The excellent photo above (and some of those below) was taken by Bruce Glick on December 11, 2009. Remember to click on any photo you want to see larger. When Bruce told me about this bird, which had been coming since late September to the feeder of Mae Miller in southeastern Walnut Creek Township, Holmes County, Ohio, I had presumed it was an immature male Rufous Hummingbird as there have been more than 40 of them in Ohio over the past 30 years or so. I have been banding these birds in Ohio since 2001, and so I made my way through Amish country, probably seeing more buggies on this trip than on most, to her home in an area of Ohio known as "little Switzerland," not for the scenery but for the prevalence of Swiss immigrants in the area.
When my wife, Nancy, and I arrived just before 9 a.m., Mae excitedly told us that the bird was there right then, and indeed he was perched on the hook holding her hummingbird feeder. Soon, Bruce Glick and Ed Schlabach arrived, and after having a few more looks at this bird with a lot of rufous on the rump and tail, I was ready to set up my trap.
The feeder was fairly high up on a hook, and I had to be happy with putting my trap a couple feet lower so that I could easily and quickly get the bird out once it was trapped. It took about 15 minutes for him to figure out how to get in to the trap, and once he was in-hand, and indoors, I gave him a quick drink of sugar water which he greedily accepted. It was soon apparent that the reason he looked so rufous was that he had some adult-type tail feathers despite lacking a complete orange-red gorget of an adult.
His tail did not look at all like what I was expecting for a Rufous Hummingbird, but was instead comprised of 8 tail feathers, of which 7 were very pointy and 1 that was very narrow with a white tip. The incomplete gorget and this one tail feather indicated that he was a hatch-year (immature) bird, while the adult male-type tail feathers clearly indicated he was male.
At this point, I was sure he was an Allen's Hummingbird, a species that had never been recorded in Ohio before! But, I had to prove it; in order to be accepted into the ornithological record the details of this bird would have to be thoroughly documented and accepted after review by the Ohio Bird Records Committee (a more thorough report than is provided here will be sent for their consideration).
I set about taking the necessary measurements, most of which involved the tail feathers (the scientific lingo for these feathers is rectrices, or the singular rectrix). The reference that hummingbird banders use to identify Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds was written by F. Gary Stiles in 1972. Mr. Stiles is probably best known for co-authoring A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica with Alexander Skutch in 1989. Over the years since 1972, his hummingbird ID criteria have proven to be extremely useful and accurate, and nobody has been able to improve upon them.
Both outer rectrices (designated r5 in the three photos below - click on the photos for a larger view) were very narrow and pointy. The width of the white-tipped immature r5 was measured as 1.81 mm. Stiles gives the range of this feather for immature male Rufous Hummingbirds as 2.7-3.6 mm and for immature male Allen's Hummingbird as 1.7-2.6 mm. Score one diagnostic point for Allen's! The width of the adult-type r5 was measured as 1.17 mm. The width of the adult-type r5 was measured as 1.17 mm. Stiles does not provide measurements for this feather for adult males, but another reference (McKenzie and Robbins 1999) does, with a sample size of 28 adult male Allen’s and 123 adult male Rufous. Their range for adult male r5 width for Rufous Hummingbirds is 2.35-2.93 mm and for Allen's Hummingbird as 1.50-1.90 mm. Score another diagnostic point for Allen's!
To be thorough, two other tail feathers needed to be assessed. The width of the central tail feather (usually designated as r1) is diagnostic between these two species. But the problem was that our bird only had 8 tail feathers, and it was difficult with the bird in-hand to figure out which ones were missing. The measurement of the innermost tail feathers on this bird was 5.84 mm, which is apparently too narrow for them to be the central ones for either species according to the expert opinion of my friend, Nancy Newfield. And the asymmetrical pattern of black on these feathers may provide additonal support that these feathers are really the second (r2) feathers. Another expert and friend, Bob Sargent, also feels that these innermost feathers are r2 and not r1. Among adult male Rufous Hummingbirds, this second rectrix (r2) is the most diagnostic of any tail feathers as it is very pinched in at the tip, and almost always also has a "notch" that is almost like a bit has been taken out of it. This is shown well in my photo below of an adult male Rufous Hummingbird banded a few years ago, also in Ohio.
But the Holmes County bird's second rectrix definitely did not have any such notch (compare this with the photos above), and so is a third diagnostic point in favor of it being an Allen's! Although the widths of both r5 tail feathers were diagnostic by themselves for Allen's, I wanted to be 100% sure of the situation with r1 and r2 on this bird, which required that I drive 228 miles back home and check this out more thoroughly. The resulting posting to the Ohio Birds chat group announcing the presence of this bird, and that the identification of the bird was "probable" when I left that morning, caused consternation among some in the Ohio birding community, but I'd rather take my time and be 100% sure than be quick but wrong.
After taking the bird outside to take most of the photos above to confirm plumage and feather shapes, I placed the bird in Mae's hand to release him. After sitting there for a few seconds, he blasted off into the backyard at full speed, uttering a sweet "chip chip" call. He was back at his feeder within 15 minutes, and continued to visit the feeder the remainder of the day. And I was finally able to enjoy the marvelous coffee cake that Mae had baked, and generously offered, to those of us involved in this amazing event!
As of this morning (December 15), Mae has had more than 350 people sign her guest book, and nearly everyone has had excellent and repeated views of his special bird.
Amazingly, another Allen's Hummingbird, an adult female, was banded by my friend Scott Weidensaul in the Amish Country of Pennsylvania only 290 miles due east, the day after I banded this one. Read the story of his adventures, many remarkably similar to mine, on his blog at: http://ofafeather.blogspot.com/
I would like to thank Bruce Glick for bringing this bird to my attention, for getting me in touch with Mae, and for allowing me to use some of his photos here. I would also like to thank Mae Miller for allowing us to come to her home to band this very special bird, and for giving permission to post photos of her on my blog.
There are a number of misconceptions about the banding of these birds, and I'd like to address some of them here.
One point that is often raised is that there is no value in banding these birds just to identify them. I agree completely! And the Bird Banding Lab (BBL) agrees too. The BBL, run by the U.S. Geological Survey, does not give out permits to someone merely for the purpose of identifying birds. Applicants must have a valid research plan, as well as demonstrate an ability to safely band the birds, and have other scientists and banders vouch for their claims. When I work hard to distinguish Willow and Alder Flycatchers from each other in-hand, the identification is not my purpose, but instead is a necessary first step, which is the same with these hummingbirds. My research plan for hummingbirds includes studying the age and sex classes that occur in each region, as well as studying their molt patterns, which are not well known. None of this data may be of interest to the general public, but eventually finds its way into scientific papers that are published after sufficient data has been collected, and statistically sound conclusions can be made. The identification of these hummingbirds is the only piece of data that tends to interest the general birder, and of course provides valuable information to state records committees wishing to document the avifaunas of their states. But identification is one piece of data, it is never an end in itself.
Another point sometimes brought up is that there is little we can learn by banding "rare birds" that are "off course" or "lost". Other than the data provided by examining the bird in-hand, including its molt condition, weight, and fat deposits, it has become quite clear in recent years (at least to banders, if not to birders) that these western hummingbirds occur quite regularly in the east, especially Rufous Hummingbird. Nearly every eastern state has at least one Rufous Hummingbird every fall now; far too many birds for them to be simply lost. And for many years there has been a peripheral wintering population of Rufous (and other) Hummingbirds in the Gulf States, and banding studies are beginning to paint a picture that these "lost" birds in the east are actually on a regular migration route. One immature male Rufous Hummingbird banded in Zanesville, Ohio returned (and was recaptured) the following winter at the same home as an adult male, and the year after that an adult male (probably the same one) was seen briefly at the same home in October. Lost? I wish I could navigate that well!
Some say that these birds will never be refound again, so why bother? Well, out of 4500+ Ruby-throated Hummingbirds I have banded since 2000, two of them have been found away from their banding sites. But out of nearly 60 Rufous Hummingbirds I've handled, one was recaptured in Louisiana in January after departing Indiana the previous September, and four of them were already wearing bands! One Rufous captured in Ohio had been banded the winter before in Georgia, while another captured in Ohio had been banded previously in South Carolina! Another Rufous captured in Michigan had been banded the winter before in Louisiana and another Michigan bird had been banded the winter before in North Carolina. So much for never being found again!
There is much we still don't know about these amazing little birds. And I hope to continue doing my part to try to unravel their secrets.
McKenzie, P.M. and M.B. Robbins. 1999. Identification of adult male Rufous and Allen’s hummingbirds, with specific comments on dorsal coloration. Western Birds 30: 86-93.
Stiles, F.G. 1972. Age and Sex Determination in Rufous and Allen Hummingbirds. The Condor 74: 25-32.