On a cold, windy morning in December, in the North Carolina Piedmont, with the temperature holding at 24 F., a tiny hummingbird hovers over a nectar feeder. Even at 24 degrees, the nectar in the feeder is not completely frozen, so the hummingbird settles on the feeder and begins to drink an icy morning breakfast of nectar slush. This tiny visitor is a Rufous Hummingbird, a cold-hardy Western species that wanders in small numbers into North Carolina every winter. In its normal range, it can nest as far north as southern Alaska, and overwinters in Mexico. But the Rufous has a propensity for wandering far from its normal route, and isolated individuals can be found during winter all through the Southeastern United States, especially along the Gulf Coast. In North Carolina, they tend to visit the Piedmont rather than the coast, perhaps due to the larger number of nectar feeders available in the more populous areas. The Rufous Hummingbirds visiting North Carolina tend to be juveniles or adult females. Pictured below is an adult female Rufous Hummingbird, the bird described in the earlier narrative.
Rufous Hummingbirds are sometimes referred to by their Genus name: Selasphorus. This is because the extremely rare Allen’s Hummingbird, also a Western species in the Genus Selasphorus, has been seen (3 records) in North Carolina. The two are virtually indistinguishable except as adult males, so in an abundance of caution, females and juveniles of both species can be simply called Selasphorus Hummingbirds. However, many observers are persuaded by mathematical probability, and stick with Rufous Hummingbird.
Below is the adult female Rufous Hummingbird showing the patch on the throat below the bill. Depending on the light angles, the patch either appears black or an iridescent orange or red. This, along with the rufous sides, helps to identify the species.
Survival of the Rufous Hummingbird is greatly enhanced by winter nectar feeders. Maintaining a nectar feeder over the winter is surprisingly easy; in many respects, easier than in the summer. The cold temperatures inhibit the ants and yellow jackets, and keep the sugar solution from spoiling. The sugar in the water also delays freezing until temperatures are into the mid to high twenties F.
For more information about Rufous Hummingbirds, see the Birds of North Carolina website: http://ncbirds.carolinabirdclub.org/view.php?species_id=352
and about winter hummingbirds: http://naturalsciences.org/research-collections/hummingbird/nc-hummers