Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hummingbirds: early to return, or not?

A gorgeous male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris, held by Bill Hilton. Bill caught this bird on April 28, 2010 in West Virginia at a banding demonstration for attendees of the New River Birding & Nature Festival. Its arrival in West Virginia was right on schedule. Male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds show up in this region around mid to late April, preceding the arrival of the females by eight days or so.

A friend forwarded me this map today, from the website Judging by all of the records on this map, there are plenty of contributors providing their hummingbird sightings, and the map purports to show the phenology, or timing, of hummingbird migration as the birds move north in their seasonal occupation of eastern North America.

But WAIT! I know it’s been an exceptionally warm spring, and some flora and fauna are well advanced beyond what would be the case in a “normal” year, but WOW! The map shows hummingbirds as far north as central New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin! Numerous records are sprinkled throughout the Upper Midwest, including Ohio. The map invites incredulity.

I have not heard of a single credible Ruby-throated Hummingbird report from Ohio as yet, and I try to keep my ear to the wall. The first Ruby-throats appear in the Buckeye State in the third week of April (exceptionally early records from around April 10), but they don’t become widespread and frequent until early May. That timing holds true for other states at this latitude, and it takes a bit longer for the birds to reach more northerly haunts.

While I have issues with the map above, I do want to say that the site is quite well done and does feature lots of good hummingbird information. I suspect that the records that comprise the hummingbird migration map are accepted from contributors at face value and plotted with no attempt to verify the record. I don’t want to come off as some sort of hummingbird scrooge, but extraordinary claims that contradict what it is known about the biology of a well-studied species should have solid evidence as backing.

This map is courtesy of eBird, and reflects Ruby-throated Hummingbird data that has been submitted as of today. The darker the purple, the greater the number of individuals that were reported. The eBird map shows just about what we would expect to see at this time – Ruby-throated Hummingbirds just beginning their spring infiltration of the United States, with nearly all reports from the Gulf States or lower Atlantic Coastal Plain region. Most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds winter in southern Mexico and Central America, and make the 500+ mile open water crossing of the Gulf of Mexico on their northward journey.

So why the huge disparity between the eBird map and the map (keeping in mind that eBird probably has far more contributors)? Well, Project eBird is quite diligent about reviewing data before publishing it. The project employs a small army of expert birders who vet unusual sightings – such as a mid-March hummingbird in the Upper Midwest – and if details are insufficient, the sighting does not appear in the literature. In short, eBird data is well reviewed and scientifically credible.

Documentation of the arrival of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in spring in North America, and their subsequent progression northward, has been well described over a long period of time. The map has them arriving in many places a month or more ahead of schedule. Fact, or fiction? And if the data is fiction, what could account for such a spate of misidentifications?

Birds are not normally confused with insects, but in the case of certain big sphinx moths, it happens quite frequently. This is a white-lined sphinx, Hyles lineata, which appears astonishingly hummingbirdlike. Some refer to the so-called hummingbird moths as “hummingbird mimics”, but their resemblance may actually be an example of convergent evolution.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

An amazing photo of a snowberry clearwing, Hemaris diffinis. The sphinx moths in the genus Hemaris resemble hummingbirds to an incredible degree. Many a person has been fooled by these day-flying moths, and upon seeing one, some might swear that a hummer just shot by.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This is a hummingbird clearwing, Hemaris thysbe, and it is probably the champion of hummingbird lookalikes. These moths hover before flowers, extracting nectar with their long tongues. Their wings beat so rapidly as to be just a blur, and they aren’t much smaller than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. To top off the illusion of a hummer, Hemaris moths even produce an audible buzzing with their wings, as do the birds.

Both the hummingbird clearwing and snowberry clearwing are common, widely distributed species throughout eastern North America, as are a few other sphinx moth species that resemble hummingbirds, albeit to a lesser degree. If one of these moths buzzes by, and good looks are not had, and the observer is not all that experienced, they can and do get reported as hummingbirds.

Members of the honeysuckle family, such as this arrowwood viburnum, Viburnum dentatum, are the host plants for Hemaris hummingbird moths.

This is the caterpillar of a snowberry clearwing. The adult moths lay eggs on suitable honeysuckle family hosts, which eventually hatch these cool-looking caterpillars. The cats then feed and grow, molting through several instars before reaching maturity.

Once a hummingbird moth caterpillar is fully mature, it drops from its host plant into the leaf litter below. Ensconced in the leaves, it transforms to its pupal stage, as seen above. The Hemaris hummingbird moths pass the winter in the pupal stage, and warming spring weather triggers their transformation from this penultimate stage to the beautiful winged adults.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds should not be influenced to arrive in the United States any earlier than normal because of our unseasonably warm weather. Most of the hummers are 1,500 - 2,000 miles away – how are they going to know that it’s been balmy and spring is ahead of schedule up here? The impulse for Neotropical birds to begin migration is triggered by photoperiod - changes in daylight length - and possibly other environmental cues.

On the other hand, moth pupae overwintering in leaf litter could, and probably would, mature earlier than normal in the presence of unusually warm temperatures. Hemaris moths normally emerge in March in the southern U.S., and can be on the wing in April in the northern U.S. The well above average temperatures of late winter and early spring have likely prodded the moths to rise early from their winter slumber, and eager hummingbird seekers may be mistaking them for their wished-for feathered harbingers-of-spring.

At least that’s one theory to explain the map. Another might be that most or all of those hyper-early hummingbird reports pertain to vagrant western species, such as Rufous Hummingbirds, which do have a penchant for appearing outside the windows of normal Ruby-throated Hummingbird passages. An ever-increasing number of non-Ruby-throated Hummingbirds winter in the Gulf coastal states. I can’t buy that, though – there is no precedent for a sweeping vernal invasion of scores of non-Ruby-throated hummingbirds in the eastern U.S.

Yet a third theory might be that these reports represent Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that overwintered in the southernmost U.S., as a small number of birds do. Perhaps these hummers might be compelled to begin migration earlier, as they could possibly somehow be better tuned in to climatic factors in the northern reaches of their breeding range. That would mean that they are either overriding the built-in photoperiod response that stimulates physiological changes and induces migration, or somehow the mild winter altered their brains' interpretation of the normal cues that instigate migratory behavior. As far as I know, there would be no precedent for this.

This is’s map from 2011. Everything looks just about spot-on in regards to timing, although I would question the northernmost red dots, which indicate March sightings.

We may indeed set some legitimate early records for returning Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in Ohio and other northern states. The abundance of prematurely early flowering plants may speed them along their way as they advance northward from the Gulf States. But I don’t believe that we’ve had hummers up here yet, and in the absence of concrete evidence, I certainly can’t accept the map at the beginning of this blog. It seems more likely it charts the emergence of clearwing hummingbird moths than the northward sweep of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.


Sharkbytes said...

I've never seen one of those moths, but hope I will some day.

Colleen said...

what a great post! Thank you so much for this :)

Nellie from Beyond My Garden said...

Each morning as I write, I am posted where I can see the tv antennae that is a perch for our resident male hummingbird. So far he nor any relatives have been seen. I haven't seen Hyles lineata yet either though once the Monarda blooms there will be plenty.

Rebecca said...

I'm not convinced.

I know no naturalists beyond the mediocre level who confuse moths with birds.

Flora is two to four weeks early in parts of Ohio. It makes sense that fauna would follow.

My feeder is filled.

Jim McCormac said...

Let me know if you get a hummer before,say, April 10, Rebecca :-)

Anonymous said...

A fellow Ohioan here... we're going to put our feeder out tomorrow! Heck, if weather cooperates on Saturday I'll take a feeder to our bird banding site, too!


Auralee said...

Very interesting post! Will the early spring weather influence nesting behavior of year-round residents? I put my chickadee house out early, just in case, and I have had some check it out, but last year they built their nest in early to mid April. I wondered whether weather plays a part in when they will mate.

Wren nests in... said...

Moths of that size aren't out here in southernmost NJ yet.

The carpenter bees, on the other hand, certainly have me doing double-takes, though.

Also keep in mind that because eBird is thorough in checking out the veracity of reported data, their map may be behind the times by a week or so.

Just sayin'...

Wren nests in... said...


I've seen Carolina chickadees carrying nest material here in Cape May County, NJ, and I believe some Ohio chickadees were seen doing so a couple of weeks ago...

If the food is there (and given the number of insects out and about right now, it's definitely there) why not get a head start on nesting, even if it is a few week's earlier than we humans expect it?

Unknown said...

Very interesting, Jim. As citizen science and the birding hobby both continue to grow and enter into more marriages (eBird, for example) these are discussions we'll have to have. The strictures of science are, by necessity, unyielding. That's likely to rub some of the contributing "citizens" the wrong way. I know eBird has that effect sometimes, but compromise increases error which in turn decreases the usefulness of the data.

My approach has always been to rely on the more strict applications (eBird)for reliable data and the less vetted ( impetus for further investigation. Scientific data are often born from anecdotal observations, and I wouldn't detract from the value of either. We just have to understand and remember which are which. Failing to do that muddies what could be a great movement forward in citizen science.

Jim McCormac said...

I totally agree with your points, Kirby, especially as I am a longtime contributor to citizen science, and a big supporter of it. And I really like the site, but this year's migration map invites questions. And it may well be that all of those super-early reports are correctly identified Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, but some concrete proof of that should be necessary to document such a ground-breaking phenomenon.

We've had scores of carpenter bees already out around here, too, Amy - way early - and someone else just this morning speculated that people might mistake these big buzzing insects for hummers from afar... Who knows...

Jim McCormac said...

Someone else suggested that common green darners, Anax junius, could be another possible source of hummingbird confusion. These big dragonflies have appeared exceptionally early, with reports from Ohio dating back over a week now. A fleeting glimpse of one of those from afar, especially ata time of year when people aren't used to seeing dragonflies, and a mistake could be made.

Auralee said...

Jim: what a coinkydink! I am off work today and today I am watching them build their nest in the house I have hanging in the lilac outside my living room window! Last year I was lucky enough to be home on a Saturday morning drinking my morning coffee as they fledged!

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Auralee,

And what is building a nest in your bird house? Hummingbirds?!!!!

Auralee said...

Jim: -sorry--"they" are the chickadees mentioned in my earlier post. I know they are a common backyard bird, but to me they are like kittens in that they epitomize cheerfulness and energy. I am so thrilled to have them nesting outside my window!

Hummingbirds--I wish I knew where to look for their nests! We have walnuts and firs in our large Clintonville backyard.

Jason Kessler said...

Thanks, Jim!

I've been confused on this issue. Here's another, uh, thought-provoking map:

Given the alacrity with which people mistake bonfafide hummers for "just some bug," I'm sure you're right in your suspicion of maps such as the one above.

Eva Matthews said...

Thanks Jim for the great post of migrants. You bring up some great points. I'm going to use those in my next migration class at the nature center.

gregorgreg said...

i have a night blooming jasmine shrub that those humming bird moths love. that was when i first discovered them. i have a few pictures of them too, which was really difficult to capture them. they move around so fast. i initially thought they were humming birds.

Unknown said...

I had a ruby throat hummingbird last month and got all excited - but he hasn't returned. I take reporting very seriously and so I did report that but as I said, nothing since.