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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Archilochus Conundrum

For a number of weeks now, Bruce Smithson’s sugar feeder has been visited by two female-type Archilochus hummingbirds. One is almost certainly a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird – it shows a clean white underside and a straight, short bill. The other bird, however, looks slightly different. The breast area is slightly dusky, and the bill is longer and decurved. Michael McCloy, Ali Iyoob, and Matt Daw all went down to see the bird earlier this month, and after reviewing their pictures, I couldn’t be sure whether or not the bird was just an odd Ruby-throated. Mike maintained the bird’s identity, and said it was quite easy to identify because of its unique behavior. Apparently, the hummer would continuously pump its tail as it hovered at the feeder. The only Archilochus hummingbird to exhibit this behavior is the rare for North Carolina Black-chinned Hummingbird.

Not that I didn’t believe him, but I couldn’t imagine mere behavior separating two closely related species so obviously. Hummingbird expert Susan Campbell added more evidence against the Black-chinned identification in an email to the CarolinaBirds listserv. Tail pumping, she said, can be exhibited by coastal Ruby-throats as they attempt to steer in wind, and plumage can’t be properly ascertained because Archilochus hummingbirds molt at this time of the year. My spirits weren’t high when I drove up with Aaron and Kayla of Anywhere, Earth to check out the bird this past Sunday. I mean, after successfully having seen the three Harlequin Ducks at Masonboro Inlet, how could we possibly pass up this potential rarity a scant 15 minutes away?

Because yeah, that totally happened! My lame shot does not do these birds justice.

As we piled out of the car, we met Nate, Scott, and Mike, who’d already staked out their spots on Bruce’s lawn (and each of whom have their own blogs; what was this, some kind of blogging convention?). We enjoyed the yard birds and county ticks we all got, but we were really here for one bird and one bird only. While I watched a Brown Creeper making his way up a pine, I heard the tell-tale squeaks of a hummingbird, and watched a blurry shape rocket from a row of hedges. The bird hovered for a second, tail flicking sporadically, before perching itself on the rim of the feeder. This had to be the bird, I thought, it was doing the tail motion and everything! But common sense overruled – the bird was much too clean underneath, it’s bill far too straight. Merely a female Ruby-throated.

Remember what this bird looks like. It'll be important in about a paragraph or so.

Perhaps this identification was going to be more difficult than I thought; as I watched the female feed, she continued to flick her tail intermittingly. She seemed very skittish to me as she sat on the feeder, constantly looking around and finishing its meal in just seconds before buzzing off again. A second, male Ruby-throated Hummingbird also landed at the feeder, and again, it seemed quite cautious. No hummers visited the feeders for a good ten minutes after that, and I began to worry that this may turn into my second dip of the day (damn you Pacific Loon). Then, more squeaks, and another hummer zoomed over to the feeder. And man, she couldn’t have been more different.

Next time I'll have to find a male with a full-on gorget... but for now, this'll do.

The bird hovered for a good while before landing, its tail giving constant rhythmic pumps the entire time. It sat on the feeder and dipped its bill, totally unconcerned about the throng of birders watching it just yards away. She alighted, and just when I thought she’d flown off for good, the hummer returned to hovering and tail pumping, and then back down for more sugar water. The entire encounter lasted a solid thirty seconds, allowing us to pick apart its plumage, noting the dusky breast and the long, curved bill I’d been promised. Before long, the Black-chinned Hummingbird finished feeding and flew off towards her chosen perch. Before coming here, I really struggled to think that a hummer could appear so different just based on behavior, but now I’m a believer. Don’t take my word for it though – check out this sweet HD video I got of the little guy: 

Click through to Youtube for HD quality!

No longer having any doubt as to their identification, we left the hummers in peace. At this point, it was just after noon, and the day was young. We still had a couple spots to hit up, and some more awesome birds to see. Check back Saturday for ducks, ducks, and… well, more ducks!


  1. Thanks for the blog shout out, dude! Now we will have to update it more often.

    Bottfly is working on her first entry...

  2. Aaron - no problem man! Looking forward to more blog posts, especially about banding and your west coast trip!