In the afternoon of 11/19, a customer of the store alerted me to the presence of a hummingbird in her Freeport yard, present since the 5th of November. For over 15 years, we have promoted keeping hummingbird feeders up late into the fall and letting us know about any hummingbirds after October 1st. In addition to several incredibly late reports of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (now annual in small numbers well into the second week of October), this campaign has resulted in the detection and documentation of a Selasphorous hummingbird on 10/16-17, 2015 in Yarmouth, and a long-staying Rufous Hummingbird observed by many between 10/18 and 12/5, 2020, also in Yarmouth – the first “chaseable” Rufous in eight years in the state.
Upon receiving the report, we urged the homeowner to get any sort of photo. Later that day the bird finally obliged, and the photos sent to us were suggestive of a Selasphorous hummingbird. I was invited to the property the following day to attempt more documentation. I arrived at 3:05pm with snow flurries falling, and soon heard the bird. The call was clearly of a Selasphorous-type hummingbird. My limited experience with separating Selasphorous by call did not permit me to draw any further conclusions (in hindsight though!)
Twenty minutes later, the bird appeared at the feeders, feeding long enough for photographs, before alighting on a nearby snag in a sliver of sunlight. In the field, and upon review of photographs, I immediately knew it was a Selasphorous. Lucky photos of a semi-spread tail showed a fairly broad outer tail feather, but I assumed it was probably “just” a Rufous. Or at least I am not knowledgeable enough to have thought beyond Rufous/Allen’s (it was clearly not a Calliope).
I reached out to Scott Weidensaul with the first few photos, and since he was available the next day to band it, I made arrangements with the homeowner. Scott was intrigued by the tail, and stated “I cannot rule out Broad-tailed from the photos” but also assumed it was likely to be a Rufous. They usually are.
Scott, Doug Hitchcox, and I arrived at noon on 11/21 to attempt to band the bird. In less than an hour, we had safely trapped the bird, and took a series of measurements and photos. The bird was healthy, undergoing active molt, and had a fat score of 1.
When we first observed the bird, Scott pointed out the bluish hue that was sometimes apparent on the back of the bird. He mentioned he saw that in one of my photos from the prior day, but dismissed it as probably being an artifact of the photo. I was unaware of this impression until he pointed it out.
However, as the banding process began, we were still working under the assumption that this was going to be a Rufous Hummingbird, until the “numbers” kept coming in. Doug was recording and noted the significant difference between Rufous Hummingbirds on the data sheet. When Scott read the width of the outer tail feather aloud, he seemed shocked, and immediately measured again. And again. Doug and I kept glancing at each other, eyes wide, attempting to hold back exuberance.
Width of Outer Tail Feather (R5): 5.44!!!
We double-checked all measurements, took lots of photos, and Doug and I tried to not explode with excitement as Scott calmly but clearly excitedly expressed comments such as “this is the biggest tail I have ever seen on a Selasphorous in the East.” We, as well as the homeowner who had joined us for the banding, were all shaking with excitement by now. The below-freezing air temperature played much less of a role. A quick check of references, a final check of the measurements, and then the bird was released. Of course, the bird’s host had the honor of letting it go. After processing, it immediately returned to the feeder and fed regularly for the rest of the day, calling even more vociferously in between.
Upon checking some references at home, and sending photos out for additional opinions, it was clear to Scott that we (OK, he) had just documented the first Broad-tailed Hummingbird, a hatch-year male, for Maine – and apparently, for all of New England!
Jeannette was invited to observe the bird on the 22nd, while I spoke to the homeowner several times over the phone to discuss the opportunity for others to share in the excitement. I arranged for a small group to visit in the morning of the 23rd as a test-run – a few close friends and young birders were the guests. After that successful visit when we all had repeated views, I suggested a feeder be placed in the front yard. If the bird took to it, visitors would have the chance to see it from a public road, without entering the yard.
I placed that one of our feeders on the morning of the 25th, after the holiday so as not to bother the homeowner. I also observed the bird, regularly feeding in the cold rain, making two visits to the feeders within 15 minutes – a faster pace now. It was cold, but was it also tanking up? Later in the day, Jeannette returned with a small shepherd’s hook to give the feeder even better visibility from the road, along with getting it into the morning sun to help keep it warmer on these frigid mornings.
The homeowner has been taking in the feeder (now, feeders), every night so the first feeding will be at room temperature nectar. She’s been heading out early with a headlamp so as not to miss it’s first feeding session! What an amazing host!
My Saturday Morning Birdwalk group was invited over on that first Saturday morning, but the bird never came to the new feeder. As per prior arrangement, an hour later we were able to enter the yard and in doing so we enjoyed immediate prolonged views of it at the original feeder in the backyard.
The next test run was another small group on Sunday morning. We arrived at 8:00, and for almost an hour were teased by the hummer as he darted around the backyard, calling constantly, and briefly perching in obscured views. Then, at 8:56, he finally made a brief visit to the new feeder!
In the next 30 minutes, he visited that carefully-place feeder three times, including two prolonged drinking bouts which provided ample opportunity for people to study, enjoy, and photograph the bird. Success! He is now using a feeder in view from the road, without entering the yard!
And with that success, on Wednesday the 28th, I was given the go-ahead to let the word get out, slowly, methodically, and carefully managed to avoid crowds and overwhelming the homeowner and the neighbors.
In consultation with the homeowner, I was tasked with managing the crowds and birders’ behaviors. People needed to email me for the set of visitation instructions and caveats, and since the end of November birders visited, saw, photographed, and mostly remained on their best behavior. The vast majority (but of course, not all) even followed all of the rules! I remained in close contact with the homeowner and reassured her that just about everyone was receiving the instructions directly from me. I did my best to respond to every one of the emails I received, spacing out visitation as much as possible. Of course, not everyone followed every rule – especially the one about sharing the location.
The bird continued into the middle of December. I would say “miraculously” given the plummeting temperatures, but it was mostly through the passionate dedication of the homeowner. When temperatures failed to reach the freezing mark for a high on December 10th, it ushered in the most challenging stretch of weather in which temperatures did not hit 32 for four days. During the time, the homeowner would go out regularly throughout the day with unfrozen sugar water to replace the simple syrup popsicles. The hummingbird learned to recognize her and this activity and would often visit the feeder immediately after she walked away.
Unfortunately, however, during this time, it saved energy by sitting for long periods in the sun, out of view from visiting, shivering observers. Even more frustrating for some, was hearing it vocalize in the backyard and never seeing it from the road – at the side feeder or his favorite perch. Thankfully, no one decided to tempt fate by entering the yard to look around back.
Earlier in the month, I had asked Scott Weidensaul about possible departure times, given his experience with vagrant hummingbirds in the Northeast. He told me that birds often depart on the first nice day after the first significant cold snap where the temperatures failed to reach the freezing mark for multiple days. Such a day occurred on 12/15, where temperatures reached the low 40’s and a light northerly wind was increasing. Thinking it could be his last day, I finished my morning’s birding at the location.
I arrived at 10:02 and immediately found him sitting in one of his favorite perches in the multiflora Rose. He sat there – save for one short sally, presumably for an insect – for the next 16 minutes before buzzing off, presumably to the feeder in the backyard. I heard him for most of the time but did not glimpse him again before I departed at 10:30.
By the middle of December, his first gorget feathers had already begun to appear – but only on one side of its head, best seen in this photo from the homeowner on 12/12.
I was sure this was it. Storm a’coming. Temperatures above normal in the low 40’s, a light northerly breeze, and the sun was shining for a while. But alas, with the wet snow falling on Friday the 16th, the homeowner informed us that he was still present and feeding actively. He was still present on Saturday Morning, with heavy flakes starting to pile out.
Luckily, the heated hummingbird feeders that the homeowner ordered had arrived and were deployed just in time!
90 100 people have seen it now, and visitors are still welcome to view it, as long as they follow a strict set of rules. If you would like to see it, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with a day that you are interested in going, and we’ll send the instructions and address the day before, as long as the numbers of visitors remain manageable each day and on our best behavior. To minimize the number of emails in the queue, please include the day in your original email.
***12/26 UPDATE:*** We just received an email this afternoon from the homeowner, reporting that she has not seen the bird since 3:47 pm on Friday, 12/23. Pressure was dropping rapidly through the day with rain, heavy at times, and southwesterly winds gusting over 50mph for much of the day. She reported it was drinking regularly throughout that stormy day, with temps rising into the low 50s. Overnight temperatures dropped dramatically, by 40 degrees by sunrise, despite still-strong SW winds. Certainly not the time and conditions I would have expected it to depart on (assuming it survived the night), but it does bring up some interesting questions. Did it survive the storm? Was the storm the final incentive to depart? And if so, did it depart in the “wrong” direction that perhaps it arrived on (i.e. it was a “mirror vagrant” flying in the wrong direction to start with)? But since it’s banded, should it be found anywhere else, we very well might know, but short of that, we are left to conjecture.
The homeowner is leaving the feeders out for a little longer, just in case. If he returns, we’ll post an update here and include new instructions for visitation if possible.