Nancy Newfield Nancy L. Newfield has been watching hummingbirds at her Louisiana home and lots of other places since 1975. Nancy lost her amateur status years ago, and now writes and lectures on hummers. She is co-author of Hummingbird Gardens, reviewed elsewhere on this site. Nancy is also a licensed hummingbird bander and a recognized authority on hummingbird distribution, behavior, and taxonomy.

November 1996

A Hummingbird Bonanza!

Imagine standing in a tropical garden and watching dozens of hummers darting about the greenery! Imagine that the temperatures are balmy and the skies are clear! Now, pull out your road map and find that you are in Louisiana or Mississippi or Alabama!

What's going on here? Most of our books tell us that the only hummer that occurs in this region is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) and that it migrates away for the winter months. These birds are not Ruby-throateds!

Over the past few years, a tremendous number of hummingbirds have been found wintering in the Gulf Coast region of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Lesser numbers are also being reported far inland in the southeast as well. Eight or nine species are identified annually, with isolated individuals of more rare species occurring sporadically.

The majority of the hummingbirds wintering in the Gulf Coast region are Rufous Hummingbirds (Selsaphorus rufus), which seem to be a bit more cold-hardy than the Ruby-throated. But, the Ruby-throated's western cousin, the Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), turns up regularly too, especially in neighborhoods with mature trees. Buff-bellied Hummingbirds (Amazilia yucatanensis) are also being reported every year and, seemingly, in increasing numbers.

Reports of Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds are not new. Both had been documented as occurring in the east prior to the 1960s, but the regularity of occurrences and relative abundance seem to be increasing. The first Buff-bellied was reported from Louisiana in the 1960s.

In the mid-1970s (when I first started hummingbirding), it was thought that Rufous appeared in Louisiana regularly, while Black-chinned was rare. Other hummers, excepting the easily identified Buff-bellied, were assumed to be Ruby-throateds that "forgot to migrate." Research since then, by myself and others, indicates that this is incorrect or that the situation has changed dramatically.

By the late 1970s, both Rufous and Black-chinned were recorded in Louisiana every year, with Rufous outnumbering Black-chinned by about 6 to 1. After it became known that I was interested in the hummers that were found in winter, I began hearing from other people who were hosting them—perhaps, 30 to 40 reports each winter. We saw the occasional Buff-bellied and Ruby-throated, but mostly, we had Rufous and Black-chinned.

In 1976, Ron Stein had found an male Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) in his well-planted garden in Reserve, Louisiana. This was not just the first record for the state, it was the first ever documented east of Arizona! And, amazingly, this bird belonged to the non-migratory sedentarius subspecies. Two years later, a female of the nominate subspecies was found in a New Orleans yard. Later that same year, an adult male visited my own garden. Some of us began to wonder how many Allen's escaped detection because of their similarity to the more common and more expected Rufous.

We also wondered if we might be missing members of other species because of our own unfamiliarity with them and because of the paucity of good identification information in the then current field guides. Though the books stated that female Ruby-throateds and female Black-chinneds were too similar to distinguish in the field away from nesting areas, I had no difficulty separating the two.

The first hint of a forthcoming change occurred in the winter of 1978-1979, when my garden hosted an immature male Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) and the previously mentioned Allen's, in addition to a number of Rufous, Black-chinned and Ruby-throated. It was a very good year!

In the early 1980s, many more people began to work at attracting hummers—both with feeders and with lush gardens. And the numbers of reports began to grow. Almost anyone who tried, could get a Rufous and those in the right habitats got Black-chinneds as well. Every winter, a Ruby-throated or two turned up. And, every winter several Buff-bellieds were reported. This colorful species seemed to always draw a crowd.

The winter of 1983-1984 was bitter and the southeast was not spared. A few days before Christmas, temperatures in New Orleans dropped to the mid-teens and remained below freezing for 5 consecutive days. The effect on wintering hummingbirds was devastating, with losses estimated at about 90%. The birds seemed able to tolerate the cold at first, but as the days wore on, one after another disappeared. Hummingbirders worked valiantly to keep feeders going, but nevertheless, many birds vanished.

The following winter season, the number of hummingbirds that appeared seemed to be more modest than in the previous one. No doubt because there were fewer birds to return.

But, by the winter of 1985, the population of wintering hummers rebounded and has grown steadily ever since, in spite of several multiple-day episodes of freezing weather, which are unusual in the Deep South. More significantly, the list of species recorded annually has more than doubled.

Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) was added to the state list in 1979, and in December 1982, Ron Stein found a tiny immature male Calliope Hummingbird (Stellula calliope) amid a multi-species horde of hummers visiting his garden. This occurrence was more than just a first record for Louisiana. It was one of less than a handful of documented occurrences of that species for wintertime for anywhere north of the U.S.-Mexican border. This could have been a fluke, but the following year, two were recorded in the state. Last winter (1995-1996), 16 or more Calliope Hummingbirds were located. And, these were just the ones in Louisiana. Both of these species are now reported every year, as are Allen's and Broad-tailed.

Since 1982, the species list for Louisiana has grown to 10 species with the addition of a Broad-billed Hummingbird (Cynanthus latirostris) in 1990 and a Blue-throated Hummingbird (Lampornis clemenciae) in 1992. Both species have now been sighted several times.

Since 1985, Bob Sargent has been monitoring the winter hummingbird population in several states east of Louisiana and he has found a similar pattern of the more common wintering species. And, he and his subpermittees have documented occurrences of species not yet found in Louisiana—Magnificent Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens), Green Violet-ear (Colibri thalassinus), and White-eared Hummingbird (Hylocharis leucotis). Speculation over the next species to be found now runs to the even more exotic!

(continued December 1996)

Happy Hummingbirding!

Copyright © 1996
Nancy L. Newfield
Casa Colibri
Metairie, LA