North Carolina has hosted 11 species of hummingbirds in the past since state records were compiled, and Mecklenburg County has records of five species. By far, the records of species other than our common nester, the ruby-throated hummingbird, occur in the fall and winter. Just this week I have heard of a rufous hummingbird in the mountains and a broad-billed hummingbird on the Outer Banks. There are hummingbirds entering the Carolinas right now, and many of them will stay for months if they find an accommodating feeder.
Our breeding species, the ruby-throated hummingbird, arrives in late March and has largely departed by mid-October. A few stragglers may persist into early November or later if the weather is mild enough, but they are not a cold-hardy species.
Not so with many western species and southwestern species. Rufous hummingbirds for example breed as far north as Alaska, and Calliope hummingbirds live in the Rocky Mountains. They can take the cold just fine. A normal North Carolina winter doesn’t faze them at all. I have seen rufous hummingbirds in North Carolina active and doing just fine with temperatures in the teens.
For this reason, I always suggest leaving hummingbird feeders up and stocked with fresh food through the winter. The birds that appear this time of year have migrated to the southeastern United States on purpose. They are not lost. Some years there may be as many as a couple dozen hummingbirds wintering in our area, and those are just the ones I know of. The last few years the number of reports has been down a bit, so every year is different.
The first killing frost usually sends the birds to the nearest feeder they can find, as their once-abundant natural food is reduced. Any hummingbird in our area after Nov. 1 could be a western species, and I would like to know about it. Almost always they turn out to be the rufous hummingbirds, but sometimes they are something much rarer. Email me a report, and try to get a photo and send it to me if possible. I know it can be difficult, especially if the bird is skittish. I can also come out to look if the photo doesn’t work out. Who knows, you might become a rare bird host; a local- or state-level birding celebrity. What could be better than that?
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.