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Pennsylvania’s Autumn Jewels

By dgross November 18, 2016
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Adult male Rufous Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Although only the Ruby-throated Hummingbird nests in Pennsylvania, birders and ornithologists over the past two decades have documented an increasing number of western hummingbird species showing up here, primarily from August through December. Most are Rufous Hummingbirds, a species which nests in the Pacific Northwest and southern Alaska. There is also small wintering population in the Gulf area of the U. S., including Florida. Calliope Hummingbirds, a Rocky Mountain species and the smallest North American bird, have been found in southern Pennsylvania. Black-chinned, Allen’s, and Anna’s Hummingbirds, three other western species, have appeared in recent years in the state.

Our knowledge of hummingbird migration patterns has really benefitted from citizen science. With eBird’s powerful tools, it is very easy to report an unusual hummingbird and provide digital evidence of your discovery. If the particular site is sensitive in some way, delayed data submission may be an easy way to contribute the observation to eBird without compromising personal privacy. Follow the story to the next page to find a list of Pennsylvania hummingbird banders and two hummingbird contests.

The first documented record of a Rufous Hummingbird in Pennsylvania is from November of 1975 in Chester County. Since 1990 there have been numerous records of this species in the state.  Of the nearly 100 vagrant hummingbirds reported from fall of 2012 through winter of 2013, 48 were banded as Rufous.  The first record of a Calliope Hummingbird in PA was from November 2003 in Montgomery County.  Additionally since 2009, there have been three records of Allen’s Hummingbirds, three more of Calliope, three of Black-chinned, and two of an Anna’s in PA.

Adult female Anna's Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Adult female Anna’s Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Several factors seem to contribute to the cause of this phenomenon. Subtle climate change and the gradual increase in winter temperatures across the state is likely a main one. Mistakes or “glitches” in a bird’s physiology responsible for migration is a common reason for vagrancy. Most hummingbirds migrate to where they are “supposed to” migrate without wandering so far east.  These eastward-wandering hummers are the exception to the rule, and climate and habitat changes may make these vagrants more likely to survive and pass on their “faulty” genes to a new and larger generation.

Habitat changes and the recent tendency for people to keep hummingbird feeders up much later than in past years are also probable influences.

Allen's Hummingbird, adult female, by Wayne Laubscher

Allen’s Hummingbird, adult female, by Wayne Laubscher

There’s a persistent myth that one should take down hummingbird feeders by a certain date (often early September), or the hummingbirds will “forget” or neglect to migrate south. Leaving a feeder up will not prevent a hummingbird from migrating, any more than a seed feeder will prevent finches or grosbeaks from migrating on schedule. This will not affect a bird’s instinct to migrate when it needs to. Day length is a more likely stimulus for the migratory habit of hummingbirds that need the steady diet of nectar and small flying insects to survive.

Keeping late-flowering plants in sheltered areas attracts “cool weather hummingbirds.” It is always a good rule to maintain a clean hummingbird feeder whenever you leave it outside. Weekly cleanings are recommended.  A good mixture of sugar-water is ratio 4 parts water to 1 part sugar. No additives or dyes are ever needed. If temperatures drop below freezing, bring the feeders in overnight. The hummingbirds look for food in the cold early morning hours to help fuel up for the day.

Juvenile Calliope Hummingbird feeding on a flower, by Wayne Laubscher

Juvenile Calliope Hummingbird feeding on a flower, by Wayne Laubscher

For more information about the hummingbird vagrancy phenomenon and flowering plant suggestions please see a previously posted story on eBird: https://ebird.org/content/ebird/news/west_hum_east/

From that news story, here is some relevant advise: “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.”

Adult male Rufous Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Adult male Rufous Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Because they live in high elevation or northerly habitats, Rufous, Allen’s, Anna’s, and Calliope hummingbirds are extremely tolerant of cold weather and possess an ability to drop into a deep, hibernation-like state of torpor at night to save energy.  They also can put on extra fat reserves.  Ruby-throats lack these abilities. While they do feed on sugar water at hummingbird feeders, much of their food in fall and winter comes from insects like midges, which are active even in cold conditions.

These hummingbirds do survive cold conditions. An adult female Rufous banded in Centre County in November of 2012 seems to now hold the low temperature tolerance record for the species.  It was seen feeding at a heated feeder on January 7, 2013 when the ambient temperature was -9 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind chill was estimated at -30 to -35 F.!

Juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Many of these vagrants are likely on their way to wintering areas in the Gulf states, but a few have successfully wintered over into spring in the southern tier of the state and in a few rare cases, have actually returned to the same PA location the following winter. Also, a few Rufous Hummingbirds banded elsewhere in the east have shown up in PA.

A network of hummingbird researchers across the East, including Pennsylvania, are trying to understand this west to east migration phenomenon, and are trying to determine what migratory routes lead the hummingbirds here. Each year, researchers band western hummingbirds reported in Pennsylvania. Several Rufous and a Black-chinned hummingbird have already been banded this fall in PA.

A juvenile Rufous Hummingbird in hand after banding, Wayne Laubscher

A juvenile Rufous Hummingbird in hand after banding, Wayne Laubscher

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are essentially gone from the state by the end of October. The rare ones reported later are almost certainly birds that have either an injury or some other physical issue and will eventually succumb to persistent cold temperatures.  Any hummingbird seen from October and later is quite likely a western vagrant.

A primary characteristic to look for in a western hummingbird species is usually coloration. In Rufous and Allen’s species, the adult males have a general cinnamon/ copper color to the body with a reddish or reddish orange throat.  Adult male Rufous Hummingbirds have the cinnamon color over most or all of their back while adult male Allen’s have green backs.  Female and juveniles of both species are very similar to each other and have an orange wash on their sides and at the base of the tail.  In addition, a small number of iridescent throat feathers called gorget feathers may be visible.

Adult female Rufous Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Adult female Rufous Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Calliope Hummingbirds are noticeably small with a short tail, shorter bill, and a general greenish color. Adult males have purple stripes for gorget feathers.  Females and young are similar.  Calliopes have a diagnostic small white spot between the base of the bill and the eye.  The rather large Anna’s Hummingbird is four inches in length.  The adult male is greenish with a rose colored head and throat.  The female is green above and gray below, sometimes with a few reddish gorget feathers.

Adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Black-chinned Hummingbirds are closely related to Ruby-throats. Adult males are greenish with a purple throat.  The upper part of the throat is a dark purple and the lower part is a lighter shade of purple.  Females look very similar to female Ruby-throats.  The bill is slightly longer and somewhat decurved.  There is also a tendency for Black-chinned’s to flick and fan their tails while hovering.

Adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

A non-western vagrant hummingbird species that probably deserves mention is the surprise Bahama Woodstar found in April of 2013 in Lancaster County. It was present for only a few days but was banded and confirmed.  Although it continues to be a mystery as to its origin, there is some speculation that the 2012 Storm Sandy may be a factor as to why it was found in Pennsylvania.  The only other records outside the Bahama Islands for this species are a few from Florida.

Male adult Anna's Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Male adult Anna’s Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

It is recommended that those people with hummingbird feeders leave one or two of the feeders up until at least Thanksgiving, but preferably well into December.  Heat lamps are a commonly used method to keep sugar water feeders from freezing.  Heated water pipe tapes and heated pet watering dishes have also been used.  Feeders with glass reservoirs are recommended if using lamps or heat tapes.  If anyone observes a hummingbird after October 15, they are asked to contact one of the Pennsylvania hummingbird banders. Here are their e-mail addresses:

Scott Weidensaul            scottweidensaul@verizon.net

Wayne Laubscher            wnlaubscher@comcast.net

Sandy Lockerman            sandylockerman@yahoo.com

Bob Mulvihill                      Robert.mulvihill@aviary.org

For those who live in Northcentral Pennsylvania, the Lycoming Audubon Society has a Winter Hummingbird Contest. Anyone who sees a hummingbird in the fall or winter is urged to contact the club about these winter hummingbirds. See more at the society’s website:  http://lycomingaudubon.blogspot.com/

There is another hummingbird contest for the Juniata, Mifflin, Perry and Snyder County area called the “Fall for Hummingbirds” contest. It is sponsored by Kauffman Insurance Agency in Mifflintown and Lost Creek Shoe Shop/Optics from Oakland Mills. The prizes for the the following: Any hummingbird species that can be confirmed will be entered into a $100 drawing. Any species other than Ruby-throated Hummingbird will automatically win $25. This contest will run from 10/1 to 1/31.  See the following site for more information: https://www.facebook.com/FallForHummingbirdsContest/

Contact information: Chad Kauffman 717-436-8257; Aden Troyer 717-463-3117 or email: chadkauffman@earthlink.net

Adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Please do not share a rare hummingbird sighting on eBird if the host landowner does not want that information shared or if the sighting is sensitive for a variety of reasons. It is important to respect the privacy of everyone involved.  Sometimes delaying a report after the bird has left is a good approach between balancing the scientific reporting of rarities and protecting the privacy of a rare bird host.  For more information about good practices reporting sensitive species or locations, please check the Help page of eBird including http://help.ebird.org/customer/en/portal/articles/1006789-guidelines-for-reporting-sensitive-species

It also is advisable to provide documentation of these vagrant hummingbirds.  Images and recordings can be added to the Cornell Macaulay Library. For more information about uploading digital media to eBird reports see the help page at http://help.ebird.org/customer/en/portal/articles/973966

Even as this article was written, Pennsylvania hummingbird history was being revised.  Do your part to help out and enjoy those autumn jewels!

Wayne N. Laubscher

Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology and Lycoming Audubon Society

and 

Doug Gross

PA Game Commission

Adult male Rufous Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

Adult male Rufous Hummingbird, by Wayne Laubscher

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