Search Nature Watch

Thursday, November 2, 2017

An Overwintering Texan

Rufous Hummingbird (male), Selasphorus rufus.

Late August into September typically marks migration season for hummingbirds, when most individuals move from their northern breeding grounds to their southern wintering grounds. Several factors affect this seasonal movement including amount of daylight, the angle of the sun relative to the bird’s location, availability (or lack of) food resources, and local weather patterns. Mature birds often start their migration earlier than juveniles, and males typically migrate a few days before females.  But the longest migration of any hummingbird species belongs to the Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), a species that can typically travel from as far away as Alaska to spend the winter in Mexico. 

A fairly small hummingbird with a nearly straight, slender bill, fairly short wings that don’t reach the end of the tail when the bird is perched, and a tail that tapers to a point when folded, the Rufous is like no other hummingbird in terms of color or behavior.  Males are bright orange on the back and belly with a vividly iridescent copper-red throat, while females are green above with orange-washed flanks and often a spot of orange in the throat.  They are the feistiest hummingbird with a gift for fast, darting flight and exceptional maneuverability, tirelessly chasing away other hummingbirds wherever they feed.  Males court females with elaborate flight displays, including J-shaped dives and nearly horizontal figure 8s.

Rufous Hummingbird (female)

In recent years, the Rufous has become the most common overwintering hummingbird in the southeastern United States, particularly along the Gulf Coast.  For the last several years we have kept a small hummingbird feeder on our back porch filled throughout the fall and winter, and have been regularly rewarded with an overwintering Rufous.  This species seems particularly able to handle the colder temperatures, perhaps because they go into ‘topor’ overnight, a reduced physiological state where their body temperature and metabolic rate are reduced.

While it has been proven that this species has an excellent memory for location, which may explain why they find our feeder year after year, it remains a mystery to scientists as to why these birds don’t complete their traditional fall migration to the Pacific coast of Mexico.  While providing a nectar feeder does not delay a hummingbird’s migration, scientists are investigating the theory that established shifts in climate and flower-blooming times are affecting their typical patterns.  Not only do these shifts appear to affect where these birds overwinter, but they also affect the timing of the clockwise circuit they make each year as they move northward up the Pacific coast in late winter and early spring, and travel southward along the chain of the Rocky Mountains in late summer. There is still much to learn about these migration patterns, and why these hummingbirds show up in places we don’t expect them to stay in winter.    

Regardless of reason, we feel fortunate to have our yard brightened during the colder months with this colorful visitor.  Why not keep a hummingbird feeder filled in your yard this season, and you just might find you have an overwintering Texan, too!