By Barb Elliot
Yes, you read that right. It’s been a record-setting fall and winter for hummingbirds in Pennsylvania. According to hummingbird bander and expert Scott Weidensaul, as of February 22nd, 92 hummingbirds have been reported in PA since last fall. Five or six are still present, including a few in southeastern PA. These visitors are not the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that visit our feeders and breed here during summer. They were gone by early October. These are vagrants, species that breed in the Pacific northwest, northern Rocky Mountains, or Alaska, and normally migrate to Mexico in fall. Some of them fly east for reasons not yet understood. Though this is not a new phenomenon, the number of reports for this fall and winter has been extraordinary. Are these numbers the beginning of a trend or just an aberration? Weidensaul and other ornithologists don’t know.
Whatever the reason, it’s been an exciting time for birders and hummingbird enthusiasts! I was
privileged to see two of these birds. One was a tiny, pot-bellied Calliope Hummingbird that spent several weeks during October and November in a yard in Devon, Chester County — just
the second one ever recorded in PA. At about two-thirds the size of the familiar eastern Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the Calliope is the smallest bird species in the U.S. and the
smallest long-distance avian migrant in the world.
Another that I got to see was a beautiful immature male Allen’s Hummingbird that visited a feeder at a home in Pipersville, Bucks County from November through early January. This bird was only the third Allen’s ever recorded in the state.
Other western species to visit PA have been Rufous Hummingbird, the most common and numerous western visitors to the east, and a single Black-chinned Hummingbird — the very first record of this species in PA. This bird was seen briefly on just one day, but the Bucks County homeowner’s clear photos allowed experts to verify the record. Most western hummingbirds that fly east in the fall head south to the Gulf region by early January. As of this writing, however, two Rufous Hummingbirds linger in
Montgomery County and one in Chester County. All three birds first appeared at residents’ feeders in October and have stayed through the winter.
How do these birds endure PA’s cold winter temperatures? At night, they enter a
deep sleep-like state called torpor, in which they lower their body temperature and slow their metabolic rate by as much as 50%. This allows them to conserve energy and
survive with enough remaining to fuel their first few feeding trips of the morning.
It’s too late to attract a western hummer this winter, but perhaps you’d like to try next fall. According to Weidensaul, in addition to keeping hummingbird feeders up well into autumn, many successful hummingbird hosts have late-blooming fall plants. There are several native plants that bloom until frost, but some homeowners also use non-native Salvia species, planted either in pots or in the ground. I recommend that you confine non-natives to containers and reserve in-ground space for natives. After all, natives contribute more fully to our local web-of-life. Also, if your non-natives are in pots, you can move them inside or into your garage if overnight freezing temperatures are forecast. The table below has some recommended late fall blooming natives as well as some non-natives that host western hummingbirds.
Though hummingbirds feed from any color flower, they are attracted to the colorred. To catch the eye of a passing hummingbird, some homeowners put out red ribbon, surveyors tape, or other red objects.
The homeowner who attracted the Allen’s Hummingbird in Bucks County had made a two- to three-foot red “flower” of felt material and placed it on the ground near her feeder. I thought this was a great idea and made one for my yard.
If you are lucky enough to host a western hummingbird, it’s important to keep your feeder’s sugar water from freezing so the bird can eat first thing in the morning. Some homeowners erect a heat lamp near the feeder or wrap electrical wire around it. Others use two feeders, leaving one up overnight and just before dawn trading it for one kept in the house overnight.
If you host one of these rarities you can contribute to scientific knowledge. You should
have your hummingbird banded. The bander will record the bird’s location and
determine its species and age. If the bird is re-captured or found in another location, it yields very valuable information about its migratory patterns. Hummingbird banders are certified experts who trap, examine, and band these tiny creatures without harming them. Any hummingbird seen in PA after October 15th is likely a western rarity. Report it to the local Audubon Society or bird club so they can contact a bander. If possible, take some good photos of the bird as these can help with identification.
Leaving feeders up into fall won’t prevent hummingbirds from migrating. They know when to move on. Your fall feeder may help the survival of late-migrating Ruby-throats or western hummers venturing east from the usual migration routes.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will begin returning to our area in late April and early May. I will be putting my feeders out by mid-April so I don’t miss any that might be flying over my neighborhood. Since hummingbirds are known to return to the same yards, I’m hoping for some of my “regulars”. I’ll also hang some red ribbon near the feeders and place my new felt “flower” out on the ground. I’ll watch my first-of-the-season native hummingbird plant, Wild Columbine. Other native plants in my yard will host the tiny insects that hummingbirds eat and feed their young. Then, come fall, I’ll be sure to keep my feeders out in the hope that a passing rare western visitor will come to grace my yard for a brief, but wondrous time.
Native Fall Hummingbird Plants
|Bloom Color & Period
|Spikes of white flowers; late summer and fall
|Part shade to shade, moist soil; may bloom even after first frost
|Gold/orange flowers; July to October
|Part shade to shade, moist soil; an annual that re-seeds
|Red/orange flowers; Late spring to fall
|Sun, dry to average soil; well-behaved vine; needs a trellis or other support; may bloom after first frost
Non-Native Fall Hummingbird Plants (plant in containers)
|Red; other colors, e.g., salmon, pink, white; summer to frost
|Readily available; easy to grow; native to U.S. coastal states from South Carolina to Texas
|Red flowers; September to heavy frost
|Sun; well-drained soil; native to Mexico & Guatemala; many think this is the best Salvia for late hummers
|Black and Blue Sage
|Cobalt blue flowers in black calyx; summer to fall
|Full sun to light shade; native to Brazil, Paraguay & Argentina
|Red flowers; late summer to early fall
|Native to Mexico
|Tropical Salvia/ Scarlet Sage
|Red flowers; summer to frost
|Full sun to part shade, average, evenly moist soil; native to Brazil