Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is this cheating?

Keeping a feeder not only up during the winter but also warm enough to keep it from freezing so that a wandering western hummingbird can sugar up when she needs to? In the Mid-Atlantic? In January? Hmmm, I think it just might be... (Although she's decided she doesn't like this feeder under the heat lamp anymore.)

One does have to wonder about this Rufous Hummingbird who showed up in Goshen, New Jersey, USA, in late-October: fourteen (14) weeks ago come January 28, 2012. (Here you can just about see rufous tail feathers that make her not-a-ruby-throated. A Ruby-throated's outer tail feathers would be green.)

She's only spotted for a few minutes at a time only a few times a day at the three feeders the nature center has out. Presumably she's elsewhere most of time--someone else's feeder? A protected garden? How far away? But as she does not appear to be relying heavily on the feeders, it follows that she might be getting food another way as well.

We have had native honeysuckle blooming (albeit in very small quantities) up until the last week or so, and on balmier days winged insects are definitely out and about. (Hummer diets can consist of at least half insect protein, especially in the breeding season when there are growing young to feed.) Keyed in as you can become to hummer motion after watching them a lot, I was able to enjoy her "hawk" the nature center's meadow--swooping up from a perch to grab bugs out of the air like a wee flycatcher--the first month she was here. And her flits out from the holly and back on a (relatively speaking) balmy January 26th likely meant she was doing the same.

Best photo yet. If she'd stuck around for it. 

(Invisible hummingbird! Argh. Handheld point and shoot through glass and rain. They're hard enough to photograph when conditions are good...)

Having feeders up might be a contributing factor to her still being here and still being alive (although Rufous Hummers nest up the Pacific coast into Alaska, so they are tough little birds by nature). But since we don't really know what causes individuals of the western hummingbird species to wander so widely from their "normal" migration routes and wintering grounds in the first place (bad GPS?), or what prompts a bird to stop here and not there or when to stop (finding appropriate habitat--food, water and shelter--would probably and obviously be main factors), we can't say definitively that she remains here solely due to the feeders.

After all, none of the hundreds of ruby-throated hummers that stopped in Cape May County to fuel up during migration stuck around…

And what, exactly, constitutes "normal"? We're starting to wonder if we are within the normal winter range for this species... Above is a map snagged from eBird showing reported December to February sightings of Rufous Hummingbirds for the last ten years. Even if each square only represents one sighting/one individual and may be a near-insignificant percentage of the US's breeding population, it's still something.

One little bitty bird, so many huge questions. Ain't Nature grand?