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Winter Jewels
By Charles Kennedy

Where do you suppose you should go in wintertime to look for a Hummingbird? Central or South America might do nicely. Destinations a little closer to the Heart of Dixie could include south Texas or Arizona, or if your time for travel is very limited you may try Pineapple, Alabama? Say what! Yes, itís true! We now know that Summerís "Glittering Garments of the Rainbow" are also "Winter Jewels" in Alabama.

I did indeed see my first Alabama "Winter Jewel""Alabama Winter Jewel" in Pineapple on a cold and rainy day in January. Like many of my finest bird experiences it began with a phone call. "We donít know for sure. but we think we have an unusual bird in our yard", is what Martha Mills said almost as soon as I said hello. Martha and husband Jim are avid backyard birdwatchers and have a very bird friendly yard. 

A lovely flower garden festooned with hummer feeders certainly gives them the right to brag if they are so inclined (theyíre not). Martha, almost as if it were a sin, told me that they had left a few feeders hanging in the garden and, to their amazement, the day after Christmas they saw a hummingbird flying around one of them. They quickly filled the feeder and, "he has been there ever since, even through the snow flurries we had last week". About 20 minutes later I was headed for Pineapple. About 30 minutes later I rolled into the Millís driveway. About 10 minutes after getting there I saw a hummingbird. A long time later I was still trying to figure out what kind it was. Some of these "Winter Jewels" are not so shiny.

As the shadows of winter crept across the yard, I sensed that it was time for me to go. Martha and Jim are the most gracious folks you can imagine, but I had been there almost 4 hours. I asked if I could return the next day with a couple of friends. They said I could.

As soon as I returned to Greenville I called Bob Sargent, Alabamaís Mr. Hummingbird. I also called the Editor of the Greenville Advocate, who is a bird fancier. (In the Advocate bird articles get top billing on the front page) Shortly after lunch the next day Bob and Martha Sargent, Mollie Utley, a reporter from the Greenville Advocate, and yours truly were sitting in Martha Millís kitchen watching a hummingbird drinking from a feeder just outside the window. It was still raining.

It didnít take Bob long to tell us what he was going to do and then he got started. He and Martha had already unloaded a box full of assorted gear including a large wire cage. The feeder was removed from its tree limb and the cage hung in its place. The feeder was placed inside the cage. Bob unrolled a length of fishing line and tied one end to the spring-loaded cage door. He unfolded a lawn chair and moved to a position about 50 feet from the cage where he sat (in the rain) holding the other end of the line waiting for his unsuspecting victim. The rest of us went inside to sit by the Millsí cheerful fire.

Bob opens the stocking.Less than an hour later Bob was seated at the kitchen table opening a small stocking. What to our wondering eyes did appear? I donít think we would have been more pleased or excited if there had been 8 tiny reindeer in the stocking.Bob and Martha explained what they were doing as they worked. The bird was weighed and a really small band with really small numbers was fastened to its leg. As Martha took notes, Bob measured his captive from stem to stern and looked at various parts through a magnifying glass. As he studied the beak he noted that the striations thereon indicated a young bird. "Sheís less than a year old", said Bob. Iím not exactly up to snuff on striations, but since he referred to the bird as "she" I figured Olí Bob had been checking out something beside her beak. At any rate, I had my reputation as the "Bird Man of Butler County" to consider so I said, "sounds good to me."

After a few more minutes of close scrutiny Bob declared the bird to be an immature female Rufous Hummingbird. Everybody cheered. Martha entered all the necessary scientific data into her notebook and after a round of pictures were made, we took turns placing a finger on the tiny breast to feel the ever so fast heart beat and breath rate. The bird was amazingly calm through all of this and even drank a little sugar water from a feeder.

Martha Mills and her "Winter Jewel"A few minutes later we were back out in the rain and Bob placed the little hummer in our hostessí hand. She sat there for a few seconds, eyes shining like diamonds, and then took off with a scolding twitter to perch in a nearby tree. In a few seconds she went to have a sip at the feeder. Jim wondered where she might go when she left Pineapple. "In a week or two she will probably be headed for Oregon, Washington, or maybe even southern Alaska", was Bobís reply.

Not too long ago the "Official Alabama Bird List" had 3 hummers on it....

  • Ruby-throated

  • Rufous

  • Black-chinned. 

It now has 11. Through the tireless efforts (although they do get tired) of Bob and Martha Sargent, Fred Bassett and other dedicated bird banders, in cooperation with a large network of backyard citizen scientists, these have been added...

  • Green Violet-ear

  • Buff-bellied,

  • Magnificent,

  • Annaís

  • Calliope

  • Broad-tailed

  • Allenís

  • Costa's

Most of these are still rare, but gee whiz, nobody was expecting a Magnificent Hummingbird to show up in Monroeville, Alabama in the middle of the winter! One certainly did, followed shortly by hundreds of birders. It was a sensation!

So, leave a couple of your feeders up after all the Ruby-throats have gone and if you see a hummingbird between November 15, and March 1 give me a call or send an email message. Who knows, the next day you may see Bob Sargent or Fred Bassett take a "Winter Jewel" from a stocking and gently lay it on your kitchen table.

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