The irruption of Snowy Owls from Canada into the Northeast and Great Lakes that began in late November is garnering a lot of attention. It is shaping up to be even larger than the massive invasion which occurred just two years ago. During that wave of Snowys, there were reports throughout Indiana including a bird that stayed for two weeks at Indy Regional Airport in Hancock County that was viewed by hundreds. Yet, while most birders currently have visions of Snowy Owls dancing in their heads, I have to say that my visions are much, much smaller in size. That is because late fall and winter for me means hummingbirds.
The field guides are correct that the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only member of the family that nests in the eastern United States. But, after the breeding season, waves of hummingbirds that nest in the western U.S. make their way eastward and appear in Indiana and elsewhere. The non-Ruby-throated hummingbirds begin showing up in Indiana in August and may stay into winter. A small number have stayed into spring! Of the various western U.S. hummingbird species, the Rufous Hummingbird is the one most likely to be seen in the East. Indiana has 80 records of Rufous Hummingbird along with two records of Calliope and one each of Anna’s and Black-chinned. Because so many of the young and female western hummingbirds are green and are very similar to Ruby-throats, scores of them, undoubtedly, go undetected.
Reports of Rufous Hummingbirds generally do not begin occurring until late October or November when people begin worrying about the hummingbird that is still visiting their feeder. Although the hosts are quite concerned about their visitor, they need not be. Rufous Hummingbirds nest further north than any other hummingbird including parts of Alaska. When they begin returning to Juneau in early April, the average highs are in the low 40s and the lows hover around the freezing mark. In other words, the Rufous Hummingbird is cold hardy.
Their presence in Indiana in winter though does pose one hurdle. How do you keep a hummingbird feeder from freezing? Sugar mixed with water at a 1 to 4 ratio has a freezing point of approximately 29 degrees F, according to people much smarter than me. But, there are many times during the winter that the temperature drops well below freezing. In those cases, the host is encouraged to wrap heat tape around an appropriate feeder or to place a 125-watt exterior floodlight about one foot away from the feeder. Both strategies will keep the water from freezing and are readily accepted by the hummingbirds.
In addition to visiting the feeder, Rufous Hummingbirds are adept at finding dormant insects and can find flying insects whenever the temperatures are above freezing. It is not unusual for the Rufous Hummingbirds to linger into December or January or even later. Indiana has had two birds that have stayed all winter and finally left in mid-April!
To better understand the phenomenon of hummingbirds wintering in the eastern U.S., some very talented people capture and band these tiny little birds. About 30 of the Indiana Rufous Hummingbirds have been banded with two having been recaptured by other banders. One bird banded several years ago in August in Boone County was recaptured five months later in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Another bird banded in Gibson County in November 2006 was recaptured within days of it leaving in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Scientists and birders are learning quite a bit about Rufous and other hummingbirds from the banding studies. The banding process is quick and does not harm the bird in any way.
Granted, Snowy Owls are way cool and always fun to see. But, to me, there is nothing quite as electrifying as watching a bird that weighs one and a half pennies visiting a heated feeder with a snowy background in the dead of winter.