Winter Hummingbirds

Cover Photo: Rufous Hummingbird from the Surfbirds galleries © Clara Coen

By Marshall Iliff

Late season hummingbirds are VERY likely to be a rare western species. Anyone hoping to attract these additional species would be well-advised to keep their hummingbird feeders up through EARLY DECEMBER.

This is an alert to pay attention to ALL hummingbirds from here on out. Each year, I see several reports (usually to the Voice of the Naturalist) of late-season hummingbirds which are almost certainly some western species.

Late season hummingbirds are VERY likely to be a rare western species. Over the years Rufous has proven most common, but there are also eastern records (nearly all from late fall or winter) of Black-chinned (MA, NS, NJ), Anna's (NY), Allen's (MA, VA, DE, GA), Broad-tailed (DE), Calliope (NJ, NC, GA), Blue-throated (NC), and even Green Violet-Ear (NC, VA). Anyone hoping to attract these additional species would be well-advised to keep their hummingbird feeders up through EARLY DECEMBER.

Maryland now has over 20 records of hummingbirds in the genus Selasphorus (which includes Rufous, Allen's, and Broad-tailed), of which at least 8 have been confirmed as Rufous. Aside from a July record from this year (Frederick County) and two around 17 Aug, almost all have come in the late fall. The earliest arrivals have been a 12 Sep Rufous banded (and collected) in Ocean City and a Rufous that arrived in Carroll County late last September. Most however, appear between 15 Oct-25 Nov. I now consider Rufous Hummingbird to be ANNUAL and expect one-four reports per year, now that birders are attuned to the possibilities and more people keep their feeders up late.

Furthermore, records of Selasphorus hummingbirds are increasing every year. Below I list the number of MD records of Rufous or Selasphorus hummingbird records by year:

Number of Records by month (date of first arrival):

Many of the October and November records, and one of the September records, have lingered long at the same feeder. At least three have lasted into January, and one successfully wintered in Takoma Park in 1988, lasting until 4/17/89!


Birders hoping to attract any of these late season hummingbirds should get their feeders up NOW, and not take them down until mid-December.

A few tips:

Once you have a hummingbird, we can point you towards other resources to help the bird survive its stay most comfortably. Here are some you may find helpful: - Feeding winter hummers (scroll down page)

In particular, Rufous Hummingbirds, which arrive on their breeding grounds in Alaska at times before the ice breaks, are particularly well adapted to cold weather.


Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in Maryland typically depart by early October. The Yellow Book (Field List of the Birds of Maryland by Iliff, Ringler, and Stasz 1996) shows a dashed line into early November, and late dates in mid November and 3 Dec. However, several of these hummingbirds were not conclusively identified as Ruby-throated. Massachusetts has a record of Black-chinned from 25 Nov-11 Dec, another Black-chinned was in Cape May 10-15 Nov 1996, and yet another was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 15-23 Nov 1988.

Of the rarer species, Allen's has appeared in late August and November. Anna's have been found from mid-October to late November. Broad-tailed in November-December. The Broad-billed Hummingbird in NS appeared in late September while the SC one was in July. Both Green Violet-Ears have been in late October.


Selasphorus hummingbirds are easily recognized by the bright orangeish or cinnamon wash on the flanks, which is also shared by the smaller Calliope Hummingbird. A flash of Rufous in the tail is also diagnostic for Selasphorus/Calliope hummingbirds. Call notes are quick different from the full sounding that we hear at our feeders all summer from Ruby-throateds. Adult males of all species are distinctive and well covered in field guides (although adult male Allen's are not separable from variant Rufous). Female and immature Selasphorus are so difficult to identify that close-up video and or photography, or in-hand measurements, would be necessary to confirm species identification.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are even harder to separate from female Black-chinned, and in-hand measurements are the best way to confirm species identification. Female Black-chinneds do differ from Ruby-throateds in bill length and details of the primary feather shape, which could potentially be assessed from close-up video or photography. Van Remsen (in Lousiana) believes that any Ruby-throated/Black-chinned that wags its tail WHILE FEEDING is sure to be a Black-chinned. Ruby-throateds flick and wag their tail while hovering near the feeder, but when their bill is in the feeder, their tail little more than quivers. As far as I have seen in the past year, that has held true.

Violet-Ears and Blue-throateds are VASTLY larger than Ruby-throated, as is Magnificent Hummingbird, another potential vagrant that has yet to be recorded.

Birders hosting rare western hummingbirds should consider having their hummingbird banded for species identification and to contribute to our body of knowledge on their movements. A fair number of hummingbirds ARE recovered. Note that one in Vienna, VA, last year disappeared late in the season and moved 15 mi southwest. We know this only because of the banding efforts. Others in Lousiana and the Gulf Coast are known to return to the same feeder year after year and the amount of fascinating information the banders down there generate is incredible. The danger to the bird is minute and the information to be gained is excellent.

If you host a late-season hummingbird and do not wish to have it banded, it would be good to at least allow some photographers to view the bird to try to confirm the species. Those interested in the details of species identification should consult Peter Pyle's 1997 Identification Guide to North American Birds - Part I, a banders manual that covers the details of hummingbird identification and steers birders towards more detailed articles in the reference section.


In the past couple days I have hung three feeders (cheapies from Wal-Mart) in the Ocean City area, which I plan to monitor regularly. I may try blazing a trail of red into them. If you'll be in the area I can let you know where the feeders are so you can help check them.

Others should hang their feeders if they are interested in hosting these little vagrant hummingbirds. These birds occur in the east far more commonly than most people realize. In 1996, Jim Stasz hung his feeder in late October and had a Rufous Hummingbird within a couple weeks. At Sam Pancake's well-planted yard in Takoma Park, Montgomery County, Selasphorus hummingbirds have now appeared at least twice (different birds - one was banded!). Jim Dowdell's plantings in Cape May have been similarly REPEATEDLY attractive to rare hummingbirds. In Louisiana Rufous Hummingbird used to be a vagrant but winter hummingbird gardens have now produced a regular wintering populationthat seems to be surviving well and expanding in numbers!

We still have a lot to learn about how and why these hummingbirds are getting here, where they go from here, and what their survivorship is. Some might fear that leaving their feeders up might induce hummingbirds to stay later than they should, but this isn't really the case. For starters, almost all Ruby-throateds are gone by now anyway. Second, if a Rufous successfully winters at a feeder, it has saved a long and perilous migration where there is no certainty of finding another good food source. Third, these birds arrived here of their own power and/or volition. They will leave for better climes if they feel it is necessary. Winter are hard on birds, even "winter birds", but remember that so is migration. It is a trade-off for birds whether to risk a cold winter in order to outweigh the dangers of a long migration.

A popular but (in my opinion) misguided practice recently is taking these hummingbirds into captivity and shipping them off to California or somewhere. Among other things, the individual almost certainly did not come from CA, TX, or wherever else it was sent. Second, we don't know enough about bird navigational systems to know if we would even be doing this bird a favor. If the hummingbird had correctly navigated to the East Coast from breeding areas in the Pacific Northwest, it would plan on returning Northwest. Would a Rufous Hummingbird air-shipped to CA still fly Northwest in migration? If so, we have delivered a death sentence more grave than any Northeast winter (which hummingbirds have survived).

Put out those feeders if you wish and you may well be rewarded with a rare western visitor! Let us know if you are so lucky!!!