Catching a vagrant in the backyard

I caught myself coughing and sniffling at work yesterday.  During the night, this grew into a full-blown congestive extravaganza so I decided to stay home and not pass the bug around to anyone at work.  If it’s the bug that Dana has had and carried to Haiti and back then it’s not something to share.  I was upstairs reading when Dana called up that there was a hummingbird on one of the feeders outside.  We put sugar water out for hummers in the summer and of course it’s now nearly November and I had yet to take them down.   I looked out the window and, sure enough, there was a little brownish green hummingbird tanking up under the still-green maples.  After a moment, it rose up and into the bright October sunshine.

DSC_0584a
Photo: Jerry Oldenettel
Now, because my friend and incipient brother-in-law is Paul Sweet,  I knew a thing about October hummingbirds.  Not much but I know, for example, that, while there are many types of hummingbirds that live in the U.S., only the ruby-throated hummingbird breeds here in the eastern part of the country.  Should you see a hummingbird here in Massachusetts in October, however, there is a really good chance it isn’t a ruby-throated at all.  Warm autumn or not, they take their cues from the length of the day and when the length of the day starts clearly trending downward they head out.
 
Hummingbirds out west don’t follow the same schedule.  Young hummers born out there get the itch for adventure and some of them head out on truly epic journeys.   The one at our feeder this morning was a rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus).   They normally breed in the Pacific Northwest and up the west coast of Canada into Alaska.  In the fall they head south but tend to fan out in a broad east-west wedge through the western states where they continue on into Mexico to spend a proper hummingbird winter sipping nectar from desert flowers.   Those that make it all the way to southern Mexico have the longest migration of any hummingbird.  Some of them go so far east that Mexico has given away to the Gulf of Mexico and they spend their winter with the snowbirds like Mrs. Salthouse across the street.
 
Some western hummers, particularly the rufous, put a lot more east into migration than perhaps they should and end up here in New England.   Sometimes they hit the Atlantic coast, turn right, and continue south to Florida or thereabouts.  Sometimes they wind up in the northeast here and don’t even bother heading south.  Paul told me about one that spent the entire winter in the garden of the American Museum of Natural History where he works.   In the Carolinas, where they take their winter hummingbirds seriously and band them and keep track of them and such,  they have birds that return year after year to winter in these ‘vagrant’ lands.  I associate hummingbirds with warm places and the thought of a tiny little warm-blooded pinch of feathers and muscle spending the winter here seems just about impossible.  You know those cold February nights I’m talking about?  Where it’s super clear and the moon is bright and the wind in the branches makes them clatter about like old bones while your breath drifts in a cloud that gives up after about half a second in that air.  Some poor little hummingbird tucked up in a tree someplace?  

Apparently they do have a trick or two.  A lot of hummers are desert birds and deserts, with clear skies and little vegetation, especially those found at any decent elevation, get damn cold at night.  Below freezing kind of cold.  Hummingbirds handle this by essentially shutting down at night; going into a state called torpor.  Their metabolism can drop by as much as 95% and this allows them to conserve energy by not burning it all night to stay warm.  They will also eat insects when they can find them and, I imagine, other not-so-savories that a summer hummer would probably reject.Tonight is overcast and, as the nearby ocean is still 60 degrees F or so, I’m not too worried about my little friend.  He/she may be out there right now, in a sort of half-way torpor waiting for tomorrows sun to warm up that little body.  If so, I hope it gives me another chance and checks out the feeders.  After it left, I changed out the old and probably fermented batch with a new fresh charge of Dominos (sugar not pizza) finest.  I’m happy to see that sometimes it pays to be a bit lazy in bringing down the accoutrements of summer. In fact, don’t be surprised if you see those little red plastic flower feeders hanging from bare branches all winter long.   Just in case!

References:

The Hummingbirds of Winter

How do Hummingbirds survive Cold Nights? Hummingbirds and Torpor

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