Feb 1, 2016 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2016

A Surprise Winter Visitor

After being weighed, measured, and banded, the hummingbird rests in the author's hand. After this picture was taken, it flew off to a nearby tree.
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Living at Lake Oconee, about 80 miles east of Atlanta, Georgia, affords us the opportunity to see ruby-throated hummingbirds from late March through early September. With five nectar feeders going continuously, we would easily have 15 to 20 birds feeding in our yard and on our porch at any given time! Usually by September, the numbers quickly dwindle until only one or two hummingbirds appear each day.

For years I have kept a feeder up long after the hummingbirds leave with the hope of attracting a winter hummingbird. My husband and I continued that practice during the fall of 2013. In late October we noticed a single bird that I thought at first was an immature ruby-throated visiting our feeder each day. But before long I realized it was not a ruby-throated—it was a female rufous hummingbird, a rare visitor to this area during winter months. She visited our feeder daily.

In early January, we had an unbelievably cold snap, with temperatures dropping to single digits. Our nectar feeders began to freeze and we feared that our female rufous might freeze, too. Or leave.

We added two additional feeders. My husband would put a frozen feeder in front of a heater, thaw it out, and continually swap out the feeders. Anytime she visited she would find fresh, thawed nectar. It worked, and our little bird continued her visits.

She showed typical rufous behavior of dive-bombing any goldfinch or chipping sparrow that approached her feeder too closely!

A hummingbird bander visited, trapped her briefly, and determined that she was an after-hatch-year bird, and not a recent fledgling. Despite the trauma of being weighed and measured, she was completely calm as she sat on my hand. My husband had to blow softly on her body to get her to fly away. She flew to her favorite tree, and within fifteen minutes she was back eating at the feeder.

Not only did she survive the January cold snap, but she stayed with us until April 1! My first ruby-throated hummer of the year arrived around March 21, and they actually were sometimes on the porch at the same time. The two hummingbird species never seemed to share the same feeder, though!

When she left, we never saw her again, although we continue to keep nectar feeders out and fresh well into autumn. Maybe someday. She made a dreary and cold winter much more fun for my husband and me.

About Jeane Pirkle

Jeane Pirkle and her husband Jim enjoy traveling to bird festivals, but also enjoy feeding and watching birds on their back porch overlooking Lake Oconee, Georgia.


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  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021