‘Rassing – a surprise visitor – what a delight!

(Warning – this is a bit of a long blog!) Several years ago, what was likely a rufous hummingbird took up residence in my yard during the winter months. That was really unexpected — while it’s not uncommon for migrating or some resident hummingbirds (especially ruby-throats, Archilochus colubris, above) to spend wintertime in North Carolina, particularly along the coast, it’s not so common in the central part of the state. That experience taught me that it’s a good idea to keep up a nectar feeder in the winter as you never know when a stray migrant might show up. In 2015 and 2016, I traveled with fellow birders to visit people who had a buff-breasted (Amazilia yucatanensis) and calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope) wintering at their homes. In actuality, however, I didn’t really expect a rare passerby in my yard.

 

It was consequently with great surprise that I saw a hummer hovering at the nectar feeder last week. “Oh, wow!” I thought; “a ruby-throated hummer is passing through as a very late migrant.” I grabbed my camera to take a few shots and immediately felt perplexed.

 

The bird looked like he had a purple rather than ruby or red gorget (throat feathers). The white patch behind his eye also showed prominently because of his very dark head.

To me, it also looked as if this hummer had blue patches on his tail feathers. (Most say his flanks are green and a hummingbird expert said he has iridescent black tail feathers; the way the light reflects off them made me see blue, however.)

I got a few photos and cautiously asked birding experts on a facebook group if he could possibly be a black-chinned hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), also sometimes known as the Alexander hummingbird. It seemed unlikely as their normal range is the Western part of the Northern hemisphere, reaching north into Canada (Alberta and British Columbia), east to Oklahoma, and as far south as Mexico, where most spend the winter.

A couple people thought I might be correct, but most thought it was a ruby-throated hummingbird. My spring-summer ruby-throated residents had left at least a month ago but I thought perhaps a late migrant might have arrived. The next day, I saw the bird again and became convinced that it was a black-chinned hummer; his purple gorget was very obvious to me. I posted new photos and now the experts agreed that I was correct. That was very cool – I got a lifer without even leaving my own yard!

 

A couple days later, North Carolina’s hummingbird researcher, Susan Campbell, came to my home to band the unusual visitor. I invited a friend who had been to bird bandings in my yard before to come for the happy event.

Susan arrived early and first set up a cage trap for ‘Rassing (short for the Dutch word verrassing, which means surprise; I wanted him to have a name during his stay 😊). She left the door open with a long string attached and hung the nectar feeder on the outside. It wasn’t long at all before the bird arrived for a drink. When he left, Susan moved the nectar feeder inside the cage.

‘Rassing returned for another drink and flew right into the cage, which Susan shut promptly. She had already laid out her banding materials so she could remove him from the trap promptly.

He went into a small bag (the kind often used to hold birds for banding) which Lucretia held while Susan began filling out the paperwork.

Then the actual banding procedure began. Susan first checked his legs to ensure that he hadn’t been banded already – the hummers rarely show their legs so that was necessary.

Then she got ready to put a thin red metal band on his tiny leg with a silver band showing his numeric code for identification in case he is caught again some time (Band number 7100 (M)-41902).

She checked the length of his bill – 19.19 mm. She also advised that bird feeders with long slits are not preferred even if the birds like them. It turns out that the thin slots can rub against the bill and wear it down, damaging the bill and making it vulnerable to infection. (I afterwards enlarged the slots into ovals and circles and went back to a couple other feeders I had with larger holes.)

She blew on his stomach feathers to check his fat; he was not a hefty bird but certainly a healthy adult male. His weight turned out to be 3.09 g. She also recorded his body length.

She stopped for a moment so I could take a few photos trying to get a good shot of the purple gorget. It looked like ‘Rassing was trembling but this was the vibrations from his rapid breathing. (When resting at 91⁰ F, they take about 245 breaths per minute; at 55⁰ F, this rises to 420 breaths per minute!!) Susan thought he was acting fairly calm.

She measured his short tail (23.5 mm), as well as his wings (40.42 mm). The female black-chinned hummer would have more rounded wing feather tips than this male.

 

Susan took a few photos of ‘Rassing and he got a few long drinks from a feeder held by Lucretia. Then Susan gave me the honor of releasing him – and to my delight, he chose to sit in my hand for what seemed to be at least 90 seconds. I could feel him breathing and it was a real thrill to see him so close. With a little flutter of his wings he took off – and then stayed away from the feeder for quite some time.

 

I added a feeder in the backyard and ‘Rassing began preferentially feeding there – perhaps the front yard had acquired some unpleasant memories. However, at the end of the day, I would remove the backyard feeder so that visitors who wanted to see him had a better chance of seeing him dine at the front-yard feeders.

 

 

A fair number of birders were interested in being able to add him to their life, state and county bird lists, so I offered to schedule visits through a birding listserv for a few people at a time. ‘Rassing appeared more reticent to stay at the feeder when there were more than 2 or 3 people watching, which is understandable. Who wants an audience for each meal and snack you eat??

When it rained, the feathers atop his head clumped together, giving him a new “hair-do.”

 

 

It appears that this species of hummingbird has not been studied much. I found his behavior interesting and spent a good amount of time observing him (chores had to wait). When I watched him leave the feeder and go to a nearby tree, he would sometimes watch me (turnabout fair play, of course).

 

 

He seemed very comfortable with lots of other bird species at nearby feeders. Perhaps it gave him a safer feeling.

‘Rassing tended not to sit on feeders, as ruby-throated hummers often do. Instead, he mainly hovered and vigorously pumped his short tail quite a lot. I learned that this tiny bundle of energy was breathing at a flight rate of about 1260 beats per minute!

 

Occasionally, you could see the band on his leg but mostly he kept his legs tucked into his body.

In the evenings, he came around nearly the same time each day to have a longer drink and then he sometimes perched while feeding.

 

A Cornell University website says that black-chinned hummers rarely stay at a feeder longer than a day during migration, even when food is scarce. In my yard, he had access to lots of bugs (I have a small pond) and three types of sage/salvia were still blooming. Indeed, he sometimes came to the feeder with pollen covering the top of his bill.

Yesterday morning, ‘Rassing apparently had decided it was time to move on. After the warmest Halloween on record in our area, the temperature plunged during the night to the 30s. The next morning was the same and he may have decided it was time to go to warmer climes.

 

I did feel lucky that he graced my yard with his presence for a week; it gave me something to celebrate during a personally challenging time. The oldest known black-chinned hummer was more than 11 years old; if ‘Rassing likes going east during migration, perhaps he’ll stop by again next year – wouldn’t that be a tremendous surprise! 😊

 

Summer hummers – entertainment for free: part 1

 

When a hummingbird other than a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is seen in the Triangle area of North Carolina, it is listed as a rare bird on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology listserv. One year, I did have a chance to see a buff-bellied hummer visiting in a nearby town though; another year a rufous hummer frequented my own feeders in the winter. Mostly, however, it is the ruby-throats who take up residence at my address, which is just fine as these feisty tiny birds provide loads of entertainment.

 

During a trip to Quebec earlier this year, we also saw ruby-throated hummingbirds there – early arrivals during the spring migration.

 

A few years ago, one of my blogs focused on their preening and cleaning, so this time I’ll mostly feature some of my favorite photos of them taken this summer in various places. (When looking through the shots, I had a LOT I liked, so this is now going to be a 2-part blog!)

At Sandy Creek Park in Durham, one female hummer had made a coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) one of her preferred dining spots.

 

 

A butterfly garden featuring blue-black sage (Salvia guaranitica) and bee balm (Monarda) also attracted her and some other hummers.

 

One female found the bee balm to be a good place to rest, understandable since these bundles of energy have a high metabolic rate. Their hearts beat up 1260 times per minute and they take about 250 breaths per minute even when they are resting! Taking a few sips while remaining perched has to be a welcome luxury.

 

 

 

 

The hummers’ main wing bone, the humerus, is adapted to hovering flight and they have very large deltoid pectoral muscles relative to their size.

 

 

Male birds produce sperm that flows through the vas deferens (sperm duct) to the cloaca. When they mate with a female, they transfer sperm by touching the tip of their cloaca to that of the female; they do not have a penis. Females only have a functional left ovary; the right one atrophies early in her development, which allows her to avoid the extra weight of a second ovary and makes her lighter for long migratory flights.

One big treat for me this year was finding two ruby-throated hummingbird females tending a nest, the first time I had been able to spot this.

 

Later, I was able to take a quick photo of one female collecting cattail fluff with which to line her nest.

Even when several ruby-throats are frequenting an area, the (temporary) coloring of their feathers can help distinguish them. This young male had a few olive-green dots under his eye and a bit of white on the crown of his head.

 

A somewhat more mature male has a little white patch behind his red gorget.

 

They are all little beauties! Second part of this blog is coming up and then on to Costa Rica!

Quebec chronicles – passerines with yellow and green colors, part 2

My last “bird blog” from Quebec! The passerine birds that we admired during our trip there included the vireos and grosbeaks. But I saved one warbler for this blog since I often had to look at the photos to be sure which species I had seen. The Tennessee warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) could namely be mistaken for a Philadelphia vireo if it goes by quickly and you are not an experienced or expert birder. (It also can be easily mistaken for a female black-throated blue warbler.)

This very charming bird seemed to be everywhere we visited in great abundance. I had seen one last summer in North Carolina; now I got to see dozens of these little beauties.

 

 

Like the bay-breasted warbler, it specializes in eating the spruce budworms and hence its numbers wax and wane along with the availability of this food source.It was gleaning in all kinds of trees as well as along the shore, however, and obviously also looking for other types of food.

 

Besides insects, this bird also likes nectar and gets it by piercing flowers at the base of their stems on trees.

 

On the one day that it rained, I saw one waiting out the shower in a yard tree. On another morning, I surprised a Tennessee taking a bath in a little puddle formed by a streamlet flowing from a yard to the street where we were staying. The bird was still wet but fluttered its wings and dried off very quickly, looking fresh and pretty for a possible new partner.

 

 

The Philadelphia vireo (Vireo philadelphicus) is another attractive avian. It has the same coloring as the Tennessee warbler but has a bit of a hook at the end of its bill.

Like the Tennessee warblers, they migrate to Mexico and environs during the winter. Their meals of choice are insects and some berries (e.g., bayberry and dogwood). The birding websites and Wikipedia do not have anywhere near the same amount of information on this species as some others, so they likely have not been studied very much.

 

One day as I walked a path in one of the nature reserves, a Philadelphia vireo followed me a bit as I walked, finally perching on a nearby branch and fluffing its feathers. S/he looked like someone showing off a party dress.

 

 

The blue-headed vireo (Vireo solitarius) is a much darker bird, with olive-green feathers, a blue-gray crown and white “spectacles”. I haven’t seen many in North Carolina and I only saw two in Quebec – decidedly a somewhat shyer bird than many of the others that crossed my paths.

Finally, some birds that gave me very good looks were the stunning evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus).

These birds only very rarely show up in the Piedmont area of North Carolina in the winter but last year I had the privilege of having a male and two females visit my feeders for one day. During this trip, we visited a neighborhood where a whole flock was busy feeding in the trees.

The males have rich deep yellow coloring offset by white and black accents on their heads, wings and tails. At one feeder, I was surprised to see one male apparently feeding another. It turns out that they may be territorial in wintertime around food sources but in the spring and summer, they are quite social and tolerant because there is a greater abundance of insects, buds, berries and seeds.

 

 

The females are much more muted in color with light yellow highlights against a pale gray background but they also have beautiful patterned black and white wing feathers. Their light yellow-lime-green beaks serve well to break apart seeds.

 

 

 

The oldest evening grosbeak on record reached the age of 16 years, 3 months. It appears that their numbers may be decreasing, although the population as a whole is not yet at risk. I look forward to another “irruptive” year, when they expand their winter territory – perhaps I’ll have a couple unexpected visitors again!

Quebec chronicles – passerines with yellow colors, part 1

People who journey to the Tadoussac Dunes area in Quebec during spring bird migration often are focused mainly on one type of bird. They are members of the group of passerine birds, i.e., birds that perch using four toes – three that face forward and one that faces backwards. The “new world warblers” (also called wood warblers) are a subgroup of passerines that are only found in the Western hemisphere. They are featured in this blog and include some of my favorite photos from our trip. The next blog, passerines part 2, will feature other bird species that perch.

The warblers really are quite beautiful in their breeding plumage and many birders spend long periods of time searching them out and admiring them. This often involves looking up at treetops since many species forage for insects in mid- and high forest canopies. This may lead to a condition in humans called “warbler neck”, the result of staying for a prolonged time in the posture indicated to the left. (The statue was in the lobby of our Quebec hotel and was called “Force intérieure” (inner force) by Julie Lajoie.)

One warbler that we didn’t need to strain to see was the Cape May (Setophaga tigrina), which was named for Cape May, New Jersey, where it was first observed by ornithologist Alexander Wilson in 1811. After that, these birds weren’t seen again in that area for more than a century!

The males really do call attention to themselves with their bright breeding colors – a distinctive rusty cheek patch, yellow throat and collar, dark crown and lots of vertical black stripes going down its sides and chest.

In spring, this warbler migrates almost 3,000 miles from the West Indies to the coniferous forests of Canada and the northern US to breed. As the fist-sized songbird flies north, its diet adapts to the environment. During winter among the palm trees, the Cape May drinks berry juice and the nectar from flowers thanks to its unusual semi-tubular and curled tongue. (It will also drink from nectar feeders!) But in summer in the boreal forests, it eats insects—especially the spruce budworm—with a special gusto.

The male and female build a nest together near the top of a tree (35-60 feet high!) and the female tries to prevent others from seeing the nest. She namely will not enter the nest directly but goes up and down the trunk of the tree, entering from below.

A second seemingly ubiquitous bird at our migration destination was the magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia). Like the Cape May, the male in breeding attire has vertical black stripes on a yellow chest but his face is marked by a black mask topped by a white stripe.

 

Most of my sightings of this species involved individuals looking for insects on the ground. At one point, it was interesting to see a “Maggie” fluttering his wings over sandy spots in the dunes, obviously to scare up insects that he then quickly grabbed. My attempts to get a photo of the fluttering were unsuccessful but it was very cool to watch.

 

 

 

Another warbler that sports a black “necklace” against a yellow breast is the Canada warbler (Cardellina canadensis). Males and females look similar except that the male has a bit longer tail and somewhat darker breast stripes.

 

Some of these birds spend the summer in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina (NC), but I had not seen one before. Towards the end of our trip, a Canada warbler decided to forage in the yard of the house where we were staying – finally, I was able to get some good looks at him!

The male Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca) also has black breast stripes but against a white background. His face is quite striking with a flame-orange throat against a yellow and black head.  The female is somewhat more muted in coloration but also quite lovely.

 

These birds do not appear to be shy around people. One was grabbing insects in a grassy patch near a parking lot and not at all perturbed when five of us stopped nearby to take portrait shots.

Another was intent on getting insects among the rocks alongside a pier.

 

 

 

 

 

The Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) was a lifer for me, fairly easy to distinguish by its rufous cap.

 

 

An interesting bit of information about them is that they sometimes use porcupine quills in constructing their nests, which they locate on the ground under shrubs!

The Wilson’s warbler (Cardellina pusilla) also has a distinctive cap, but when I got to see one around dusk one day, it didn’t feel like turning around to face me. It was nevertheless another lifer.

They spend a lot of time in the understory and nest on the ground, but that apparently doesn’t make them easier to spot!

One warbler that I have seen several times in NC is the tiny yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia). They tend to like being near wetlands and streams and this has proved to be the case for my spottings. I have seen them near a water ditch in one reserve as well as near the Haw River. In Quebec, I also saw one searching for insects in the rocks bordering a pier.

 

You can see that this warbler has reddish striping on its chest and that is what I’ve noted in the birds seen in my area. However, below you can see a male bird without striping; our local guide said that a number of birds that breed in Quebec do not develop any striping but remain entirely yellow.

 

A behavior that distinguishes them from many other birds is that they are capable of recognizing when a brown-headed cowbird has laid one of its eggs in their nest. The yellow warblers try to avoid raising the nest parasite by smothering the cowbird egg with a new layer of nest materials. If they had already laid eggs of their own, they then produce a new clutch; sometimes, they just build a new nest elsewhere.

Another warbler that is quite familiar to me is the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata). A group spends the winter at my yard feeders and begin changing into their breeding plumage shortly before migrating north. In Quebec, I got to see them in their full coloration, and they were handsome indeed!

My final bird for this blog is also one I’ve seen before, but I found it simply stunning when watching it in the Canadian trees. The black-throated green warbler (Setophagahy virens) as the striped warblers but the brightness of the yellow and black coloring on the breeding male is wonderful to see.

They seemed to “color-match” some of the trees in which I watched them foraging.

 

In other cases, they complemented the deep green of the deciduous evergreen trees in which they were perching.

 

 

 

These birds particularly like caterpillars but eat a wide variety of insects. An interesting behavior observed by researchers concerns its singing – the males really like to belt it out, with one male having been recorded singing 466 songs in one hour!

 

Having observed these wood warblers in their breeding habitat, I now have an increased understanding of why birders are willing to endure warbler necks. 😊

Quebec chronicles – brown and white beauties in abundance!

Several years ago, I saw my first chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica) during breeding season in the mountains of North Carolina. It was a somewhat fleeting sighting but long enough for me to recognize the male’s beauty. My next sighting was a couple years ago when a pair stopped by a local creek during their south-bound migration in the fall. They were still attractive, but I had fallen for their mating season colors. What I didn’t know then was that when they reached their winter destination in some Central American area, they would be likely associating with the same birds with whom they had spent previous winters foraging.

Lucky me, therefore, when I noted that many chestnut-sided warblers were part of the spring migratory crowd in Quebec a couple weeks ago. I saw them in at least five sites and was able to get some nice photos of these beauties.

The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website advises: “Stay around clearings, road edges, or other disturbed sites with young deciduous trees to find Chestnut-sided Warblers.” They did indeed appear in such places, looking for insects.

 

They appear to really like early successional deciduous habitats, e.g., terrains affected by logging, fire, storms and flooding. Clearing of people’s land around their houses may also qualify as a habitat-forming place for these little birds. We also discovered that these colorful warblers look for food among stones, rocks and boulders along bodies of water.

 

At a small park alongside an inlet of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a chestnut-sided warbler was hopping along the rocky shore seeking caterpillars.

 

  

He also flew out over the water from time to time in order to catch insects on the fly.

At the St. Irénée quay, a species mate was popping in and out among the large boulders on either side of the pier.

Seeing these beautifully colored birds as they hunted for insects was quite enjoyable. The Rev. Leander S. Keyser, who attended the 1896 World Congress on Ornithology, remarked that the chestnut-sided and blackburnian warblers were like “a sonnet in feathers – lightness of air and sunshine embodied – rhythm caught in a living form” – what a beautiful way of describing them!

 

 

Besides the chestnut-sided warbler, I saw another species which I’d seen with more muted colors in North Carolina – the bay-breasted warbler (Setophaga castanea). In the autumn, they have a yellow-green head and only slight chestnut-colored wash on their flanks; they look very similar to blackpoll warblers during that season and winter.

 

 

When I saw their breeding plumage in Quebec, it was a real surprise – and a most pleasant one! The bay-breasted warblers immediately became one of the birds I’ve most enjoyed seeing. And as I saw more and more during the week, I never tired of watching (and photographing) them!

 

During breeding season, these birds eat many more insects than fruit and they were very busy gleaning in the conifers.

In the spring, they specialize in seeking out spruce budworm moth (Choristoneura fumiferana) caterpillars. It was shown in one study that the bay-breasted warblers ate more than 13,000 budworms per 2.5 acres (one hectare) in a period of 41 days. These moths produce larvae that can decimate spruce and fir forests in Canada when their numbers increase greatly. The populations of bay-breasted warblers then fluctuate in conjunction with those of the budworms, which have an “outbreak” every 30-40 years.

In 2004, Boulanger and Arseneault studied this phenomenon and concluded that: “data suggest that outbreak frequency has remained quite stable, with a mean interval of about 40 years between the midpoint of successive outbreaks since the mid-16th century.” It would be interesting if another study could be done to see if the outbreak frequency is changing with climate change. The current population explosion of the budworms began in 2006 and could last until 2021; the government of Quebec is spending $30 million this year to eradicate the moth so the warblers may lose a food source. Their numbers may therefore also decline as a result.

While the fluctuations in their numbers have risen and fallen together with the spruce budworms, their summer habitats may be affected by human interventions. It is estimated that only 4% of these areas are stable so conservation efforts should take this into consideration, especially because their global population numbers have fallen about 74% since 1966.

As these birds forage on tree branches, they tend to move more slowly than some of the other warbler species, taking their time to seek out juicy tidbits. In addition to caterpillars, they eat beetles, flies, moths, leafhoppers and grasshoppers.

The female bay-breasted warblers can be distinguished from their male counterparts by the fact that they lack the black face mask and have lighter bay coloring.

Both sexes seemed to be fairly comfortable with me watching them. They seemed much less shy than some other species of birds. To my complete delight, of course!

 

An interesting observation is that they tend to like foraging on lichen-covered branches.

In contrast to some of the other warblers, they tend to build their nests in the mid-level tree canopy; that is also where they do a lot of their food hunting. However, as my walks in St. Irénée showed, they are not averse to foraging on the ground!

 

   

Since they mostly breed in Canada and spend their winters in Central and South America, seeing them in North Carolina during migration is a treat. Interestingly, the adults tend to migrate along routes west of the Appalachian mountain range and immature birds often migrate along the Eastern US seaboard and coastal areas.

 

These birds of waxing and waning populations have inspired poets and I can see why. Seeing them in their breeding plumage in Quebec was a wonderful gift. I hope to see them there again one day as they have joined my list of special species that I love. 😊