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Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Most Interesting Hummingbird in the World

He once drank from a Venus Flytrap, and it thanked him afterwards. California Condors give him the right-of-way during migration. And when he shows up during winter, it spontaneously becomes spring. He is the most interesting hummingbird in the world!

I don’t always see Selasphorus hummingbirds in urban Chapel Hill. But when I do, I see dos rufus.

First there was the immature male that overwintered at a feeder along Airport Road; then, just today, Dr. Allen Hurlbert reported a more mature individual feeding at the Coker Arboretum on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. Could it be the same bird, having begun his molt into breeding plumage over this mild winter? I had to check for myself.

Immediately after locating the honeysuckles the bird had been frequenting, I heard the sharp, almost mechanical tsik!s of a hummer, and followed my ears. I stopped because I thought I’d gone too far, and looked around – no hummer, but the calls seemed louder now. Instinctively, I looked up to see the glowing bronze gorget feathers of the male Rufous Hummingbird.

Thank God he didn't... evacuate on me.

From his sanctuary in the dense honeysuckle, the hummer would venture out and start feeding from a series of pink and white flowers. I’m no plant expert so I’m not sure what they were, but from what I’m told, they’re not native. Every once in a while, the Rufous would stop to rest in the thinner canopy of these colorful bushes, allowing me to venture closer and attempt to photograph him.

Man, this was taken through like five feet of branches. Tough stuff!

He seemed to know what I was up to, and always stayed on the far side of the bush. The camera’s autofocus did not handle the tangle of branches well, and the encroaching clouds made photography difficult, but even still I was able to hang out less than 10 ft from this incredible little hummingbird.

Every once in a while his gorget would flash red in the sun. It was awesome.

As is always the case when Selasphorus hummingbirds show up, one has to consider whether or not the bird could be a much rarer Allen’s Hummingbird. Luckily, this particular individual had almost a full orange back, with only a couple bright green feathers showing through. Still, an Allen’s Hummingbird had shown up in Catawba County this year, so there was just a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. Then, as if on cue, he stretched for me, splaying his tail feathers and revealing one retrix with a perfectly shape notch at the end. This is the end all, be all of Selasphorus identification – he was a Rufous Hummingbird for sure!

999, 1000, 1001... oh, I didn't see you there. Don't know if you noticed, but that was over 1000 stretches.

So there’s the one remaining question – is this the same bird that spent the winter along Airport Road? As the crow (or, indeed, hummingbird) flies, there’s a mere half-mile between the two feeding spots. The bird frequented the feeder during the winter due to lack of resources, but it would make sense that it moved on to a readily available natural resource now that the flowers are in bloom. Luckily, Susan Campbell banded this winter’s Rufous, so all I had to do was check my photos for the tell-tale band. Rather surprisingly, I couldn’t find one. Looks like this bird is a completely different individual!

The best-looking most interesting hummingbird in the world I've ever seen!

After almost an hour, the Rufous Hummingbird finally popped up out in the open and in the light. Compared to the overwintering immature, this mature male positively glowed in the afternoon sun. The last time I saw a Rufous this bright, I was in southern California, and pretty soon this guy will be heading off for his West Coast home – but for now, I’m going to enjoy every up-close and personal moment I can get with this extraordinary little hummingbird! 


  1. Cool Robert! Love the intro to this post...

  2. Thanks guys! Had almost as much fun writing that as I did hanging out with the hummer!