Tougher Than They Look

Wintering ruby-throated hummingbirds

By Susan Campbell

Wait — hummingbirds here? In the colder months? Actually, yes! Along the North Carolina coast you may well encounter a ruby-throated friend at late-blooming flowers or a remaining feeder. These tiny birds, whose habitat is moderated at this time of year by the proximity of the Gulf Stream, are more than capable of surviving the winter season in our region.

Until the mid-1990s we had no idea that these tiny birds were here, let alone that they could handle the colder temperatures of late fall or winter. Most do migrate to Mexico and Central America and are gone by early November. But given the increase in sightings, as well as in research, we now know that although they are not common, they are not as rare as we once thought. Although most appear to breed farther north, there is mounting evidence that some found this time of the year along the Outer Banks may now be year-round residents.

Every year, ruby-throated hummingbirds are spotted away from feeders, defending Russian olive bushes, Japanese honeysuckle or mahonia. These common landscaping plantings that, although not native species, are highly attractive to hummingbirds. They all flower late in the year and, in spite of them having pale blooms, ruby-throated hummingbirds find them with ease.  These and thick, evergreen native plants also provide important cover that shelters hummingbirds from the elements as well as potential predators. Lurking bird hawks such as sharp-shinned hawks will threaten them or even grab them for a quick snack.

When it comes to hummingbirds in general, most people are just learning that they are actually mainly carnivores: They consume large numbers of insects throughout the course of the year. Along the coast — as we know — tiny bugs are abundant in marsh as well as adjacent maritime forest habitats even in the winter. The sugar hummingbirds consume is very secondary, although may be more important during periods of extreme cold and even more when there is ice. During icy weather, when the surface of vegetation is covered, spiders, midges, flies and the like will be scarce for a time. This will not only be a challenge for hummingbirds, but for our other insect-eating winter visitors such as kinglets, warblers and wrens. For those feeding sugar water during the coldest days of the year, keeping it thawed is important, especially early in the morning. Simply rotating a warm feeder for one that begins to freeze or placing a warm bulb next to the feeder should work. However, the typical (four parts water: one part sugar) solution will not begin to freeze until the air temperature around the feeder drops below 27 degrees.

My research has revealed that the winter hummingbird population here is quite dynamic. Ruby-throateds may wander during the course of the season. It is not unusual to find more than one bird at a location, as well as replacement of individuals over time — quite like we see in the summer months. However, some birds are very territorial and stay in one place. They may even return to the same feeder from year to year. Another very curious fact is that the western species of hummingbirds can be mixed in with our familiar ruby-throated hummingbirds. Unfortunately they appear to look very similar; species such as black-chinned, rufous and calliope are a real challenge to differentiate, especially since few are adult males who sport more distinctive plumage.

Regardless, I am very envious of those who are lucky enough to host a hummingbird or two all year long. And I am, of course, very interested in winter hummingbird sightings. Reports from residents around North Carolina are what fuel my research at this time of the year in particular.  So, please let me know if you catch sight of or are hosting a hummingbird currently so it can become part of our statewide database.

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos at susan@ncaves.com.

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