East of the Mississippi, it is well-known that there is only one expected hummingbird–the familiar Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Ruby-throateds typically arrive in April and the bulk have departed by the first of October. However, any hummingbird seen after about 15 October is more likely to be a rare western species than a Ruby-throated! The excitement of one of these western visitors prompts many people to keep their hummingbird feeders hanging until late fall, or even all the way through spring. The yield is high; some homeowners as far north as New Jersey and Massachusetts have had multiple appearances by rare hummingbirds. Try your luck and set out a feeder; below we discuss the possible species, give some tips on attracting late hummers, and discuss the identification of difficult species.
NOTE: The discussion below will focus on the East coast, but the trends discussed here are equally applicable to Canada, the Midwest, the Gulf Coast (rich in wintering hummingbirds), the West, and even south-coastal Alaska! It seems that anywhere that birders are willing to maintain feeders, late season hummingbirds may arrive.
Fall 2012 has been highlighted by very good numbers of Rufous Hummingbirds (see map here and zoom in for red points to see recent records), a Calliope near Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, and an Allen’s Hummingbird in western Massachusetts since late October. Perhaps some other species will follow soon!
The appearance of these western hummingbirds is a phenomenon that has been realized only recently. Starting in the mid-1980s, each ensuing year has seemed to reveal more hummingbirds of more species in the late fall. In Maryland for example, one Rufous Hummingbird was recorded per decade from 1952 to 1981; in the 1980s there were two; from 1990-1993 there were four; from 1994-1997 there were seven; and from 1998-2000 there were eight. The trend has continued along this trajectory, with more Rufous Hummingbirds appearing in each subsequent year. The state’s first Calliope came in 2004, followed by one in 2006 and another in 2007; an Anna’s Hummingbird occurred in 2005. What will 2012 hold?
From October to January, Rufous Hummingbird is the most common species by far in the East, outnumbering other species by up to ten to one. This species, which may sometimes arrive on their breeding grounds in Alaska before the ice breaks, are particularly well adapted to cold weather. Females and immatures occur in the East with regularity from mid-October on, with arrivals peaking from mid-October to late November. Several individuals have wintered successfully as far north as Massachusetts, where one female (affectionately named “Rufy”) returned to successfully winter in a Bay State greenhouse for at least six years in a row (1996-2002). It appears that immatures that stray to the East and survive the winter are likely to return in the following year, and there are numerous records of banded birds reappearing in subsequent years. Several remarkable banded birds that have been captured in the Southeast and recovered near or on the breeding grounds (e.g., one Virginia Rufous was recovered in Montana, and was found back in Virginia the next winter!). Survivorship of such birds probably also account for increasing ratios of adults noted in the East. Some adult males may appear as early as July or early August, corresponding to their migration patterns in the West. Adult females arrive later (September or October, typically), while the immatures are the latest to appear. Rufous is certainly not the only species possible though–the pool of additional species is large. In addition to Ruby-throated and Rufous, three others have been recorded with regularity in recent years and eight others (13 species in all) have appeared at least once on the East coast: Calliope, Black-chinned, and Allen’s are all occurring annually (or nearly so) from North Carolina north; Broad-billed, Anna’s, and Broad-tailed all have multiple records, and Buff-bellied, Magnificent, and Green Violetear all have a handful. The rarest of the rare, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Violet-crowned Hummingbird and Green-breasted Mango have each occurred once, once, and twice, respectively. See Appendix A for help with identification and Appendix B for more detail on these species and their occurrence on the East coast.
It is worth pointing out, though, that late-season Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are on the upswing as well. In the Carolinas, where wintering Ruby-throateds were once unheard of, the species now occurs regularly on several coastal Christmas Bird Counts where it is even more likely than Rufous Hummingbird. To the north, there are a growing handful of records of Ruby-throateds appearing at feeders in November, December, and even attempting to winter. So don’t rule out the expected summer hummingbird, but do remember that it may not be the most likely option after November.
Birders hosting rare western hummingbirds should consider having their hummingbird banded for species identification and to contribute to our body of knowledge on their movements. A fair number of hummingbirds ARE recovered. Note that one in Vienna, VA, in 2007 disappeared late in the season and moved 15 mi southwest. We know this only because of the banding efforts. Others in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast are known to return to the same feeder year after year and the amount of fascinating information the banders down there generate is incredible. The danger to the bird is minute and the information to be gained is vast. Contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org) or send a post to your local listserv to try to contact a bander in your area.
Birders hoping to attract any of these late season hummingbirds should get their feeders up NOW, and not take them down until mid-December or later.
A few tips:
* Put your feeder up near areas of good cover (especially evergreens like cedars, boxwoods, hollies, etc.) if possible. In cold weather hummingbirds will need these areas for roosting and the better the protection, the better for the bird. Weedy areas (such as those with lots of goldenrod) may hold insects which can provide good supplemental energy for the hummingbird as well.
* If cold weather (below freezing) is forecast, you should take your feeder inside at night and put it back out in the early morning. Some people have rigged up small heaters for their feeders to keep them thawed. Some have used a low watt heat lamp rigged up in an outdoor hanging fixture (like the lamps used raising baby chickens) with the feeder hanging under the lamp. Be aware that if the water in the feeder freezes, the hummingbird may not survive long.
* If you have any late season flowers those will help to attract late hummingbirds also, and may be better than a feeder at least as long as the flowers survive. By clipping blooms that appear early, you can manage your garden to peak later in the season. Several websites discuss hummingbird plantings and some also recommend which plants are hardy enough to last in cold weather. Various types of Salvia (Sage) are the perennial favorite late-blooming flower for hummingbirds, and may last into November in the Northeast. Particular favorites are the red-flowering Salvia spendens and Pineapple Sage Salvia elegans. Late fall hummingbirds have also been observed visiting Lobelias, Bee balm Monarda didyma, and jewelweed. Also Salvia leucantha (striking white flowers protruding from velvety purple calyces) known as Velvet Sage or Mexican Bush Sage, and Salvia guaranitica (blue) Anise Sage (Black and Blue is a favored variety) are excellent and may bloom until the first frost or beyond. Native trumpet honeysuckle Lonicera sempervirens is another good late blooming hummingbird plant. Trellised in a protected spot, this may remain blooming and re-bloom in late autumn and winter warm spells. Blue-black Sage Salvia guaranitica is harder to find, but may bloom from May until the first frost. Turtlehead, both the wild white and the cultivated pink, bloom well into September and later even as far north as Maine.
* It has been suggested that hanging lots of red Christmas ribbon, red surveyor’s tape, and other red items around the yards may help to be sure that hummingbirds do not pass you by. Some believe the hummingbirds fly down pathways (like roads) and have trails of red leading from the road up to their house. It also might be a good idea to plant other late blooming flowers (like petunias and mums) even though they do not provide nectar for hummingbirds.
We provide some tips on identification in Appendix A, as well as some recommended resources. However, we can help with hummingbird identification and will help with getting the word out to people that will help with identification and banding efforts. Contact us at email@example.com.
There are a number of websites that discuss vagrant hummingbirds, feeding them, and banding them. One good site is:
This site has almost anything you could want to know about the hummingbirds, how to care for them, what they are, where they come from, and where vagrant hummingbirds have appeared (try the maps!).
The Hummer Bird and Study Group, founded by Bob and Martha Sargent, has another excellent website with a focus on winter hummingbirds:
An excellent site concerning hummingbirds in the Northeast, including vagrant news year-by-year (with photos), is:
To find other sites, follow the many links from
http://www.trochilids.com, or try:
We still have a lot to learn about how and why these hummingbirds are getting here, where they go from here, and what their survivorship is. Some people might fear that leaving their feeders up might induce hummingbirds to stay later than they should, but this isn’t really the case. Migration of hummingbirds, and other obligate migrants, is triggered by changes in daylight (just about the only thing constant from year to year) and not weather or the availability of food. When they’re ready, they’ll go. Furthermore, for starters, almost all Ruby-throateds are gone by now anyway. Second, if a Rufous successfully winters at a feeder, it has saved a long and perilous migration where there is no certainty of finding another good food source. Third, these birds arrived here of their own power and/or volition. They will leave for better climes if they feel it is necessary. Winters are hard on birds, even “winter birds”, but remember that so is migration. It is a constant trade-off for birds whether to risk a cold winter in order to outweigh the dangers of a long migration.
Put out those feeders and you may well be rewarded with a rare western visitor! Let us know if you are so lucky and be sure to report your visitor in eBird!!
Identification of female and immature hummingbirds is extremely difficult, and sometimes is not even possible in the field. If you are hosting ANY hummingbird later than mid-October, it would be of great interest to have it documented and correctly identified. In addition to standard field guides there are two excellent guides to hummingbird identification with lots of color photos in each, and information on ageing and sexing as well is identifying hummingbirds.
Howell, S.N.G. 2002. Hummingbirds of North America: The Photographic Guide. Nature World, San Diego, CA.
Williamson, S.L. 2001. A Field Guide to the Hummingbirds of North America. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.
To document your hummingbird, GET A PHOTO. If you don’t have a digital camera, invite a friend over who does. Even a “point and shoot” camera can sometimes get an identifiable photo (especially if the feeder is close to the house), and those smaller cameras can often get identifiable pictures by putting them up to binoculars or a telescope (see http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/leica/2007/01/what-is-digiscope.html ). The larger the image of the hummingbird in the photograph (which means getting as close as possible) and the higher the quality of the photo, the better. If you can photograph the hummingbird in several postures, that is even more helpful, and if you can snap a shot of the spread tail while the bird is hovering, that is ideal since some species are most easily identified by tail pattern. If you can get the hummingbird in several postures, that is even better and if you can get a photo of the spread tail while the bird is hovering, that is ideal. To be really thorough, you might also try to get video (tail actions of some hummingbirds are of use) or sound recordings (call notes are always helpful for species identification). Once you have a photo, there are many expert birders who can help. Feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get back to you as soon as possible with an identification and advice. Alternatively, you could post a note to your local internet listserv that discusses birds–find information on these at http://birding.aba.org/.
Since most non-Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are of the genus Selasphorus (formerly Rufous, Allen’s and Broad-tailed, and Calliope), they tend to be easily recognized by the bright orangeish or cinnamon wash on the flanks. A flash of Rufous in the tail is also diagnostic for Selasphorus hummingbirds. Be careful though, since some young Ruby-throateds can have a faint buff wash on the flanks. Call notes of these species are softer and twangier than the full sounding chips that we hear at our feeders all summer from Ruby-throateds. For Calliope, wings extending past the tail is a good clue but the face pattern, with a lobe of pale protruding into the lores (the area between the bill and the eye), is diagnostic. Adult male Rufous or Allen’s Hummingbirds are almost entirely rufous or orangeish in color. Adult males of all species are distinctive and well covered in field guides (although adult male Allen’s are not separable from green-backed variant Rufous). Female and immature Selasphorus are so difficult to identify that close-up video and or photography, or in-hand measurements, would be necessary to confirm species identification.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are even harder to separate from female Black-chinned, and in-hand measurements or close-up photos are essential to confirm species identification. Look carefully for colored feathers in the throat though–even a single feather could be of assistance, since Ruby-throated would have a red feather while Black-chinned would have a purple feathers. Female Black-chinneds do differ from Ruby-throateds in bill length, subtleties of color, face pattern, and details of the primary feather shape, which could potentially be assessed from close-up video or photography. Van Remsen (in Louisiana) believes that any Ruby-throated/Black-chinned that wags its tail WHILE FEEDING is sure to be a Black-chinned. Ruby-throateds flick and wag their tail while hovering near the feeder, but when their bill is in the feeder, their tails little more than quiver.
Finally, females of Ruby-throated and Black-chinned should be carefully separated from Anna’s Hummingbird. Anna’s has a very different call, is more pot-bellied, and has a greenish wash on the sides and dingier underparts. One of the best field marks is one of the most subtle–are the inner primaries (wing feathers) as wide as the outer ones? If so, it indicates that it is not in the genus Archilochus and thus not a Ruby-throated or Black-chinned–it may be an Anna’s!
Several of the rarest species are easily recognized since they are VASTLY larger than Ruby-throated, including Green-breasted Mango, Green Violetear, Blue-throated Hummingbird, and Magnificent Hummingbird.
After Ruby-throated, Rufous Hummingbird is the next most common species and most states get several per fall now. A summary of other vagrant hummingbirds on the East coast, with rough tallies for the number of state records, is below:
Calliope Hummingbird–Recorded from Maine (2), Massachusetts (4), Connecticut (4), New York (~3), Pennsylvania (2), New Jersey (5), Maryland (4), and has multiple records for Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Almost all records are females or immatures, but in October 2007 New Jersey had the first adult male north of the Carolinas and another followed in Massachusetts in Aug 2008. This species has occurred almost exclusively in the fall, from late September to January in the Northeast (has wintered in Southeast). It nests in the Northwest and winters in west Mexico.
Black-chinned Hummingbird–Recorded from Massachusetts (4; including 2 in 2007!), New Jersey (3), District of Columbia (1), West Virginia (1), Virginia (3), and is regular in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. These records have been almost exclusively from October to December in the Northeast (has wintered in Southeast). An exceptional record was the August 2006 adult male banded in Massachusetts. This species breeds east to Colorado and south Texas, and winters in Mexico.
Allen’s Hummingbird–Recorded from Massachusetts (6), New Jersey (3), Pennsylvania (2), Delaware (1), Virginia (3), Maryland (2), and more for North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The earliest records have been in late August (Massachusetts), but most have corresponded to the Rufous Hummingbird peak from mid-October to late November. Exceptionally, an adult male appeared in Massachusetts in March 2012, possibly a bird that wintered farther south and migrated north. Given the extreme difficulty of separating this species from Rufous Hummingbird (possible only with adult males and birds measured in hand), it is certain that this species has occurred more often than it has been recognized. Although most Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbirds have proven to be Rufous, it is still worthwhile to attempt to band and measure each individual to determine the relative prevalence of Allen’s.
Broad-billed Hummingbird–Recorded from Connecticut (1), Massachusetts (1), Nova Scotia (1), New York (1), North Carolina (1), and South Carolina (2). Records of this species have been from both July and October. This species is resident in Mexico and nests north to Arizona.
Broad-billed Hummingbird, Dennis, MA, 25 Aug 2008. This adult male represented the first record for Massachusetts. Photo by Peter Trimble.
Anna’s Hummingbird–Recorded from New York (2), Pennsylvania (1), Maryland (2), North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The similarity of this species to Archilochus hummingbirds (Ruby-throated and Black-chinned) may mean that this species is overlooked. See ID section for assistance with recognizing the subtle females of this species.
Broad-tailed Hummingbird–Another Rufous Hummingbird look-alike (like Allen’s), this species may also occur more regularly than it has been noted. The northernmost record to date is one that wintered in Cape May, NJ, in 2011-2012. On the Gulf Coast it is rarer than Calliope and Allen’s; the several records from Georgia and the Carolinas are the only records to date from the East coast.
Buff-bellied Hummingbird–Recorded thus far only from the Southeast, with records from Georgia and North Carolina (1). Seems to be increasing in winter throughout the Southeast, and to be expected to stray farther north eventually.
Green Violetear–Recorded from Maine (1), New Jersey (1), North Carolina (2), Maryland (2), and West Virginia (1). The temporal pattern of this species is more erratic, with appearances in July and August (West Virginia, Maine, New Jersey) and September and October (North Carolina, Maryland).
Magnificent Hummingbird–Although it is a frequent stray to the north in the Rocky Mountains, this species is not noted for straying east but has been recorded in Minnesota, Arkansas, and Alabama. A couple records for Georgia and one from Virginia 22 to 25 Oct 2003 constitute the only records for this Region.
Blue-throated Hummingbird–Although a few have strayed to the Gulf Coast states in fall and winter, one in South Carolina 31 July 1993 defines the limits of this species’ vagrancy shadow.
Green-breasted Mango–The fall 2007 season was been punctuated by TWO Green-breasted Mangos! The first appeared in the late summer in Wisconsin remained into November. A remarkable second appeared at a Dublin, Georgia, feeder in late October. The only prior U.S. record north of Texas pertained to an immature male that appeared at Concord, NC, 12 November to 7 December 2000. This species ranges from Panama north to Northeast Mexico and has strayed about a dozen times to South Texas. Another remarkable out-of-range record of this species came this year from Wisconsin.
Violet-crowned Hummingbird–One near Roanoke, Virginia, in June (!) 2009, is one of the more remarkable eastern records of stray hummingbirds. Otherwise it has not been recorded straying east of Texas, but does stray northward on the West Coast in fall and winter and is to be watched for in the East as well. Native to West Mexico, occurring north to southernmost Arizona.
NOT YET RECORDED
Costa’s Hummingbird—Recorded from Minnesota and Colorado in late fall and Alabama in winter, it is to be expected in the Northeast. Native to the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts of Northwest Mexico and the Desert Southwest.
White-eared Hummingbird–Recorded from Colorado twice in summer, once in Michigan in summer, and once from Mississippi in winter; to be watched for. Native to west Mexico, with small numbers north to Arizona.
Lucifer Hummingbird–Another species that has not strayed east of Texas, this one could show up farther to the east. Native to central and western Mexico, and the Big Bend region of Texas.
WEST COAST–On the West Coast, watch for the following species: Broad-billed (November-April), Ruby-throated (August-November), Violet-crowned (November-March), Magnificent (October-April), Costa’s, Allen’s, Rufous, Broad-tailed, Calliope, Black-chinned, and others. Unlike the East coast, where any hummingbird is noteworthy, Anna’s Hummingbird is common in most areas and thus obscures the appearance of many of these species. Still, it is worth watching for them all!