|No. 188||BATON ROUGE, LA||November 1999|
Western Hummers, Winter Fun
List of Western Hummers
The Botanical Birder
Yard List Competition '99
November Pelagic Report
Alternative Pelagic Report
Hummer ID Article
Hummer Figure 1
Hummer Figure 2
Hummer Figure 3
Hummer Figure 4
Hummer Figure 5
LOS NEWS, page 1
LOS NEWS, page 3
Louisiana Birding Organizations
Gray Jay Study by LOS birder
Saw-whets in LA?
Trying Too Hard!
2000 LOS Winter Meeting
LOS Fall Meeting Report
Irruptive Species Project
|The Perils of "Inland" Pelagic Birding - The Tale of Two Jaegers|
by Bill Wood
sing like Elmer Fudd to the tune of Farmer in the Dell,
A chumming we will go,
stop singing like Elmer Fudd if you feel like it
Here a jaeger, there a jaeger, everywhere a jaeger. "Hi boys and girls, this is Mr. Rogers. Welcome to my neighborhood. Can you say JAEGERS?"
O.K., O.K. I know I'm acting a little silly and immature but I'm just giddy, use delirious if you're too young to know what giddy means, over seeing my first two life birds since I saw a black-chinned hummingbird in Marianna Tanner's Cameron Parish yard back in the fall of 1996. Here's the tale of seeing my life Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers on Cross Lake Sunday, November 14, 1999.
As this was my FIRST inland pelagic birding trip, I really didn't know what to expect. I had heard from pelagic veterans on Louisiana's birding list server, LABIRDS, on how to prepare for a "real" pelagic trip, what to bring, what to eat, what drugs to take. Well, because this was an inland pelagic trip, apparently rare events, I couldn't find any advice on the Internet about how to prepare. I figured you would do just the opposite to prepare for inland pelagic birding trip than what you would do for a "real" going-out- to-the-ocean pelagic trip.
I decided my wardrobe of the day would be a pair of shorts, a seven-year-old LSU t- shirt, an old sweat soaked, beer smellin', mud stained, never-been-washed hat and flip- flops. I'm glad everyone was saving their film for the jaegers. As I'm fair skinned, I didn't use sun screen even though I did wear a hat. Only because I'm bald and I got sunburned really bad one time and boy it hurt to even take a shower. I passed up the usual assortment of drugs like Dramamine and Bonine. Besides, I quit all that stuff after Jimi Hendrix died back in the sixties. A box of crackers wasn't going to do for me, so for my pre-trip meal I stopped by the pizza buffet and got 20 bucks worth of greasy pizza for a fiver. I washed it all down with a pitcher of ice cold beer. I was so full that I felt like one of those blowfish that puff up and can't de-expand. NOW, I was ready to go on my first inland pelagic birding trip.
We had to get up by 11:00 a.m. to make it to Charlie's house at 12:45 P.M. for our pre- launch review of immature jaeger species. I usually don't get up this early on Sunday but Charlie promised me it would be worth missing the New Orleans Saints game, besides they never win. I would have rather missed the LSU-Houston game last night. Anyway, Roger and Charlie coached us with the details of separating Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers with picture, slides and books. Whew, man I thought I was back in college again, talk about intense! I just hope I pass the test and don't have to repeat this torture. Well, it's time to shove off.
After a draining 20 minute ride in a custom sports utility vehicle, I never did get to finish watching "Free Willy" on the VCR, we arrived at our port of entry. The crew was a mixed bag of birders. The man who made the discovery of all the Cross Lake jaegers, Charlie Lyon, served as ship's captain. Roger Breedlove was first mate providing a pair of eagle eyes. Long time birder and steady influence, Rosemary Seidler was along to keep Roger and Charlie from throwing punches if they argued too much over identification details. For public relations purposes, Shreveport Times newspaper reporter Mary Jimenez was kidnaped and forced to shoot pictures and publish a respectable report, whether we saw the jaegers or not. And, of course, there was me, a life bird- deprived bald headed guy on his first inland pelagic birding trip. The "Great Jaeger Inland" Pelagic Birding Trip of November 1999" was about to be underway. I was giddy.
Despite THREE inch waves, SUNNY skies and temperatures in the 70's, we boarded our open-air 12-passenger cruiser and headed to open waters. At about 20 miles an hour -- sorry, I don't do knots, it took us at least five minutes to get to the deep brown waters that signaled the unimaginable 12-foot depths of Cross Lake. Personally, I think we could have gotten there a lot faster if Charlie hadn't slowed down for every one of the 40,000 coots on the lake.
Finally, open water. We laid down a chum line and went to pick up Terry Davis at Barron's Landing. It was Terry's first inland pelagic birding trip as well. He must have been really nervous the whole time because I bet he didn't say more than 10 words in four hours. I think that was new a record low for him! We returned to the chum line that had attracted quite a few Ring-billed Gulls. Unfortunately, no jaegers. But, I had been warned that it might take up to an hour or an hour-and-a-half to find the greatest of inland pelagic birding quests -- jaegers.
We even tried that "hat chumming" thing that had worked the day before with Charlie and the Grandpa of Louisiana birding, Horace Jeter, with no luck. Of course when you hat chum with a brand new mail-order catalog waterproof hat, you ain't going to attract nothin'. Sorry ladies, but you need a man's old sweat soaked, beer smellin', mud stained, never-been-washed hat that has aged for at least seven years. There aren't too many of these around as they tend to get thrown out with the seven-year-old T-shirts.
After 45 minutes Roger was growing ever more pessimistic about seeing a jaeger when he spotted a Horned Grebe and more Ring-billed gulls. Charlie told him to dump the bad karma, "it was bad for inland pelagic birding." Well, Roger must have dumped the bad karma really quick because he jumped to his feet and yelled, "There it is!" I raised my binos, searching the open water, and sure enough there it was a Horned Grebe and 20,000 coots. "No, not there, THERE!" shouted Roger. Yea, there it was -- a jaeger.
As we tried to guide the boat closer, the bird burst off the water and it flew and flew and flew. Not one to lose a chase, Charlie gunned the engine and we were in hot pursuit of the first jaeger of the day. You know I didn't think a boat that size could do a 180 degree turn and not throw everyone overboard. Anyway, we chased and chased and chased until the bird finally settled on the water, burning two tanks of gas in pursuit. After a brief rest, the bird proceeded to fly around us, over us, and along both sides of us at times coming within 10 feet of us. We tallied all the field marks to note that this was, quoting Charlie and Roger, an immature Pomarine Jaeger. What an adrenalin rush! It was worth every one of the 56 minutes it took since we left port!
Hey, I was happy with my first lifer in three years, but Roger insisted we go after more. Roger has always been the one to go after more, like the time he headed a group to Cameron Parish and ended up in the Rio Grande Valley chasing a Blue Bunting. Well, off we go for more gas and in search of another jaeger.
The second jaeger proved quite the challenge. We scanned thousands of Ruddy Ducks and coots without success. Not even a gourmet chum of $16.99 a pound tenderloin blood, smoked herring steaks, anchovies with green peppers and Orville Redenbacker's popcorn could attract this guy/girl (just trying to be politically correct). Personally, I though the white sauce on the anchovies was a little bland. We headed west again to new waters, stopping, as Charlie always does, to check out another raft of coots. Charlie's affection for coots puzzles me.
After 45 minutes Roger was growing ever more pessimistic about seeing another jaeger when he spotted a Common Loon and more Ring-billed gulls. Charlie told him to dump the bad karma, "It was bad for inland pelagic birding." Well, Roger must have dumped the bad karma really quick because he jumped to his feet and yelled, "There it is!" I raised by binos searching the open water and sure enough there it was, a Common Loon and 20,000 coots. "No, not there, THERE!" shouted Roger. Yea, there it was - a jaeger.
The jaeger was sure related to the other jaeger because as soon as we got close that sucker bolted. This jaeger was some powerful flyer, gliding just inches above the water on occasional strong wing beats. During our chase it encountered a Ring-billed Gull with some small fish in its mouth. The jaeger was on that gull like a red-neck on a ice- cold beer. Boy, can them jaegers fly. It didn't take 30 seconds for the gull to give up his meal. The jaeger settled down in the water to enjoy his reward and allow us some great looks. All the needed field marks were there, to quote Charlie and Roger, telling us that this bird was an immature Long-tailed Jaeger.
Wow! My second lifer of the day and our second jaeger of the day! Big Wow! I'm thinking to myself that this inland pelagic birding isn't so rough. Not once, even when waves crested to 18 inches on two occasions, did anyone on board chum-up their lunch. I can't understand why those south Louisiana folks can't keep their lunches down when they go on pelagic trips.
We had achieved one of inland pelagic birding's greatest quests - a Pomarine and a Long-tailed Jaeger on the same day, on the same body of water, in less than three hours. We dropped Terry, still speechless, off at Barron's Landing, got more gas and headed home into the sunset.
The crescent moon shone above us while Jupiter and Saturn sparkled like diamonds at our backs in the eastern sky. I had just finished my first grueling four hour inland pelagic trip. Boy, was I exhausted. I think I'll risk the five minute drive home and pop-the- top on a cold one and celebrate my life jaegers.
We came, we chummed, we conquered.
By the way, I was just curious, how many jaegers did you guys see on the November 6 LOS pelagic trip with 12-foot seas and everyone chumming?
Note: For those of you that are satirically impaired, this is a parody, a spoof-in-jest, on REAL pelagic birding, especially the brave souls that took the November 6 LOS sponsored trip.
|Table of Contents|
|Let’s take another look - Ruby-throated Hummingbird & its "lookalikes"|
by Donna L. Dittmann & Steven W. Cardiff
For such a difficult-to-identify group, hummingbirds generate great enthusiasm. Their aerial prowess, pugnacious nature, iridescent feathering, and pint-size charm understandably make them more popular than gulls, terns, and peeps. Female and immature hummingbirds, however, do pose identification problems that certainly rival those other groups. The same behaviors that make hummingbirds so endearing can also result in frustration during field-viewing opportunities. Fortunately, hummingbirds are easy to attract to our gardens, where their addiction to our feeders and flowers can provide "manufactured" viewing conditions that cannot be surpassed. These factors allow us to become thoroughly familiar with our common breeding and migrant hummingbird species, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. It is often easier to learn field characters of one species, when there are no other similar species to confuse the issue! This is the case, for the most part, from mid-spring into early fall in Louisiana, when migrant and breeding Ruby-throated Hummingbirds dominate. During this period a wide range of plumage/age/sex variation and behavior of Ruby-throateds can be observed. Despite only having one breeding species, Louisiana’s status as a Hummingbird Mecca cannot be denied. Ten other species have been documented for the state. Most of these other species have been recorded from late fall to early spring! Of these ten, three superficially resemble Ruby-throated Hummingbird and are the topic of this article. One additional, as yet unrecorded, species, Costa’s Hummingbird, will also be discussed.
StatusRuby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) breeds commonly throughout wooded areas of the state (except chenier woods on the immediate coast), including wooded residential neighborhoods. Birds arrive from wintering areas (Mexico south to Costa Rica) in early March, their arrival coinciding with blooming native plants, such as Copper Iris (Iris fulva), Red Buckeye (Aesculus parvia), and Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata). Migrant numbers peak during late March through April as birds move north to breeding areas throughout the eastern US and central and eastern Canada. Locally raised juvenals begin to appear at feeders and gardens in June and July, and definite southbound migrants (at non-breeding locations) occur as early as mid-July. In Louisiana, the fall peak of migrants is typically mid- to late August through late September. Numbers gradually diminish into October, with a few migrants remaining into late October and early November. Later in November and into December, except for individuals that have obviously "settled" at a particular location, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine if particular "wandering" individuals (present at a location for a few days or weeks) are very late migrants or winterers; presumably, most of these birds will winter in our area, but make local or regional movements until they find the right circumstances to "settle." Known wintering birds will remain into early spring and eventually blend with spring migrants. During both spring and fall, the passage of adult males occurs somewhat earlier in the season than for females/immatures, but there is considerable overlap in timing.
Winter records are relatively few compared to the overall abundance of this species during the remainder of the year, and, somewhat surprisingly from a geographic perspective, winter Ruby-throateds are almost always greatly outnumbered by several western species, especially Rufous and Black-chinned hummingbirds. Overall number of winter records has increased substantially over the past decade, but the number of individuals per winter varies considerably. Unprecedented numbers were found during the winters of 1997-98 and 1998-99. These recent increases have been variously attributed to increased winter resources (more hummingbird-attracting flower gardens and nectar feeders), mild winters, delayed nesting (somehow resulting in "lingering" or failure to migrate in some individuals), increased observer awareness of winter hummers, improved observer identification skills, or combinations thereof. Black-chinned Hummingbird has long been considered the "default" winter Archilochus on the Gulf Coast, but it is likely that at least modest numbers of Ruby-throateds have been overlooked/mis-identified as Black-chinneds. There are only a couple of confirmed records of banded wintering birds returning for successive winters (fide N. L. Newfield).
Black-chinned Hummingbird (A. alexandri) breeds in a variety of habitats from southwestern Canada south throughout the western US and northern Mexico; western Mexico is the primary wintering area. Black-chinned Hummingbird was first recorded in Louisiana at Baton Rouge in December 1955 (Lowery 1974, Birds of Louisiana). Records were slow to accumulate at first, but have increased substantially in the past couple of decades, possibly as a result of increased attention focused on attracting winter hummingbirds, improved observer skills, or a true gradual increase in abundance. Black-chinneds are now considered an uncommon, but regular, wintering species. There are no records presumed/definite migrants in late summer/early fall. Numbers vary per winter, with birds typically arriving in yards during November, occasionally in mid- to late October; wintering birds occasionally remain into early spring. Banded individuals have been known to return to the same yard in successive winters; such "returnees" often arrive somewhat earlier in the fall than they did their first year.
Calliope Hummingbird (Stellula calliope) breeds in the mountains of the western US and is a vagrant to Louisiana. The first record for Louisiana was on 6 December 1982 in Reserve. Birds typically arrive in yards in mid- to late November, occasionally (especially returnees) by early October; there are only a few records of banded returnees. Up to winter 1994-95, there were still only about 15 accepted records, but "invasions" during the winters of 1995-96 and 1997-98 (about 20 reports each) more than tripled the number of records (many still pending submission or acceptance by the LBRC). Despite the rash of records during those two years, Calliope remains on the LBRC Review List because of concerns about difficulty of ID and that the two "big" years may have been "flukes." Several birds (including a couple of returnees) have already been recorded during late fall 1999, so winter 1999-2000 may produce another bumper crop of Calliopes. Wintering birds have remained into early spring. There are no records of presumed/definite migrants during the late summer/early fall.
Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) is primarily a resident of the western US and extreme southwestern Canada. Anna’s have been expanding their range north along the Pacific Coast and east through the southwestern states over the past few decades. The species was first recorded in Louisiana in Cameron Parish in November and December 1979, when several were discovered feeding at flowers of Salt Matrimony Vine (Lycium carolinianum; more fondly referred to by the authors as "Cameron Tomato") in coastal scrub. Subsequent records have all been at flower gardens and feeders in yards. It is strictly a vagrant to Louisiana and is on the LBRC Review List; there are about 15 records between 30 Oct. –9 Mar.
Costa’s Hummingbird (C. costae). This species has not yet been documented in Louisiana, but it is anticipated to eventually occur based on its current range and movements. It breeds in central California, s. Nevada, s. Utah, and Arizona south through Sonora, Mexico. It has the most restricted range of the above species, but has occurred as close as central and southern Texas.
Some identification pitfalls
Identification problems not addressed or underestimated
Older field guides simply did not address the identification of female and immature Black-chinned, Ruby-throated, and Costa’s hummingbirds; birds lacking gorgets were considered indistinguishable in the field. Newer guides, such as National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America (NGS), are somewhat more helpful and actually do discuss identification of non-adult male plumages. NGS still devotes relatively little space to the ID of this difficult group and has relatively few illustrations. In addition to illustrations of the birds themselves, NGS illustrates tail patterns, but the differences between the patterns are not explained in the text. The NGS 3rd Edition also attempts to illustrate the folded wing of Black-chinned versus Ruby-throated hummingbirds but, unfortunately, it is not particularly accurate and could be potentially misleading.
Despite inadequate coverage of hummingbird ID in field guides, information from other sources (discussed below) has proliferated among hummingbird enthusiasts. Some of this information has been taken perhaps too literally, causing misinterpretations and generalizations. Beware of over-simplification of species-ID criteria; only rarely will one field mark clinch the ID, especially under non-ideal conditions.
The observed color of an iridescent feather is dependent on the angle of light hitting the feather relative to the observer. The male's gorget can change from black to brilliance, or a brilliant range of color all depending on the angle of light. The gorget of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, for example, can appear deep red or fiery orange. Individual gorget feathers or patches can also show the same range of color. The iridescent green back feathers, although structured somewhat different from gorget-type feathers, also change color relative to the angle or intensity of light. The change is not as dramatically different and the feathers always appear green, unlike the "on" and "off" gorget glow. Nonetheless, the upperparts can show a range of color under different lighting conditions. Understanding that these minor differences occur is important because back color differences are reported between different species of hummingbirds. Great care should be excercised in using back color as a distinguishing feature. For example, the back color of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird can appear bright golden-green, bronzy-green, dull green, or even brilliant blue-green under different light conditions.
Shape and fat
For the most part, size and overall proportions are a good clue to a species ID. But a couple of factors can influence the way an individual bird appears. Body shape can be altered by subcutaneous fat reserves. During migration, especially in the fall, hummingbirds accumulate fat deposits below the skin (as well as in the abdominal cavity). These fat reserves provide fuel for migration. To give an idea of the volume of fat an individual bird may add, the average "lean" Ruby-throated would weigh about 2 1/2 grams, but the same individual with heavy fat deposits might tip the scales at 5+ grams! Imagine that in human terms--temporarily doubling your weight in preparation for a marathon! Although covered by contour feathers, fat birds do actually appear fat. Figure 1 shows a schematic view of where subcutaneous fat is deposited on the hummingbird’s body. Note that large deposits are located at the base of the neck and on the lower back and rump, and to a lesser extent on the belly. A fat bird shows a bulge at the base of the throat often creating a collared-look, and the tail will appear proportionately shorter because of heavy fat reserves on the rump. Fat birds may actually give the illusion of being smaller, shorter-billed, and narrower-winged because their bodies are proportionately fuller and rounder. Very fat birds do not seem to fly as well either!
A bird's appearance may be altered due to air temperature. When the air temperature is cold, a hummingbird puffs out its feathers to trap an insulating layer of warm air under the feathers and against its body. When it's warm, a hummingbird compensates by reducing the thickness of this insulative layer, keeping its body feathers pressed more closely against its body, which makes the bird look smaller, thinner, and longer.
Missing feathers and bill or tongue deformities
Hummingbirds can lose feathers, either accidentally (= unscheduled) or during normal molt. It is not that uncommon to see a hummingbird missing patches of body feathers, or one or more primaries or tail feathers. Missing or growing feathers can alter a bird’s "typical" appearance, as well as how it appears in flight or when hovering. Light-colored feathers of the throat and underparts have dark gray bases (Figure 2), so missing patches of feathers create a dark spot on the otherwise light plumage. Patches of growing (pin) feathers look like tiny pincushions, because incoming feathers are enclosed in a whitish sheath.
"Wintering" hummingbirds, for one reason or another, are sometimes "defective." In addition to patches of missing/growing feathers, the delicate bill and/or tongue can sustain damage. Hummingbirds have been found or reported with bills that are bent, broken, or even missing part of the upper or lower mandibles. Hummingbird tongues can also become damaged and look withered or askew. Either way, a hummingbird with a damaged bill looks very different from a healthy individual. Fungal infections may cause swelling or eat away at the bill or tongue, and may also result in loss of feathers at the base of the bill. Damage to the bill or loss of feathers at its base may alter the perceived length of the bill.
Pollen and other stains
A hummingbird’s plumage, especially the crown, can become soiled. During bouts of feeding at certain types of flowers, a hummingbird's crown becomes coated with white or yellow pollen. A hummingbird removes pollen during routine preening following bouts of feeding, so that the presence or configuration of pollen may change dramatically between observations. Pollen isn't the only source of crown coloration. Because tiny metal leg bands are difficult to see (and read!) on hummingbirds, hummingbird banders often additionally mark birds by coloring their crowns with quick-drying non-toxic paint or correction fluid. Banders choose a variety of colors and patterns, but generally there is no confusion between lacquered-on paint and the soft powdery appearance of pollen. Pollen typically extends from the base of the bill to the crown, whereas human-marked birds may sport (depending on the bander), say, a more circular or oval patch or a stripe on the top of the head. Over time, attempts by the bird to remove the paint by scratching, and the associated wear, may create outlandish "hairdos" (Mohawks, even horns). Be aware that some banders also use colored streamers that are attached to areas of the bird visible to observers, but "inaccessible" to the bird. Paint marks or streamers are not considered harmful, and are eventually lost when the bird molts.
Nesting females display "nest stains," brown or gray patches on the lower belly. These marks are a combination of environmental staining and wear (exposing the darker bases of the otherwise pale-colored feathers) incurred during incubation. Occasionally, some unfortunate birds may become soiled via close encounters with other substances such as thick feeder nectar, paint, honey, oil, etc., which can dramatically affect their appearance (and health).
Albinism, Melanism, and Hybrids
Strange genetic factors may also impact a hummingbird’s typical appearance. Albinism (absence of pigment in feathers that results in white or off-white coloration) is occasionally reported in hummingbirds and there are published photographs of partial and true albino individuals. Identification of these birds has to be based on vocalizations and structure. In contrast, melanism (too much pigment on feathers) is apparently less frequently reported. There is one specimen of a melanistic Ruby-throated from Louisiana. It is an immature male with a comparatively darker, bronzy-brown back. The incoming gorget feathers are purplish-red.
There have been several documented records of hybrid hummingbirds, including two specimens from Louisiana (Anna's X Calliope! and a possible Anna's X Selasphorus/Stellula). This is something to take into consideration if a particular bird just does not "fit" any one species. If you believe that you may have seen a hybrid, call for help!
NGS 3rd Edition provides a fair treatment of basic ID of the small hummingbirds. Advanced Birding (Kaufman1990) includes a helpful and more elaborate discussion of how to separate small North American hummers. In Vol. 12(4): 151-166 (1987), North American Bird Bander there is a detailed discussion of ID criteria, plumages and aging, presented in key format by William H. Baltosser (Age, Species, and Sex Determination of Four North American Hummingbirds). The key format is a little difficult to work through for field ID, but is, nonetheless, the recommended source. The journal is available at some university libraries. Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part 1 (Pyle et al. 1997) reiterates much of the same information in Baltosser (1987) in a more standard format, but its presentation is somewhat daunting. This book is available through American Birding Association (www.americanbirding.org).
Call notes are very helpful for species/genus identification, especially to the practiced ear. Recordings of hummingbird calls and songs (some species) are available on regional tapes or CDs (e.g., the Peterson field guide series).
No identification discussion is complete without at least a brief overview of molt. The species discussed herein all share a similar and rather simple molt strategy. The first true plumage is the Juvenal Plumage and there is only one adult plumage (Definitive Basic Plumage). Once a bird has obtained its Definitive Plumage, it looks the same year-round; its appearance is only slightly modified by wear or molt. In adult plumage, there is strong sexual plumage dimorphism. Most obviously, males are distinguished from females by iridescent gorgets (chin and throat area), or gorgets + crowns (Anna's and Costa's). Adult females generally lack (Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, Calliope) or have very reduced gorgets (Anna’s and Costa’s). Adults undergo a complete (Pre-basic) molt on the wintering grounds. There is no Alternate Plumage or "breeding plumage." In Juvenal Plumage, males and females resemble adult females. Juvenals undergo a complete molt during their first winter and attain First Basic Plumage, which is more or less like Adult Basic Plumage. Through the mid- fall and winter, immature males begin to add iridescent gorget feathers. The gorget is typically completed just prior to spring migration and is the last part of the plumage to be replaced.
Birds with wing molt can be observed from late fall through spring, depending on the bird's age. Adults typically molt earlier (often arrive in late fall with active or suspended wing molt), juvenals later (late winter-early spring). New primaries appear blacker than older, brown, worn-out primaries. When observing winter hummingbirds, note the condition of molt (Figure 5). If there is active molt, you should observe a gap between sections of new/growing feathers and old feathers. Primary molt may be arrested or molt progresses very slowly, so that there is no obvious indication of incoming feathers, just contrast between old and new feathers. It is easier to note the presence of molt on a perched individual. Although timing of molt is usually similar for birds of similar age, if you have or suspect multiple superficially similar individuals, then presence of molt may help you recognize specific individuals. Pattern of gorget feathers of immature males is also a helpful way to identify individuals, but only on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, as birds can change appearance rather quickly as new feathers emerge.
Helpful hints for species identification
Bring the hummingbirds to you!
Unlike many other hard-to-ID species groups, hummingbirds can be conveniently attracted to your home turf by setting up feeders or creating a hummingbird flower garden. With a certain amount of effort, almost anyone can attract hummingbirds to their yard, regardless of its size or location. Even a small apartment balcony decorated with potted plants and a feeder can occasionally attract hummingbirds (and vagrant hummingbirds, too). "Hummingbird" flowers are very attractive and many types are available in local nurseries; see Hummingbird Gardens: attracting Nature's Jewels to Your Backyard by Nancy L. Newfield and Barbara Nielson for a list of plants and landscape design ideas.
Viewing hummingbirds at feeders is often preferable to true field-viewing conditions because feeders can be strategically placed for superior (and leisurely) viewing opportunities. Hummingbirds will often take up at least temporary residence in the vicinity of a feeder, often tenaciously guarding it from all intruders. Once you have some sort of hummingbird attraction (even if it is only one feeder), pull up a chair and study the variation among individual birds. As noted in the introduction, non-Ruby-throated species occur primarily in the winter. So, if you have taken down your feeders, put them back up and see what you can attract (remember to keep the nectar fresh, even if you haven't seen a hummer lately). To help attract birds to your yard and feeders, especially in the aftermath of a hard freeze, festoon your yard with red bows, ribbons, or artificial flowers. Your neighbors will think that you have something to celebrate! In addition to an available food source (feeders), to potentially keep winter birds from wandering off to "better yards," provide important winter habitat, such as dense evergreen cover, vine tangles, or even weedy brush piles (the latter may be less popular with the neighbors).
Familiarize yourself with ID characters of hummingbirds
As with other hard-to-identify groups, it is much easier to pick out unusual species if you are thoroughly familiar with the commonest species.It cannot be overstated that you have to "know" your common birds. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are easily observed during migration and, depending on where you live in the state, also through the summer. Once you have become familiar with the common species, direct your attention to the other possibilities. Each winter there are at least modest numbers of some of the "rare" western species, especially Black-chinned, scattered among various Louisiana yards. Some yards host multiple species, and these situations provide critical opportunities to compare species, especially Black-chinned versus Ruby-throated. Homeowners often welcome visitors to their yards. Take the opportunity to visit and study these other species. Better yet, plan a trip next year to observe and study the other species on their breeding grounds.
Reinforce observations with photos or sketches
Photography is a helpful tool, as well as a valuable means to document an occurrence, and even identify a difficult-to-identify individual (=clear photo of primary detail). Either still photos or videos provide learning opportunities. A video camera, even in the hands of a beginner, can yield many productive hours of hummingbird (re)viewing long after the initial observation. We have been very impressed with birder's "hummingbird home videos. " A video camera is an excellent way to capture behaviors and vocalizations on tape. Those with an artistic streak can try sketching birds. Actually, a true artistic streak isn't necessary to capture a bird's details on paper, just careful observation. When sketching, you force yourself to study specific plumage and structural details that you may otherwise overlook. Note especially shape and position of the wings on a perched individual, the shape and distribution of color on the tail feathers, presence of molt, etc. For more ambitious artists, try to capture hummingbirds in flight or feeding in as many positions as possible.
Gallery of little green hummingbirds
Three genera are represented, Archilochus, Calypte, and Stellula. Males are recognized by gorget color and pattern. Females and immatures are very similar. The primaries of Calypte (and Stellula) are roughly of uniform width -- very different from Archilochus, which have 1-4 (inners) very narrow compared to the outer six (Figure 4). All of the species can be characterized by: 1) relatively small size; 2) solidly green back in all plumages; 3) underparts of female and immatures generally dull white, or light gray, with darker green, gray, or buff restricted to the sides; 4) very restricted or no rufous in the tail; 5) bill completely dark, or with just a hint of dull pink at extreme base; and 6) white post-ocular marking reduced to a small spot. Males are proportionately smaller and shorter-billed than females, overall sexual size dimorphism (especially bill length) being most pronounced in Archilochus and Stellula.
Plumage. Adult males should cause little confusion with other species. The combination of the black chin and orangish-red throat, green crown and short, black, forked tail separate it from all other species. There is some variation among individuals in overall darkness of the underparts ranging from sides lightly to heavily edged with green. The outer primaries are very narrow. The shape of the folded wing has an appearance similar to a steak knife (Figure 5). Adult females have essentially unmarked white throats (apparently, rarely a few iridescent red feathers) and are glistening green above (somewhat more golden on the upper back) and white below. The crown is usually green, but the forehead may be duller or brown. The face appears strongly masked, with dark extending from the bill to the eye and blending into the dark gray cheeks. Unlike the adult male, the female’s tail feathers are more rounded, the central pair are iridescent green above, the next pair are iridescent green with black tips, and the outer three pairs are green with gray bases and white tips. The tail forms a rounded "fork" (like a "W") when the bird is perched. The outer primaries are not as narrow as in adult males ( Figure 5); the individual feathers are more or less uniform in width throughout their length, which gives the folded wing an overall "thicker" look. Juvenal-plumaged Ruby-throateds are similar to adult females, but have buff-edged back and crown feathers. These edges wear away through fall. The sides and flanks have a slight to bright buffy wash. Bright, short-billed, buffy-flanked juvenal males may be mistaken for Calliope Hummingbird, but the folded wing tips do not extend past the tail when perched. Figure 4 illustrates a long-winged individual, on most birds the wing tips do not reach the tail tip. Juvenal males and females can be separated by throat pattern. Immature females have plain or lightly "stippled" throats, whereas the immature males are more darkly stippled, giving the appearance of a "five o’clock shadow." Immature males gradually add adult-type iridescent red-orange feathers during the fall and early winter. These feathers appear in a seemingly endless variety of patterns. The forehead of immatures, especially females, is often dull brown and contrasts with a greener top of head. Immature males average slightly narrower outer primaries than females; thus, immature males without gorget spots will be the easiest "female-plumaged" group to separate from female Black-chinneds based on wingtip shape. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds usually do not "pump" or "wag" their tails while in the act of drinking nectar while hovering (but be very cautious with the character, because they do pump their tails when maneuvering into feeding position; this character is useless if a bird is feeding while perched).
Voice. The typical call of the Ruby-throated is a soft "chup" or "tew," often doubled or tripled. Its attack call is a three note "EEK-ka-da". This call is usually tripled and uttered during chases. If you hear this call, you almost certainly have more than one hummingbird in attendance!
Plumage. Separation of Black-chinned from Ruby-throated, except for birds possessing colored gorget feathers is difficult. Many observers underestimate the difficulty of the problem, whereas others exaggerate the level of difficulty to "nearly impossible." The answer lies somewhere in between those extremes, but certainly it is not a trivial identification problem, and caution is advisable when dealing with Black-chinneds in the east or winter Ruby-throateds. Sex for sex, Black-chinneds are slightly larger and longer-billed, longer-winged than Ruby-throated, but measurements overlap, except for extreme individuals. These two species are separated in the hand by measurements of the primary tip (width of inner web of primary 10 within 5 mm of the tip) wing length, and wing shape. Under field conditions, overall size differences are usually not apparent, whereas proportional differences (head-bill; wing-tail length) and primary shape are more helpful. Adult male Black-chinneds are superficially similar in appearance to a male Ruby-throated, but the gorget is largely velvety black at all angles, with iridescent dark purple restricted to the lower gorget. Male Black-chinneds also have a longer bill and outer primaries are wider at the tip (do not come to a knife-like point) compared to the very slender outer feather of a male Ruby-throated. Immature males, like Ruby-throateds, gain adult gorget feathers during fall and winter, so that an immature male with any adult-colored gorget feathers can be easily distinguished. Beware of missing throat feathers, the gap and the surrounding exposed darker feather bases may look like black feathers. Adult and immature females are very challenging. The combination of a proportionately long, slightly curved bill, entirely dull brownish-gray crown (often extending down onto the nape), thick "paddle-shaped," curved outer primaries (see Figure 3), and vigorous "tail-pumping" behavior while in the act of drinking nectar are best distinguishing features when used in combination. Overall, Black-chinneds look drabber and duller-backed than Ruby-throateds. The most prominent feature on the face is the dark line extending from the bill to the eye and the darker cheeks form a mask, similar to that of Ruby-throated. The crown usually appears solidly gray-brown and the post-ocular spot disappears into a pale line bordering the somewhat darker cheeks. The back tends to be a more uniform green (sometimes gray-green depending on the extent of feather edgings), without a more golden-green upper back contrasting with a greener lower back (which is more typical of Ruby-throated). Note that female Ruby-throateds do not share the very narrow, pointed primaries of the adult male Ruby-throated and are thus more "Black-chinned-like" in appearance (contra 3rd Edition NGS; see Figures 3 and 5). There is variation among individuals and an individual's perched posture may influence the width of the wing (e.g., if the primaries are held slightly open it will give the folded wing a wider appearance). Female Ruby-throateds can appear relatively wide-winged, but lack the bulbous tip created by the more paddle-shaped 10th primary of Black-chinned. The bulbous tip is most prominent on immature females. Black-chinneds tend to show a more exaggerated curve at the primary tip, lacking on Ruby-throateds that have a more even curve throughout the length of the folded primary. It is possible that some individuals (e.g., immature male Black-chinned without gorget feathers versus immature female Ruby-throateds) may not be safely identified in the field based on plumage alone.
Voice. The call note of the Black-chinned is virtually indistinguishable from the Ruby-throated, a "chup", "tew," or "chi-chup." We will not attempt to distinguish them here. Suffice it to say that you may be able to learn and distinguish the calls between individual Ruby-throateds and Black-chinneds wintering at the same spot, but the differences are subtle at best. Black-chinneds also utter the "EEK-ka-da" attack call.
Plumage. The overall small size, short bill, and magenta-streaked gorget make adult male Calliope Hummingbirds unmistakable. Juvenal-plumaged male and all females Calliopes lack the gorget, and instead have a very pale throat patterned with fine stippling. During fall, immature males may add a few adult-type gorget feathers. Calliopes are generally duller, less green than Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, but the most obvious difference is when the bird is perched. Calliopes have proportionately long and curving wings that extend well past the proportionately short tail. The wings often appear paler brown than Ruby-throateds. Calliopes lack the "masked" look of the other species; instead, the area in front of the eye is pale with an isolated dark spot, and there is also a whitish area under the eye. This makes the facial area look "blank," and produces a "big-eyed" illusion. Like a Ruby-throated, there is a small white post-ocular spot. The crown is usually green to the bill. Fall Calliopes (typically) have bright buffy sides extending from the bend of the wing to the flanks, occasionally connecting in a subtle band across the breast. The buffy flanks may suggest a Selasphorus species, but Calliopes have a very limited amount of rust in the tail feathers. Calliopes never have rust on the back, orange colored gorget feathers, or rust in the interior of any of the rectrices. The green central two rectrices are prominently dark-tipped (Figure 4). Like Ruby-throateds, Calliopes usually hold their tail stationary when feeding.
Voice. Call notes are very different from Archilochus. The typical call is a "stip "or "tseep" given singly or repeated in short bursts, and can be quite loud (for such a small bird). The call notes may be your first indication that a Calliope has taken up residence.
Plumage. Anna’s is the largest of the "small-hummingbirds." It is generally bulkier and longer-tailed (wings fall far short of the tip when perched) than Ruby-throated. Adult males are unmistakable with their rosy-red gorget and crown. Females and immatures usually have smaller iridescent rosy-red patches on the throat/crown, which assist in identification. Individuals lacking color on the gorget/crown can be confused with the other species. Some dark green-centered throat feathers are usually present (Figure 2). The underparts are dingy grayish-white (dingier than Black-chinned). Males (more prominently) and females have green sides, giving them a distinctive "vested" appearance compared with the cleaner whitish underparts of Archilochus. The outer pair of rectrices (R5s) are broad and Anna’ look very proportionately large-tailed. Anna's generally do not wag their tail during feeding; instead, the tail is usually held in line with the body.
Voice. The principal call note is a loud "teep." Males have a true song (if you can call it that); no other species has anything quite like it.
Plumage. Costa’s Hummingbird is a small hummingbird, intermediate in size between Ruby-throated and Calliope. The adult male Costa’s is unmistakable with an iridescent violet crown and gorget. The gorget, exaggerated by long feathers at the side of the throat, is bordered below by white contrasting with green sides. Adult females and immatures are less distinctive and easily confused with the other species. Adult females and immature males may possess a few, or a patch, of violet feathers on the throat (or crown). Presence of violet upper throat or crown feathers and lack of rufous in the tail feathers eliminates all other species. Black-chinned males share presence of violet feathers in the lower throat. Those female and immature Costa’s lacking violet feathers are more similar to Archilochus and Calliope than to Anna’s. The underparts usually appear very white, much like Ruby-throated (and somewhat like Black-chinned), but the small size and long wings (folded wings extend beyond the tip of the tail) make Costa’s more structurally similar to Calliope. Costa’s usually lack buff on the sides, typical of fall/winter Calliopes. Costa's does not have the fine stippling pattern on the throat, also characteristic of Calliope. Face pattern of Costa's is more Archilochus-like (though the "mask" effect is not as prominent), unlike the "blank" face of Calliope. The shape of the primaries of the folded wing is less broad and curved, somewhat more reminiscent of a Ruby-throated. Like Calliope, the tail is relatively short, and, unlike Ruby-throated, appears barely rounded. The outer pair of rectrices (R5s) appear narrow compared to those of Archilochus, and especially compared to Anna’s. Costa’s, like Black-chinned, is reported to pump its tail while in the act of drinking nectar while hovering.
Voice is an important identification feature of this species. The metallic "tink" notes are unlike any of the above species, and will likely be your first clue to the presence of a Costa’s. Costa’s frequently call between bouts of feeding. The "tink" can be delivered singly or in rapid fire. The "song" of the male is a metallic, single; "zing" delivered in flight or from a perch.
Call or email for help!
If you see, or suspect that you have seen, a rare hummingbird at any time of year, or if you have any hummingbirds lingering in your yard during the late fall or winter, then you can report your find and/or seek identification help from a number of sources: Nancy Newfield (504-835-7231; email:email@example.com; hummingbird bander); or Laurence C. Binford (225-274-1889) and Miriam Davey (225-291-4867) in the Baton Rouge area; or Dave Patton (318/337-232-8410; email:firstname.lastname@example.org; hummingbird bander) in the Lafayette area.
Tom Sylvest is compiling records of winter hummingbirds during winter 1999-2000. Let him know what’s visiting your feeders (email:email@example.com).
Details of LBRC Review List species should be submitted to: Secretary, LBRC, 119 Foster Hall, Museum of Natural Science, LSU, Baton Rouge, 70803.
Donna L. Dittmann & Steven W. Cardiff
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