The story below is an excerpt from our January/February 2017 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
A few decades ago, an occasional but startling phenomenon began to surface when, here and there, a hummingbird was spotted in a Blue Ridge state long after the first frost.
“It started off light with a little bit of realization that the hummingbirds were turning up in the Southeast in the winter, usually coming to people’s beautiful flowers that they put out and/or coming to their hummingbird feeders that they left up,” says Marshall Iliff, eBird project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Which came first is a little bit hard to know. Maybe people saw that there was a hummingbird at their flowers and then put up a feeder for it, and then that bird and other birds were able to find it. But the end result is that through plantings and hummingbird feeders, hummingbirds now have food resources in the Southeast that they never did before.”
In cold-weather months, Southern Appalachian residents are more likely to see a Rufous—“the poster child of the Southeastern wintering hummingbird colonization,” which previously migrated almost exclusively from its breeding ground in the western U.S. to the mountains of western Mexico—than a native ruby-throat. In the Blue Ridge area, it’s rare to see a ruby-throated hummingbird after October 15; by that time, most of the tiny, green-backed birds have already flown across the Gulf of Mexico to their winter homes in Central America, with a few stragglers staying behind in Florida and along the Carolina coast. But the hardy Rufous, with its iridescent orange neck that appears to glow in sunlight, is still on the move. Other species spotted in the Blue Ridge states, though not frequently, include the Black-chinned, Calliope, Allen’s, Broad-tailed, and Anna’s, with a few “super rarities” like the Green-breasted Mango, Buff-bellied and at least one Magnificent recorded in Virginia.