When I started my Triangle Big Year I made a list of 200 species of birds I should be able to find in the Triangle in a given year. You could probably sit down and guess most of them if you wanted to put yourself through that (I won’t make you), but if you’ve spent any time at all in the eastern half of North America, you know the sort of birds I was looking for. But I had at least one included that had me pegged as an optimistic dreamer.
Rufous Hummingbird was one of the most egregious misses on my state list, let alone the small potatoes county lists of my part of North Carolina. It’s annual in the state, as it is across most states in the southeast, coming to one of those lucky bird feeders who, intentionally or not, leave a hummingbird feeder out into November. For as long as I’ve been birding in the Carolinas, there has been a Rufous Hummer somewhere in the state every single winter, even as close as Raleigh, but I’ve never made the effort to chase it down. Why? Well, for starters, they’re not so rare that they’d require a drop everything twitch, and I guess I just figured that one would eventually show up close enough that I wouldn’t have to work at it. And second, you generally have to go to private property to find them. I’ve met some pretty amazing and generous people at feeder stakeouts, but I can never quite get over how weird it is to essentially stand around on a person’s deck, or in some cases inside their very house, to find birds. It’s uncomfortable, and I’m not the sort of person who likes cold-calling strangers anyway.
In short, I want Rufous Hummingbird on my state list, but I’m not willing to work for it. Some Big Year birder I am, eh?
Well, it just so happened that a November hummingbird sort of fell into my lap. A Chapel Hill feeder watcher reported an unusual hummingbird coming to his feeder in the last week. There was little more reported than that so the response was muted, but my friend Robert Meehan had his curiosity piqued enough to make contact with the homeowner and lo and behold, the hummingbird coming to the feeder was a young Selasphorus!
I was there the next day, having barreled through the initial discomfort of calling a stranger, and sat on a a porch not more than five miles from my home waiting for this bird to make his appearance. It wasn’t more than 15 minutes before I heard the unmistakable chirping of a hummer behind me, and turned to find the bird perched on a bramble in the sun. This was more than I could have hoped for.
Being a subadult bird, the actual identification is a bit iffy. Rufous and its close co-gener Allen’s Hummingbird are notorious for being nearly impossible to parse in most all plumages except for adult male. But given the fact that Rufous is annual in the southeast and Allen’s had, at this point, only even been reported in North Carolina once, I think the odds are significantly in favor of the former. At least I’m comfortable enough with the probability to call this Rufous Hummingbird.
A long-time bogey bird for the state, finally nailed. And in my home county too.
The bird finally made it up to the feeder, not more than 10 feet from me, where it sat for upwards of 30 seconds. I missed a photo, or even a look, at the spread tail that would help to confirm the ID, but I wasn’t too concerned. It’s not often that a vagrant hummingbird was so forthcoming.
It just so happened, though, that the night before a Selasphorus hummingbird in the western third of the state had been banded and measured and determined to be an Allen’s Hummingbird. Not only was Allen’s a state bird, but it was a life bird. The species has the most restricted range of any North American hummingbird, breeding only in California and wintering only in a small patch of upland forest in the vicinity of Mexico City. This was a real surprise, and only the second confirmed individual in North Carolina. It’s the sort of bird that gets a twitcher’s blood boiling, and even though I’m not much of a state twitcher, the possibility of a life bird – and one that seemed pretty reliable too – was just too much to resist.
I put a call out to some of my other like minded birding acquaintances, and soon had a full carload ready to head out before dawn yesterday morning to acquire the bird. Ali Iyoob, Robert Meehan, and Kyle Kittleberger rode along, and it was scarcely five minutes upon arriving at Riverbend Park in Catawba County before the star of the show arrived.
I thought, for a brief moment, that this was the last North American hummingbird to cross off my list, which of course means I never have to look at another hummingbird again, right? But as it turns out my memory is a little shaky and Costa’s, the little desert jewel, still eludes me. And will for quite some time I imagine, unless I find myself in San Diego for some reason.
But that’s a wish for another time. It’s not too often than one birder can pull down two species of Selasphorus hummingbird in a 24 hour period east of the Mississippi.
Two state birds, one a lifer, and a dream fulfilled for my Triangle Big Year. A fine November weekend indeed.