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Wildlife Spy: An invasion of tiny proportions

TIP: If you see a hummingbird in the fall, look closely, it's probably an Anna's Hummingbird sneaking into Alaska.

Posted: November 22, 2013 - 1:01am
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Gus van Vleet spotted this hummingbird - an odd-looking juvenile bird that he finally determined (and confirmed with hummingbird experts) was a hybrid between a rufous and an Anna's hummingbird. He said this is one of the first juvenile hybrids found anywhere.  Photo by Deanna MacPhail
Photo by Deanna MacPhail
Gus van Vleet spotted this hummingbird - an odd-looking juvenile bird that he finally determined (and confirmed with hummingbird experts) was a hybrid between a rufous and an Anna's hummingbird. He said this is one of the first juvenile hybrids found anywhere.

Alaska is under invasion, and you may not even have noticed.

You may have mistaken the invaders for locals as they snuck in under your radar: Anna’s hummingbirds. They’re among us even now; birders in Juneau reported some of these tiny birds visiting feeders as recently as Tuesday, Nov. 19. This fall has seen numerous reports of these explorers along the coast, from Ketchikan up to Anchorage and Palmer.

Many people delight in hanging out summer feeders to entice rusty-colored rufous hummingbirds, the only hummingbird (so far) that regularly breeds in Alaska. Unless you pay attention, you may not notice the changing of the guard around August, from rufous to Anna’s hummingbirds. Anna’s hummingbirds are drawn to human habitation, with our delicious offerings of flower gardens and feeders. They’ve used our supply lines to move north and seem to be making themselves at home in the fall ... and possibly even longer.

Male Anna’s hummingbirds are flashy and vocal, with a brilliant, iridescent magenta throat and forehead and high-pitched song that sounds like tiny radio static. They are daring, performing death-defying dives of more than 100 feet to impress the ladies during courtship. To show off even more, they often position themselves facing the sun, all the better to flash the vivid feathers on their heads. Females often sport a few pink feathers on the throat, but are mostly grayish-white underneath. Both sexes have a metallic green back and tail. When a female flicks open her tail, she shows off the dark tips of the feathers with just a spot of white at the edges of the outer set or two. Both males and females lack any rusty coloring, distinguishing them from the more familiar rufous hummingbird.

This species is named after Anna Masséna, Duchess of Rivoli, France. Her husband the Duke of Rivoli was an amateur ornithologist and owned the first specimen of the species, which he had ornithologist René Primevère Lesson examine. The duchess was reportedly beautiful, inspiring Lesson to name this new species, which he considered one of the most captivating hummingbirds, in her honor in 1829. Even the scientific name, Calypte anna, reflects the male’s striking colors: “calypte” is Greek for hood or covered, referring to the extent of the male’s shimmering rose feathers.

In the 1930s, Anna’s hummingbirds were only found from southern California to San Francisco. They have the odd strategy of breeding in the winter, between roughly December and May, because the shrubby chaparral habitat they preferred is dry and plants don’t bloom until winter rains soak the landscape. Capitalizing on human gardens and feeders, they have gradually expanded their nesting range into southern British Columbia and eastward into Arizona and Texas.

Another habit has made them prime candidates for expansion — they like to travel. After the nesting season, Anna’s hummingbirds move around. The shift isn’t organized enough to call it migration: some birds retreat to different elevations, following blooming plants (such as introduced eucalyptus in California). Some birds fly east, others wander our way.

The first Anna’s hummingbird reported in Alaska was spied in Cordova in the 1970s. Since then, Anna’s hummingbirds have usually been found as fall visitors. Rufous hummingbirds stay until about August, migrating south after breeding. The majority of Anna’s hummingbirds show up in September and October, after their cousins have retreated. Although it’s always best to confirm what you see, your most likely suspect for a hummingbird that zips past in the fall is an Anna’s.

Although not unheard of, there are barely a handful of times Anna’s have been seen in Alaska in spring. Yet this year, there were sightings of these little wanderers in Juneau in April and in Ketchikan in May. It makes this wildlife spy wonder where they came from and what they’re looking for. Anna’s seem to include a high number of insects as part of their diet, which may make them more flexible about where they can survive.

Perhaps due to the amazing warm weather around the state, this summer there were several Anna’s hummingbirds spotted in Ketchikan and Juneau in June. Considering there are very few past summer sightings, that raises the attention of birders.

Then, in the fall, the onslaught began. Michael and Peggy Craig in Homer had several big pots of nasturtiums on their back porch still blooming in October. In the ten years they’ve lived in their house, they’ve seen one or two Anna’s hummingbirds. One day, Peggy commented “there’s a hummer in the nasturtiums.” They saw an adult male, then a female and then at least two immature males sparring over the feeder. In Anchorage, birder Dave Delap and several friends located an Anna’s hummingbird in September.

“We just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

The group all had good views of the bird from about 20 feet away, so there was no mistaking it. There were a few unidentified hummingbirds reported in Cordova around Halloween, but the suspects are likely Anna’s. In Ketchikan as late as Nov. 16, birder Steve Heinl saw three Anna’s hummingbirds at a single feeder (one adult male and two juvenile males). Birds are lingering in Juneau as well: Local birders Patty Rose, Gus Van Vleet and Gwen Baluss have all had Anna’s still showing up as recently as Nov. 18 or 19. And from Sitka, Matt Goff reported at least one Anna’s hummingbird was spotted this week.

Some brave hummingbirds even tough out the winter. Both Cordova and Juneau have had single birds recorded during the Christmas Bird Count a number of times. Ketchikan, however, takes the prize: Heinl said last year nearly a dozen Anna’s hummingbirds were winter residents, appearing at feeders throughout the season.

The biggest question is: Are Anna’s hummingbirds moving in permanently? No one has seen direct evidence yet, such as a nest, but there have been Anna’s hummingbirds showing up in the summer that appear to be too young to have flown up from British Colombia. Gus van Vleet had an even more unusual sighting — an odd-looking juvenile bird that he finally determined (and confirmed with hummingbird experts) was a hybrid between a rufous and an Anna’s hummingbird. He said this is one of the first juvenile hybrids found anywhere. Maybe a lonely Anna’s hummingbird found itself in Alaska during the breeding season and finding the dating scene for other Anna’s terribly slim, well, maybe it was willing to hook up with a rufous. U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Technician Baluss, who ran a research project banding hummingbirds this summer, said these earlier records and young birds “are the smoking gun that something new is going on.”

So if you glimpse a hummingbird darting past next summer, keep a close watch, and maybe you’ll be the one to find that first Anna’s hummingbird nest.

• Beth Peluso is a freelance writer, illustrator, and avid birder. She enjoys spying on wildlife around Alaska.

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