On Saturday, July 31st, Jeannette and I were sitting on our back porch in Pownal sharing a beer in our usual after work beer o’clock/feeder and yard bird watch. We almost skipped it, however. We were leaving for a trip the next day and had yet to pack, the mosquitoes have been annoying, and besides, the Olympics were on. But I said “It’s my birthday and I can have a beer on the porch if I want to!”
We were enjoying our beverage while watching the constant activities of baby woodpeckers learning the ropes at the suet and nut feeders, and the aerial acrobatics and constant combat of hummingbirds. I’ve worked hard at increasing our hummingbird population with feeders, of course, but more importantly a near-constant source of natural nectar throughout the season. We have been rewarded in our efforts with two nesting females almost every year, and a constant stream of adult males. And now juveniles were about to fledge, adding to that activity.
It was about 7:00pm when I was enthralled with a particularly aggressive dogfight in the red Bee Balm. And then I basically did a spit-take when one of the combatants flashed rufous in its tail.
A SELASPHOROUS HUMMINGBIRD!!!!
I scrambled for the binoculars, Jeannette raced for her camera, and Bonxie wondered what all of the commotion was about and why we were disturbing his chipmunk watching.
We observed and photographed it for over an hour, finally retiring inside for dinner at about 8:15 when the hummingbird activity shut down for the evening. Emails were sent and calls were made.
Here are Jeannette’s best photos from the evening:
It was already getting dark, it was tough to observe details, and her shutter speed was too slow to capture motion: and we really needed to see the spread-tail to have hopes of identifying this inordinately tricky genus.
We decided to invite a handful of folks over to our yard the next morning to share in our excitement over this special backyard visitor. We also hoped to have more long lenses pointed at that tail!
Studying the books and reviewing the photos – along with soliciting some input from other birders – it became readily clear that this was an adult female (based on overall wear and throat pattern) Rufous or Allen’s Hummingbird. We systematically eliminated the other members of the genus, and saw nothing suggestive of the even less likely Allen’s. But this is one of the most challenging species-pairs in North America, depending on the age and sex.
The next morning, 6 people joined us on the porch, and luckily, our bird showed up. And eventually, showed up really, really, well! Unlike the previous evening however, where she spent prolonged periods at the feeder, she rarely lingered at any one flower or feeder for long before be driven off by one of the resident Ruby-throats (at least two adult males, 2 adult females, and either another female or a juvenile were all present and protecting their resources). Plenty of photos were taken, but we had not yet seen the tail pattern clearly.
Jeannette and I really needed to go pack now, and so we left the hummingbird watchers to themselves. Eventually, Bonxie went off to camp, I packed the car, and soon it was time for us to depart. Luckily, Ethan and Ingrid remained vigilant as Ethan finally acquired those critical tail shots:
His arrows point to the critical R2, the 2nd tail feather from the center on each half of the tail. On most – but not all – adult female Rufous Hummingbirds, there is an emargination (often called a “nipple tip”) which is not present on Allen’s Hummingbird. Unfortunately, this birds tail is worn – not surprising at this time of year – and the exact original pattern is just impossible to deduce.
We are therefore left with less-reliable set of field marks and circumstances. Often, the fallback here is to band and measure it, but we decided not to consider that unless she was still present when we returned.
So this is what we have:
- Tail feathers, including R5, look “wide enough” to be a Rufous. This is pretty subjective visually, however, and usually takes in-hand measurements to confirm.
- Limited rufous in the uppertail coverts as expected on Rufous.
- Overall wear and fading of plumage is rather minimal; most Allen’s Hummingbirds would look very worn and likely really tattered by now.
The circumstantial evidence is also quite strong:
- Rufous Hummingbirds are early long-distance migrants who are on the move in the west by now. Breeding as far north as southeastern Alaska, Rufous Hummingbirds have a pattern of fairly regular vagrancy to the East in late summer. Allen’s does not.
- The only New England record of Allen’s Hummingbird is from Nantucket on 8/26/1988 (Massachusetts Avian Records Committee). Admittedly, that is only a month later (I was surprised to learn!).
- The next closest records are seven in New Jersey (mostly from Cape May) that all were first found between September 3rd and November 14.
- Of course, the preponderance of unconfirmed/unidentifiable “Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbirds” records clouds the judgment of this pattern of occurrence a little.
We already had scheduled someone to take care of our feeders while we were gone, and when he did so on 8/4, he did not see our Selasphorous. We returned home in the evening of 8/8, and sugar water was still available and our meadow of Wild Bergamot was now in full bloom. But alas, our visitor was not present. There were plenty of Ruby-throats still buzzing around – perhaps one less adult male and one more juvenile now, but not surprisingly, our vagrant had continued on, whether by choice or by force.
Now if she was still here, we would have pondered opening our yard up to visitors (not visible from the road, let alone a public one) and perhaps arranging for a bander to visit and attempt to capture her for measurements. But alas, these are the best shots and information we have to work with at this time.
So I am still soliciting comments, but personally, I think this bird is a Rufous Hummingbird. While we might not have absolute conclusive proof, I see absolutely nothing to suggest Allen’s so for me, I am happy with the most probable identification and Rufous Hummingbird is our 133rd Yard Bird!
And after 16 years here, our backyard has finally attracted a bona fide vagrant (although the two Hoary Redpolls were pretty great as well). I just wish her timing was a little better. Then again, she could have shown up the next day and we would have never known! Nevertheless, it was a wonderful birthday present!
Thanks to Michael O’Brien and Paul Lehman for helpful comments on the bird’s suspected identity, and especially to Ethan Whitaker for the diagnostic (or nearly so?) photos.
Howell, Steve N.G. 2002. Hummingbirds of North America: The Photographic Guide. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.
West, George C. 2015. North American Hummingbirds: An Identification Guide. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque.
Williamson, Sheri L. 2001 Hummingbirds of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York and Boston.