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Hummingbirds are making their way back

A rare sight: This female rufous hummingbird spent the winter in Mint Hill, weathering frigid temperatures.
A rare sight: This female rufous hummingbird spent the winter in Mint Hill, weathering frigid temperatures. WAYNE JOHNSON

Within the next couple of days some of you will see the first returning ruby-throated hummingbirds of the year. I have seen them as early as March 31, but sometimes they can arrive even earlier. By April 2, I get a constant stream of reports each year on newly arrived hummingbirds.

The first sightings will likely be of adult males. They arrive first to find territories and to await the females, who are not far behind. These first birds are usually just passing through, so don’t fret if you go a few days without seeing any after your initial sighting. The breeding birds are on their way.

It seems the arriving hummingbirds time their movements north with the blooming of crossvine, a climbing plant with large, showy trumpet-shaped flowers that is common in low woods. And, of course, tiny spiders and flying insects become abundant very quickly after temperatures warm, so there is ample protein for the hungry birds, too.

The ruby-throated hummers come in shortly after the wintering rufous hummingbirds depart. This winter was an off year for wintering hummingbird numbers, not just in Mecklenburg County but across the whole eastern United States. I am aware of only three birds that spent the winter in Mecklenburg County, down from an average of more than a dozen for most winters. One bird has already departed and I expect any still hanging on to be gone in the next week.

The photo accompanying today’s column is of a female rufous hummingbird that spent the entire winter in Mint Hill. That little beauty weathered single-digit temperatures and a couple of bouts of frozen precipitation. If you have hosted a hummingbird this winter and have not reported it, let me know. I try to track the numbers and locations of the wintering birds.

If you brought your feeders in last fall and haven’t put them back yet, time is running short if you want to get in on the initial push of the ruby-throated males. And please let me know when you sight your first hummingbird of the year.

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com