The Smallest of the Tiny

Mid-October, I glanced out the kitchen window at the flurry of morning bird activity at our two feeders. At this time of year, our visitors are the usual and unsurprising suspects: Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals, wrens and sparrows (LBJs, “little brown jobs,” birders call them). But then, something else I thought I saw: the characteristic hovering of a hummingbird in the smoke tree. But no, that couldn’t be possible, not this late in the season. Even stranger was that this bird was brown, not the familiar green. Our large ruby-throat population had been gone for many weeks by then, the last of the nectar discarded and all the feeders washed and stored in the garage, awaiting their always-anticipated return in April. Perhaps, I thought, I’m just imagining things – wishful thinking. Or, probably just another LBJ.

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Female rufous – Photo by Stan Bentley

Flashforward, two weeks later: There, examining the red-topped seed feeder I saw it again: Very definitely a hummingbird, and very definitely not a ruby-throated humingbird. I put sugar water on the stove to boil and went to the garage and retrieved one of the feeders. Over the next few days, the bird became a constant in the yard, and with my field guide and Google, I became fairly sure this was a rufouhummingbird. Really interesting because this species’ habitat – and its migration route – is the western US, nowhere near Virginia. I thought of what Terry Tempest Williams says in her memoir, Refuge:

“…there are those birds listed as ‘accidental,’ one species, or at best a few, that have wandered far from their normal range.  They are flukes in a flock of predictable migrants.  They are loners in an unfamiliar territory.” 

Accidental indeed. In search of a more precise identification – and because I knew we had something both unusual and special in our midst – I turned to experts, first to some of the local university biologists and then to a local birder, Clyde, who had led a bird-watching excursion (yes, that’s me in the video) I took a few years ago. Clyde helped distribute photos of the bird among the local birding community – most agreed, rufous – and then to Bruce Peterjohn of the USGS. Bruce maintains the national bird banding database and outside of work, spends time – all his own – traveling around the region to band these types of reported “accidentals.” I got an email late on Thursday, 11/15 from Bruce, asking if he could come out on Saturday morning to try to capture and band the bird. Could I possibly say no to such an opportunity?

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Male rufous – Photo by Stan Bentley

So bright and early on that cold Saturday morning, a small group of us partook in that adventure, which the wonderful blog Ridge and Valley has chronicled so thoughtfully here. Our experience also made the Roanoke paper a few weeks later. We learned that morning that my identification was correct, but we actually had two different rufous hummingbirds visiting, a juvenile male and a juvenile female. To be able to see this species here in Virginia is rare enough, but to have had two birds at the same time? A once in a lifetime experience, and one I’m thrilled to have been able to share with so many other wonderful folks, and my family; my older daughter braved the cold to help out with the trapping and banding.

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Me, holding the male rufous before release – Photo by Stan Bentley

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Female rufous

Sadly, the female appears to have fled as soon as the banding was completed – who can blame her, really? The male continued to visit for another five days or so before leaving. I had secretly been hoping they’d try to over-winter here before returning to their western homelands for the breeding season. Perhaps they will imprint on this place as a food source along their flyway, will sometime again visit us on one of their journeys. Safe travels to you, the smallest of the tiny.

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