Moving inland from the Pacific coast, Arizona is nirvana for hummingbird fans—the potential exists to see a dozen species in the state. Sightings of almost any species that normally breed in the U.S. are possible along Arizona’s border with Mexico in the winter. During the last FeederWatch season, a number of Costa’s and Black-chinned hummingbirds wintered in the Phoenix area and points south, and Anna’s Hummingbirds were frequently seen across the state.
Hummingbird sightings in December, January, and February are generally not expected in the rest of the U.S., but FeederWatch data suggest that hummingbird fans need not move to Arizona. Hummingbirds are consistently reported by FeederWatchers in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only species familiar to most bird watchers east of Texas, and sightings in the winter are rare outside of extreme southern Florida. Ruby-throats normally winter from southern Mexico to Costa Rica. Are these winter hummingbirds in the southeast lingering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds?
Chances are the hummingbirds seen in Gulf-coast states and the southeast in the winter are actually Rufous Hummingbirds. While this species typically winters in Mexico, vagrants are increasingly being reported throughout the southeast in winter. Hummingbird banders working in the region capture dozens of individuals each winter.
Banders help confirm the species identification, as hummingbirds can be difficult to distinguish by sight in the winter. Last winter alone, staff at the Hilton Pond Center in York, South Carolina recorded Rufous, Black-chinned, and Calliope hummingbirds in the Carolinas. FeederWatchers in Pine Lake, Georgia and Columbus, Ohio even had licensed banders visit their yards to tag the Rufous Hummingbirds visiting their feeders.
Are hummingbirds wintering in the southeast more frequently than in the past? The answer to that question remains uncertain. It is possible that more people are now keeping an eye out for hummingbirds in winter and maintaining their hummingbird feeders year-round, so the likelihood of seeing and reporting a hummingbird in winter has increased. Regardless, if you live in the south and see a hummingbird buzzing in the wintertime, be sure to take a close look—it may not be the Ruby-throated Hummingbird that you commonly see in the warmer months.