Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Violet-crowned Hummingbirds

On the day before Thanksgiving, this gorgeous fellow appeared in our yard here in the Campus Farm Neighborhood of north-central Tucson. It's a Violet-crowned Hummingbird, one of the rarest of hummingbirds known to breed in the United States. That small population occurs along Sonoita Creek and associated drainages near Patagonia, Arizona and in Guadalupe Canyon, which crosses only a couple miles of the southeastern corner of Arizona 30 miles east of Douglas as it flows from New Mexico into Sonora. A much more common bird farther south into western Mexico, our population is rather isolated and is predominantly migratory, retreating into Mexico during the colder months. There are a few winter records from Patagonia, and most winters there are a few found wintering in Portal, Hereford or Bisbee. There have been more reported in recent years, with as many as 15 individuals scattered at feeders across the southern border area. But one as far north as Tucson is quite unexpected at any time of year.

Then the next day, Thanksgiving morning, this one showed up at a feeder on the opposite end of the yard. He looks mostly the same, but note the pinfeather on his forehead. I took these photos within a few minutes of each other. And though hummingbirds do fly very fast, I went back and forth to the feeders at opposite ends of the yard quickly, and each bird was always next to his feeder. I was amazed. Both appear to be males, showing a very rich, purple crown and singing their scratchy little song. I posted a recording of this bird on the Xeno-Canto website here.

It's now a week since the first bird appeared, and both are still here, occupying the same feeders. It's looking like they have found their winter territories and may end up staying all winter. It's interesting to note their differing personalities. The first one is rather shy and will start calling and flying around the yard, perching near other feeders and hiding in bushes when you are no closer than about 10 yards from his favorite feeder and bush. The second one likes to sit tight on a twig close to his feeder, and I've been able to stick my face within about 2 feet of his before he begins to shift perches and call. Sometimes he sits higher in the big eucalyptus to sing.

The history of Violet-crowned Hummingbird records in Tucson in recent years is interesting. There has been a single bird recorded on the local Christmas Bird Count for several years at the same foothills feeder since December 1996. It has been missed on count day some years, but it's generally believed that this is the same individual returning every year, since it's always one bird and always at the same feeders. It was seen last year too, so that would make it 12 years old if that were the case – which would be close to a longevity record for hummingbirds.

I had one here for two days in late January, 2003, at the time one of the most unexpected birds I had seen in the yard. The next time I saw one here was early February, 2008, and it stayed for about a week. Interestingly, Michael Bissontz had had one in his yard just three days earlier. He lives about a mile north of here, and he never saw his bird again. Then again last winter, Michael reported a Violet-crown at his feeder on December 31 in the morning; by that afternoon there was one at my feeder too. Michael never saw his again, but the one in my yard stayed a whole month. I began to think that the bird he saw at his feeder – both last winter and the winter before – were the same as mine. Then it occurred to me that these sightings may all refer to the same individual roaming around the Tucson area each winter. Bobby Lambert, who is the one in charge of finding the one on the Christmas Bird Count each year (it's a very private yard with no public access) did determine that while I had one in my yard last January, the one she had had on the Christmas Bird Count was not there any longer.

But with two birds in my yard at once, we now know that it's possible that multiple birds may have been responsible for the several records from Tucson over the years. But we'll never know how many there really have been.

Incidentally, the probable hybrid Costa's X Black-chinned Hummingbird is still in my yard each day. She doesn't "own" any of the feeders though, quickly taking a drink from any of a number of feeders (except for the ones that are strongly defended by the Violet-crowns and a few Anna's). She can usually be found resting in the bushes on the south-central side of the property or in the neighbor's yard, sitting low and chipping.

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