Sunday, December 13, 2009

Allen's Hummingbird - Ohio's first!

The Ohio birding news is now dominated by a tiny 3 gram feathered dynamo known as an Allen's Hummingbird. And with good reason: this is the first documented record of this westerner for the state.

Coincidentally, Pennsylvania's first Allen's Hummingbird record came almost simultaneously, when in a remarkably similar situation to the one described here, Scott Wiedensaul banded and documented one at a Keystone State feeder.

Pastoral Holmes County countryside makes for scenic drives. That's a horse and buggy way down the road - a common conveyance in these parts.

State firsts really get the listers apoplectic with twitcher's disease, and I must confess to suffering from the affliction. When I hear about a bird in Ohio that I've not seen in the state, a restless discontent settles in that is only cured by the chase. For me, it's only this way with my home state list. I generally have no yen to chase New Jersey Ivory Gulls or East Coast Pink-footed Geese - most of these birds I've seen somewhere, or will someday, and it isn't that important where I see them. In fact, to me it's generally more rewarding to see and watch a species on its home turf, where it ought to be.

But, perhaps because I've birding the Buckeye State for so long, my resident list is a big one and the urge to add to it is irresistable. Yesterday's expedition was successful, and the Allen's Hummingbird provided me with my 361st notch on my Ohio list.

A major bonus of this chase was the bird's location - Holmes County. Located in the rolling hills of northeast Ohio, this county has produced an inordinate number of spectacular birds: Green Violet-ear, Violet-green Swallow, Long-billed Curlew, Swallow-tailed Kite, and many more. This plethora of exceptional records is in large part due to the exceptional concentration of stellar birders, many of which are Amish.

The region is also much more bird-friendly than the agriculture-intensive flatlands of the glaciated till plains, where mega-farms have nearly eliminated most habitat in many areas. The photo above shows neat rows of shocked corn, baled Amish style.

Ground zero for our target, the home of Mae Miller, who has graciously welcomed the birding community. A great many visitors have come to view the feathered wonder, and now that it's identification has been confirmed, there'll be a great many more. Look closely and you'll see a throng of admirers in that treeline beyond the silver Toyota Prius.

In a remarkable spot of good luck, Ms. Miller's house and the hummingbird fall within the bounds of a Christmas Bird Count. Should the bird linger for another week or so, they'll be able to tick off a humdinger of a count bird.

One of the more heavily scrutinized backyards in the state. The feeder hangs near that projecting back porch. Our subject has apparently been frequenting this site since late September, and up until a few days ago, was presumed to be a Rufous Hummingbird.

Hummingbirds can be astonishingly hardy, and here's some evidence. There's the feeder in the upper right hand corner, and a thermometer below. When I took the photo, around 9:30 am, it was reading in the low 20's. My car's thermometer read 14 degrees in the lower valleys nearby as I traveled to the spot. As long as these tiny birds can find adequate food, they can survive such temperatures, at least for a while.

Finally - here it is, the state record Allen's Hummingbird on his feeder. You'd not be able to prove that's what it is from this photo, though. We could see the bird far better through our optics, but even then it is difficult if not impossible to be certain of its identity.

Allen's Hummingbird is in the genus Selasphorus, along with the very similar Rufous Hummingbird, of which Ohio gets several a year on average. While adult males are fairly straightforward, females and immature birds are far trickier to tell apart.

Here's a short video of the bird sipping sugar water, then darting off through the frigid air. I didn't have to wait long to see it - I actually spotted the bird flying to the feeder as I walked up to the site. It makes regular and fairly frequent visits, and I don't think anyone who has come has missed seeing it.

This is a MUCH better photo, courtesy of Allen Chartier. Allen is one of the area's few licensed hummingbird banders, and he has made numerous trips to Ohio from his home state of Michigan to band Ohio hummers. Allen's work has been invaluable in verifying the identity of our vagrant hummingbirds, including this one.

Unfortunately, a bit of misinformation about this bird made its way onto our Ohio Birds listserv, and hopefully it hasn't deterred interested birders from seeing this hummingbird if they were so inclined. Anyway, Allen took the time to post accurate info about our specimen, and I quote him below:

"Ohio Birders,

Please let me clarify things before the wild speculation gets even wilder.
Interpreting the use of the word "probable" in the email announcing the presence of this bird is erroneous (my preference would have been "highly likely"). In-hand, Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds can be identified more than 99% of the time using a combination of plumage characters, feather shapes, and measurements.

I have banded nearly 60 Rufous Hummingbirds in three states, but have never banded an Allen's though I have worked with them in Louisiana with another bander. This individual has only 8 tail feathers instead of the usual 10. And although it is an immature bird, 7 of the 10 tail feathers are adult-type. The measured widths of both outer tail feathers (one is adult, one is immature) are both diagnosticly narrow (up to 1/2 mm narrower than a Rufous should be) for Allen's Hummingbird. This is probably sufficient for the bird to be accepted by the state records committee, though I don't want to pre-judge that.

My caution in being "only" 99% certain of the ID when I left the home was based on this being a first state record, and the fact that I wasn't positive which two feathers were missing. I was simply being cautious until I made the 200+ mile drive home to be able to check more references and look at my photos of the bird more closely to verify some of my suspicions about these missing tail feathers. I like to be thorough before claiming a first state record. All the tail feathers of this bird are very pointed, and the outer three are very narrow.

With good views of the spread tail, it is reasonable to say that it could be identified in the field with perhaps 80-90% confidence (depending on how experienced you are with these birds).

So, the bottom line is that it would be nearly impossible to make a case that this is a Rufous Hummingbird, based on the measurements. Please do not put off going to see this bird based simply on the use of the word "probable" and subsequent misinterpretations of it. The homeowner is very gracious and willing, and the bird should be cooperative, but who knows for how long."

A view of the tail of the Holmes County Allen's Hummingbird, showing the characteristic very narrow outer tail feathers, or rectrices. For this kind of view, one must have the bird in hand. Capturing and banding hummers normally does not faze them in the slightest. The whole operation can be done in ten minutes or so, allowing the bander to collect weight, measurements, and other diagnostic information, and place a truly tiny silver band on one of its legs. The hummingbird will often be back at the feeder minutes later.

For comparison, here is the tail of a Rufous Hummingbird, courtesy of Bill Hilton's excellent blog, This Week at Hilton Pond. This species has, on a comparative scale, much broader outer tail feathers.

Ohio now has several dozen records of Rufous Hummingbird. It's a western species with a broad distribution - our only hummingbird that breeds in Alaska.

The Allen's Hummingbird has a much smaller range, and consequently there are a lot less of them. This is undoubtedly one factor as to why there are FAR fewer records in the east than there are of Rufous Hummingbird.

The increasing numbers of vagrant hummingbirds in the eastern U.S. is a fascinating phenomenon, and there are probably some good reasons for it. But that's another post.

Thanks to Mae Miller for her hospitality and good stewardship of the bird, and to Allen Chartier for his tireless efforts to learn more about hummingbirds, and in particular for his work on this bird.


Patrick B. said...

Clearly, Allen's Hummingbirds love the Amish.

Jana said...

Great post!

I can't believe we got to see it, thanks to the Greater Mohican Audubon Society stalwarts who led us there. My husband said we went from remedial to advanced bird watching in a few hours. It's back to the beginning though, when we're on our own.

So our planned short day of bird watching at Malabar Farm went into early evening. We also saw Sandhill cranes at Funk Bottoms. Two life birds in one day!

Jim McCormac said...

Hey Patrick - apparently LOTS of great birds love the Amish, judging by the number of them that they find!

Congrats on the two lifers, Jana! And at amazingly opposite ends of the spectrum! Did you know it would take 630 Allen's Hummingbirds to equal one Sandhill Crane in regards to weight?

But, if the hummers were the size of the cranes, we'd all be in mortal peril!


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