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Springs Photographer Captures Rare, Glittering Warriors

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A rufous hummingbird, with an ant in its mouth. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

A rufous hummingbird, with an ant in its mouth. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

A rufous hummingbird, in the snow in the Springs yard of Dr. Maria Bowling. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

A rufous hummingbird, in the snow in the Springs yard of Dr. Maria Bowling. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

Rufous hummingbird. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

Rufous hummingbird. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

A rufous hummingbird, molting, in the Springs yard of Dr. Maria Bowling. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

A rufous hummingbird, molting, in the Springs yard of Dr. Maria Bowling. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

Roberta, a rufous hummingbird, finds a new branch to enjoy. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

Roberta, a rufous hummingbird, finds a new branch to enjoy. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

A rufous hummingbird. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

A rufous hummingbird. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

Roberta. Dr. Maria Bowling photo

Roberta. Dr. Maria Bowling photo

A rufous hummingbird. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

A rufous hummingbird. Dr. Maria Bowling photograph

Springs Photographer Captures Rare, Glittering Warriors

Springs Photographer Captures Rare, Glittering Warriors

author on Apr 16, 2024

Spring is the best time of year because the hummingbirds come back to their feeders, and their humans go crazy with joy.

Taking the coastal route along the Gulf of Mexico, through Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, people eagerly track their course north on Hummingbird Central’s migration map.

I usually see the ruby-throated return to my yard in mid-May. They spend the summers like many of our seasonal visitors, breeding and feeding.

By mid-October, the tiny but fierce birds migrate south, as far away as Mexico. At this point, their humans become depressed.

I never imagined I’d see a hummingbird other than a ruby-throated hummingbird in New York. It is the only hummingbird that breeds here, but others, called vagrants, also call the Empire State home.

One of these vagrants, a rufous hummingbird, spent the winter at Dr. Maria Bowling’s house, and I was lucky enough to get a glimpse. Birders call that bird a “lifer,” as in “I have never seen a rufous hummingbird in my life.”

You can imagine Bowling’s surprise when she captured a photo of a hummingbird at her feeder in Springs last Thanksgiving.

“I first spotted her in October after all of the ruby-throated hummingbirds had left, but thought she might be migrating south,” Bowling said. “In November I also saw her a few times but did not get a picture until Thanksgiving week after I put up a feeder.”

Bowling, an acupuncturist and nature photographer, reached out to her contacts, including ornithologists. Her visitor was soon revealed as a rufous, one of the smaller, yet feistier species, known as western hummingbirds, which breed as far north as Alaska and migrate as far south as Central America.

Jay McGowan, the multimedia collections specialist at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, caught wind of the rufous and jumped at the chance to add one more species to his “year list,” as well as to document the bird in the form of photos, video, and sound recordings, the last of which is a rarity in itself.

“I brought my parabola, a parabolic reflector and microphone, over to the feeders, and captured a passable sound recording of the hummingbird,” McGowan said. This recording is now a part of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where it joins over 2 million other sound recordings, an auditory repertoire of the world’s birds.

(You can find it here: macaulaylibrary.org/asset/612842416.)

“They are one of the most expected species to show up unexpectedly,” McGowan said. “In general, any hummingbird seen in New York after late September or so should be scrutinized carefully. It may be a rufous or something even more unexpected.”

Anna’s, Calliope and broad-billed hummingbirds are other vagrant or “accidental” species that may take a liking to our area. All are in the family Trochilidae, the only birds that can truly hover, and fly backward.

Compared to the ruby-throated, the rufous is more tolerant to the presence of people. “The ruby-throated hummingbirds are more reserved and shy,” Bowling said.

“In addition to their ranges, the two species are in different genera, rufous in Selasphorus, tend to be a bit smaller and rounder than species in the genus Archilochus, which includes ruby-throated,” McGowan said. “At a casual glance, however, the two species are not really all that different in appearance or habits.”

Both are tiny, fast and aggressive to others, especially around feeding areas. “Feeders that attract many hummingbirds can be the sites of some pretty intense battles,” he said.

While McGowan was counting and recording birds at Bowling’s house, his ears pricked up when he heard a call coming from the woods.

“I had my suspicions but was still thrilled to see a Townsend’s warbler appear over my head a few minutes later,” he said. “Townsend’s are another western species, actually occupying quite a similar range to rufous hummingbirds, and are just as rare if not rarer on Long Island.”

He counted 22 species in Bowling’s yard at the end of December. In 2023, McGowan saw 359 species in New York State, a personal achievement.

Although awe-inspiring, his achievement pales in comparison to the rufous hummingbird’s epic migration, flapping its wings up to 52,000 per day.

One rufous hummingbird made it between Chenega Bay, Alaska and Fort Davis, Texas, in less than three weeks, at less than a month old, according to Kate McLaughlin of the Alaska Hummingbird Banding Project. Now that’s impressive.

Another rufous made it all the way to Tallahassee, Florida, from Chenega Bay, Alaska, a more than 3,500-mile trip, a long distance record for a hummingbird of any species.

Roberta, as Bowling named the 3-inch bird, survived a nor’easter, a snow storm, rainy days and freezing nights throughout the winter, thanks to yet another superpower called torpor, a short-term hibernation.

Torpor allows the bird to conserve energy by lowering body temperatures from 110 degrees Fahrenheit to almost freezing for up to 48 hours, during which time its heartbeat can go from 1200 beats per minute down to 50 beats per minute, in order to survive the cold.

Bowling, who keeps updates on her Instagram account, has a good chance of seeing the same hummingbird next year. Hummingbirds remember every flower and feeder location they’ve fed from and have amazing site fidelity.

“It appears that immatures that stray to the East and survive the winter are likely to return in the following year, and there are numerous records of banded birds reappearing in subsequent years,” noted the 2012 article “Western Hummingbirds in the East — Put Your Feeders Out” on Cornell’s Ebird website.

“Some adult males may appear as early as July or early August, corresponding to their migration patterns in the West. Adult females arrive later (September or October, typically), while the immatures are the latest to appear.”

A female made sense, because of the timing but also its coloring. Rufous, like ruby-throated hummingbirds, have clear sexual dimorphism, meaning females are not as brightly colored as males. Females have green feathers on their backs, and do not have the brilliant red-orange gorget, like the males. Females also have white tips on the outer three retrices of their tail.

Juvenile males resemble females, so when the bird started to molt and bright copper feathers began to shine through, Bowling had second thoughts. It might be Roberto.

Either way, the healer recognized her gift and cherished every moment. Each morning was met with a series of vocalizations, as if to say, “See, I made it. I’m stronger than you think.”

Bowling put out three feeders filled with sugar water, including a heated one, which the hummer hits the most.

Bill Koller, the owner of Long Island Hummingbird Plants, where I buy my hummingbird plants every season, agreed. “It is very common to hear that someone has a rufous for the winter on Long Island. Hear it every year. Have only seen pictures of them on heated feeders,” he said.

On my way to Bowling’s house, I drove past acres of phragmites, and several wooded lots that had recently been clear cut. It’s always a sad sight to see stumps and a steaming pile of chips, to be taken to the dump, and invasive species where native wildflowers might otherwise grow.

Habitat loss and pesticides are the main reasons the rufous hummingbird is categorized as “Near Threatened.” Since 1974, there has been a 60 percent decrease, on a trajectory to lose another 50 percent of their populations in the next 50 years.

All of those worries disintegrated once I got out of the car in Bowling’s driveway and heard the familiar high pitched “chip” sounds of a hummingbird greeting me. Actually, it was fighting off a chickadee, defending its newly found territory.

My heart fluttered as fast as its wings. Roberta could not have picked a better place to land.

If you want to learn more about hummingbirds, go to Cornell Lab Bird Academy’s course “The Wonderful World of Hummingbirds,” taught by McGowan’s ornithologist father Kevin McGowan.

“I’m not sure if anyone really knows why these hummingbirds are showing up here,” said Alice Raimondo, a consultant at Cornell Cooperative Extension Suffolk County, who had a young rufous at her Bayard Cutting Arboretum office in late fall 2020. “Maybe their ‘normal’ routes are changing, and these are the pioneers. I think the key is how adaptable these little glittering warriors can be.”

“She is still here, this little miracle,” Bowling joyfully noted.

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