Wednesday, October 23, 2013

White hummingbird at Inniswood Gardens: a recap

Inniswood Metro Gardens in Westerville, Ohio, the scene of central Ohio's current celebrity avian visitor. This 123-acre park is a suburban oasis and a great birding locale. The leucistic hummingbird detailed in this post and the previous two entries is not the only oddball bird to turn up here. CLICK THIS to revisit a hardy Ovenbird that spent much of winter 2011/12 here.

This is the pathway when one leaves the parking lot and enters the garden. A scenic place to be sure, and a site crammed with nectar-producing flowers guaranteed to sate even the greediest hummingbird's appetite.

This is the "Herb Garden", ground zero for the protagonist of this story. It hardly looks like late October here, what with all of the flowering plants still in bloom. I'd bet that other unusual hummingbirds turn up here in coming years.

A knot of birders stand in the Herb Garden, marveling over the ghostly white hummingbird. Yesterday, when I visited and made these images, Bernie Master and Dane Adams were also present. These guys have stellar abilities with photographic gear, and some awesome equipment. Both have generously shared their work on this site in the past, and once again have allowed me to use some of their images. Their photos are absolutely incredible; it's as if the hummingbird was in hand!

There are two particular species of plant that are still in near peak bloom in the garden that the hummingbird fixates on. The purple-flowered plant dominating the image is Mexican Sage, Salvia leucantha, and the scarlet blooms on the outskirts is Pineapple Sage, S. elegans. It is these species that the hummer most frequently dips into, and if you look closely, you'll see her in the center of the shot. Thanks go to the park staff for placing that feeder, too!

Photo: Dr. Bernard Master

When at rest, the hummingbird often perched in shrubs alongside the garden and kept watch over her domain. The Big Question, of course, is what species is this? All or nearly all white birds can be very tough to identify, especially when they normally wouldn't be white. This animal is leucistic, a genetic anomaly caused by a recessive allele that washes out or minimizes the dark melanin pigments. Thus, the coloration that gives us field marks that we would ordinarily use to help identify the bird are greatly reduced or absent.

So, as reflected in the previous posts, none of us were absolutely sure what species this was, with many, including your narrator, leaning towards a Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus. By this time of year, Rufous Hummingbird is about as likely as anything. Nearly all Ruby-throated Hummingbird - our common and only breeding species - have long fled for the tropics by now, and the hardy western Rufous Hummingbird tends to appear at the tail end of fall or early winter.

Photo: Dr. Bernard Master

After Bernie and Dane obtained their amazing images, it was as if the bird was in hand, or under a microscope. A lot of the SMALL details that are very helpful in making a positive identification and which are quite difficult to see on a moving bird become crystal clear in these photos.

Fortunately, just to the north in the great state of Michigan, resides Allen Chartier. Allen is one of the few licensed hummingbird banders in these parts, and has handled scores of the animals, including rarities (in the East) such as Rufous Hummingbird. It was Allen who confirmed our first state Allen's Hummingbird (ironically).

Photo: Dane Adams

So, I was able to send off plenty of detailed images to Allen for his opinion, and the prognosis is that this is a hatch-year female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Following, in Allen's words, is a concise explanation why this bird is a Ruby-throat.

Photo: Dane Adams

(From Allen Chartier): "Thanks! These really solidify my view that this is a Ruby-throat. The shape of the tail is right for RTHU and wrong for Rufous. In most of the previous photos, the central rects (r1) are shorter than the next ones out (r2). In these photos, r1 looks very similar in length to r2. In Rufous, r1 should be longest. Rufous rectrices are also more pointed than in RTHU, and these photos show some very rounded, not pointed rects. I see no diagnostic shape for Rufous on r2 in the photos."

NOTE: "r" or "rects" refer to retrices, which are the tail feathers. The innermost feathers are numbered 1, with 5 being the outermost.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

(More from Allen on tails): "And finally, take a look at the two tail photos I've attached and look at the distribution of white on the tips of the rects, especially r3. In Rufous the white goes mostly straight across, while in RTHU it is mostly on just the outer vane. The albino clearly matches the pattern for Ruby-throat. I have seen a good number of strong structural characters that support the leucistic bird as a Ruby-throat, while there are only a couple of subtle and subjective characters, none structural, that may suggest Selasphorus."

Photo: Dane Adams

Finally, now that the identification mystery seems to be cleared up, enjoy some stunning images of this amazing snowy-white hummingbird.

Photo: Dane Adams

The long-term prospects for this little gem are, unfortunately, not great. Allen tells me there are no confirmed records of a highly leucistic hummingbird beyond hatch-year. Being leucistic may look cool to us, but it is detrimental to long-term survival. Melanin pigments provide structural integrity to feathers, thus when they are absent, feather wear more quickly and are more fragile. Also, a bright white animal stands out and this probably ups the odds that some predator will snare it.

Whatever this hummingbird's fate, it sure has thrilled the numerous people who have been flocking to Inniswood to admire it.

Thanks to Bernie and Dane for sharing their photos, and to Allen for his hummingbird identification expertise. And kudos to the staff of Inniswood for graciously accommodating the snowy hummer and all of its admirers.


Anonymous said...

JJim, the red flower is Pineapple Sage, Salvia elegans. It is a late blooming tender perennial, with pineapple scented leaves. I have 2 big ones still blooming in my garden, along with lots of Salvia coccinea. Alas, no more hummingbirds of any hue at my house...

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for the correction, Brian - ornamental flora never was my strong suite!

Jennifer and Steve said...

Great posts, Jim! Thanks so much for sharing these great photos and reasoning for id!

Bruce Satta said...

Thanks for the info, Jim; it was great to meet you!

Doug said...

Likewise thank you for posting info & images. Char & Cindy talked at length yesterday to us volunteers at Inniswoods.

My regrets for not walking over after the photo contest showings Sunday when I first heard about it from visitors coming in to see the entrants pictures for the Metro Parks Photo Contest.


Mark Wloch said...

Thanks for your updates. The bird was seen on Sunday Oct. 27 in the same area. The Pineapple Sage took a hit from the frost the past couple of nights but the bird was still hitting the feeder and catching bugs when I left at 11:30 AM.