‘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 2

In my yard this summer, the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) came late to the feeders (similarly to what other people in the area had reported). Now, there are at least four vying for the four feeders, claiming territory for their own.

 

 

One bird in particular is most likely to be seen enjoying the garden flowers, including blue-black sage (Salvia guaranitica) and hot lips salvia (Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’). In the first two photos below, you can see as his throat starts to bulge more as he sucks up the sweet nectar to complement his mostly insectivorous diet.

 

 

The airborne nectar droplets indicate that sometimes this hummer is a messy eater — or must leave quickly as another hummer is almost literally on its tail.

A couple of the birds spend a lot of time near the nectar feeders, perching close by to chase off anyone who comes near.

 

 

 

They each have favorite perching spots from which they can observe if an “intruder” is coming near the feeder they have claimed.

 

 

Sometimes, they fly up to a higher perch so they can see both the front and back yards – a necessary vantage point if they want to keep an eye on where everyone is.

 

Most ruby-throats have 940 feathers, all of which are replaced each year. As they take little rests, they stretch their feathers and may also groom them.

When a rival approaches, they spread their rectrices (tail feathers) – both when sitting and in the air.

 

Their feathers are beautifully arranged, looking like scalloped decorations.

 

They make frequent trips to the feeders and then occasionally “air out” their tongues.

 

The bill of the ruby-throated hummingbird is one of its most distinctive features. It measures about 0.59-0.79 in (15-20 mm) in length and is said to open no more than about 0.39 in (1 cm wide) at the tip. The hummers in my yard seem to be able to open their mouths to varying extents, however. They consume nectar by extending and contracting their tongues up to 13 times per second.

 

 

 

A quick, only few-second nap is also a frequent behavior. The hummers are almost constantly at the feeders and thus bulking up for their long migration, but they also expend considerable energy chasing one another away from feeders and flowers!

 

 

 

The hummers are not fazed by weather, zipping around rain or shine. Putting on weight and strength for their autumn migration down south is important for survival!

These minute marvels are such a pleasure to watch; I will certainly miss them when they begin their journeys to their wintering grounds.

 

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!

Busy as a bee is no joke! Our hardworking pollinators – pretty and persevering!

honey-bee-brazilian-sage-i77a1269-maria-de-bruyn-resHere it is, 7 November, and the honey bees were still busily working over the Brazilian sage, lantana and chrysanthemums in my garden. The Eastern carpenter bees were absent today, perhaps because of the cold night we had, but a few butterflies were flying among the flowers. We know that some of our pollinators are in serious trouble, but my garden has nevertheless been blessed this year with a steady stream of pollinating visitors who were to be seen on the varied blooms morning, noon and almost night.

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I’d enjoyed seeing the bees, butterflies and syrphid flies in the past, but started paying even more attention to them as pollinators this year as I worked on the “Healthy Bee, Healthy Me” project initiated by the non-profit organization Keep Durham Healthy.

 

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The project expresses its goal as follows: “…to establish educational pollinator gardens in proximity to pre-existing community gardens to ensure the sustainability of nectar and pollen sources for our honey bees, native bees, butterflies and other pollinators throughout the year, and to increase the yield of the food crops grown within the community gardens.” Some of my photos were used in one of their interpretive garden signs and next year more community gardens will join the project.

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Science knows that more than 250,000 plants are pollinated by over 100,000 different types of animals, but not all plants require assistance from pollinators for fertilization. In abiotic pollination, fertilization occurs without another organism as an intermediary – for example, through movement of pollen from male vegetative anthers to female stigma by the wind (called anemophily) or water (called hydrophily). However, much fertilization occurs with assistance from biotic vectors, which not only include bees, butterflies and flies but also moths, birds and mammals (e.g., lemurs, squirrels, opossums, monkeys and bats; here you see a hummingbird clearwing moth – Hemaris thysbe – getting nectar.) How cool is that!

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The most efficient pollinators are the bees. Some species like honey bees (Apis mellifera) and bumble bees have pollen baskets (corbiculae) on their legs – a concave portion of their hind leg in which pollen can be stored as a ball. It starts out small but eventually gets fairly big so their little tibia begin to look like barbells. The color of the pollen can differ from bright yellow to brown to red to white, depending on the pollen of the flowers visited most often.

 

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American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus)

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Common Eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens)

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Honey bees

The attractive little honey bees, which vary in their coloring, are known to pollinate about one-third of the popular foods eaten by humans, including items such as tomatoes, peas, beans and other fruit.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1315-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen visiting tubular flowers, like the Brazilian sage (Salvia guaranitica), the bees don’t look for nectar by entering the flower as do the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) with their long bills. Rather, they alight on the base of the corolla tube so that they can drill down into the flower to extract the nectar at the source.

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Honey bee                                                  Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)

The clearwing moths and butterflies, like the Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus), have long tongues that they use to probe the flowers as they hover. Nevertheless, they can get pollen on their legs or bodies and transport it to another plant, although they are not as efficient at this as, for example, the sweat bees and carpenter bees.

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These bees have scopae rather than pollen baskets on their legs, i.e., structures comprising dense masses of compressed hairs into which pollen grains are pressed.

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Small carpenter bee (Ceratina)

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Female sweat bees (Augochlorella)

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Long-horned bee (Melissodes)

Sometimes the bees manage to get their whole bodies covered with pollen, which can make species identification more difficult but creates some interesting views.

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four-toothed-mason-wasp-monobia-quadridens-i77a2039-maria-de-bruyn-bgWasps can carry pollen as I saw almost daily when the four-toothed mason wasps (Monobia quadridens) visited my yellow passionflowers (Passiflora lutea). Here you can see the pollen collecting on the head of a male, whose sex can be determined by the fact he has 7 abdominal segments and curved antennae (females have straight antennae and 6 abdominal segments). How’s that for a bit of obscure information for the non-entomologist?

The syrphid flies, often known as bee mimics, help pollinate, too. A number of these flies are honey-bee size and can be confused with the bees easily.

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Flat-tailed leaf-cutter bee (Megachile mendica)

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Transverse flower fly (Eristalis transversa)

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Syrphid fly (Eristalis dimidiata)

Others are itsy bitsy, tiny flyers that can have pretty interesting abdominal patterns. I couldn’t see the patterns even with my glasses on; enlarging the photos revealed their beauty, which could make for interesting fabric patterns in my opinion.

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Syrphid fly (Toxomerus marginatus)                      Syrphid fly (Toxomerus geminatus)

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Syrphid fly with a lovely golden sheen (Eupeodes subgenus Metasyrphus)

The pollinators don’t appear to begrudge one another nectar – different species will share space on particularly popular plants.

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Eastern carpenter bee and monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

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Eastern carpenter bee and sweat bee

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Eastern carpenter bee, sweat bee and syrphid fly

Occasionally, the pollinators do not live out their usual short lifespans as predators catch them for food. This Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) had been eyeing a bumble bee and was slowly moving toward it but the bee flew off before the mantis could complete its lunge. Later the mantis managed to snag a honey bee, however.

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While on a walk one day, I suddenly was startled by the loudest buzzing I had ever heard, coming up behind me. It sounded angry, intense and was rather piercing for a buzz. I turned just in time to witness a giant robber fly (Promachus) settle on a grass stem with a bumble bee that it had just caught. The buzzing stopped fairly quickly as the fly proceeded to ingest its meal.

 

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Various organizations and agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, are drawing attention to the endangerment of pollinator species. The main threats include loss and degradation of habitat as we pave over an increasing amount of natural space and plant lawns instead of native plants in yards. Using pesticides in landscaping areas is further threatening many of the insects on which pollination depends.

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Planting pollinator gardens is a way in which we all can contribute to saving our pollinators; if you don’t have your own yard, you can volunteer with a project to create a community garden. And then you can watch these fascinating insects with appreciation for their contributions to us!

My hummer summer, part 2 — beauty in flight, beauty at rest

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8438-maria-de-bruynIn my previous blog, I mentioned that the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilocus colubris) had a greater variety of flowering plants to visit in my yard this year and that increased the size and diversity of their nectar buffet. The availability of multiple food sources also meant that they spent a bit more time visiting – they didn’t just dash to a feeder, perch or hover for a drink and then take off. They visited feeders, different blooms and took little rests between meals, giving me numerous chances to watch them and practice my hummingbird photography – a win-win for both us!

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One of their favorite flowers were the lantanas (Lantana), which are also a favorite of mine as they attract many smaller pollinators such as bees and butterflies and are still profusely blooming in the latter half of October.

 

 

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This year, several types of sage brightened my gardens. Some deep blue Brazilian sage plants (Salvia guaranitica), kindly donated to me by Gail, a fellow birder, added color and provided the hummers with deep blooms into which they could insert their long bills.

 

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7519-maria-de-bruyn-resA small-leaf sage (also known as Festival or little-leaf sage, Salvia microphylla “San Carlos Festival”) provided an ongoing splash of deep red blooms that attracted the hummers over and over again. This plant not only graced the garden in the summer but is still blooming profusely now, making it another one of my favorites. A couple other different red sages and a red beebalm (Monarda didyma) were good nectar choices but they didn’t bloom as long or in such abundance. Perhaps next year, they will have gained strength.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1160-maria-de-bruyn-resThe two stonecrop plants (Hylotelephium Autumn joy), in my front garden, with their rounded bunches of little pink flowers, had hummer visitors on a few occasions, but these are not one of their preferred blooms. The milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca) also only had a few visits as far as I could tell.

 

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And it was the same story for the blue balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), which does get its fair share of bees.

 

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a2198-maria-de-bruyn-resI had planted cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), which unfortunately didn’t get any flowers. I did see a bird visiting this plant species near Bolin Creek, however. The same happened with a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), but at a vine cluster near the Haw River I saw how they inserted their heads entirely into the tubular blooms.

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In between feedings, the hummingbirds will perch to watch for intruders into “their space”. But they also will take sun-baths, pointing their faces upward and puffing themselves up.

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They will then change shape, stretching their necks and spreading their wings and tail feathers to expose as much of their bodies as possible to the sunlight.

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They may relieve themselves while they are in flight and then later take a little power nap of a few seconds.

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Grooming is also a frequent activity – these little avians make sure that they stay just as beautiful as the sweet flowers that they frequent!

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When the males turn their heads so that the light hits them in different ways, they do a nice job of demonstrating that their bright gorget colors are not in the feathers themselves but the result of prism cells in their feathers that change how the light is reflected depending on the angle we see.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a6366-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen they’re done sun bathing, grooming and resting, the hummingbirds need to take off again. However, their feet are so tiny that they can’t walk and, when they lift off, they also don’t have the foot strength to push.  So they rise into the air using the power of their wings, quickly flapping as they set off and rapidly reaching their usual rate of about 50-53 beats per second.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7167-maria-de-bruyn-resMy last summer hummingbird residents appear to have left for their Central American wintering grounds on 7 October, just before Hurricane Matthew arrived in North Carolina. I really hope that they were able to get through the windy environment without problems as they began their long migratory journeys and I am already looking forward to seeing them arrive next spring. In the meantime, I’m keeping a couple feeders up in case another hummer species decides to over-winter here – and the Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) and tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) can continue to use the ant guards over the feeders as their preferred watering holes.