is four parts water to one part sugar. Feeders will freeze when temperatures drop below 27 degrees. So in colder temperatures, feeders should be brought in at night, or heated with an outdoor utility light or a plumber’s heat tape.
“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 it is not known how this is going to impact them.
People who see hummingbirds are asked to report them findings by going to www.hummingbirdsathome.org. This is considered “the first step towards ensuring the survival of these miraculous birds in the face of climate change.”
The extreme cold North Carolina saw this past winter had an effect on the wintering hummers, according to Campbell. People have reported to her that, particularly along the coast, many of the hummers they were feeding did not show up after the cold snap. Whether they flew further south or died is not known, but if they died, there may be fewer wintering hummingbirds this coming winter. The population of the more cold-hardy rufous hummers does not seem to have been affected by the cold.
Since I have never seen a hummingbird at my summer feeder, I plan to fill it up in the fall and see who shows up for winter vacation.