Fear, Surprise, Relief, What’s Next?

Broad-tailed Hummingbird [Selasphorus platycercus]
Broad-tailed Hummingbird female, could she be the one?

Today, as I write this, the date is October 15th and something remarkable has happened here. We’ve just come through the passing of a cold front. 6+ inches of snow, a low temp of +2 or 3 degrees F, not normal for this time of year. Some chill is expected now and a little snow is not unusual, so even with the passing storm we aren’t freaking out over this weather.

What makes this remarkable is the hummingbird. Normally our last hummer departs for warmer climes about the 4th or so of the month. One year a hold out waited till the 11th to move on. She is a Broad-tailed Hummingbird, a spring thru fall breeding visitor to our mountains, so they are tough little miracles.

We saw her from time to time visiting the single feeder we continue to maintain until we are sure there are no more hummingbirds moving through. So when early morning brought snow and falling temps our first concern was for this last little fall holdout. The hummer feeder goes out a first light in the morning, we have bears that love hummingbird feeders so we thwart the bears by bringing feeders in at night. There was maybe 2 inches of snow with a nasty wind out of the east, about +20 degrees F, kinda nasty morning.

At about 8:30 AM there she was, hovering at the freezing feeder, a gust of wind would push her off the feeder and she would fight her way back to slurp up a little more energy and zoom off to wherever she was finding shelter. Now that did freak me out, how do we keep the feeder from freezing while keeping it available for her whenever she needs it?  Decided to make a bit more sugar-water nectar and have 2 feeders, one would start to ice up I’d bring it in to thaw and put the other out.

The temperature continued to drop, down to about +12 F by noon. Switched feeders every 1/2 hour, 45 minutes, kept the feeder dance going ’till dark.  That’s when the enormity of her challenge really struck home. How does a roughly 3.5 gram bird survive a truly frigid night?  Hummingbirds, when under stress or dealing with a cold night, go into a state called torpor rather than simple sleep. They slow all of their life support to a bare minimum to save energy.  This was more than a chilly night, not to mention our nights are getting longer.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird [Selasphorus platycercus]
Broad-tailed Hummingbird female, our miracle?
When I put the feeder out at 6:55 AM this morning it was that +2 to 3 F and I felt that if she survived the night we would see a miracle, frankly I didn’t expect to see her. I switched feeders at 7:30 and again at about 8:00 AM ( they freeze up pretty quickly at those temps). And there was the miracle, she swooped in to feed and then perched on a slender Aspen twig to survey the area as if it were a July morning. Of course at this point I don’t know if she is going to head south and if she does what waits for her as the season gets later and later. She can’t live on sugar-water forever, hummingbirds eat a lot of small insects for protein and there aren’t many of them around now. And winter is coming.

We will celebrate her as the miracle she is, keep the feeder thawed and let the future take care of itself.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird [Selasphorus platycercus]
Broad-tailed Hummingbird female, no way for us to know if this hummer is our survivor.
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