Originally created 02/04/01

Rare birds winter in Georgia home



The creature that has captured Arleigh Mansfield's attention is barely the size of a quarter - and thousands of miles off course.

"We noticed her the day after Thanksgiving," the Martinez woman said. "And she's still here. We were so happy to see her."

The fragile winter visitor hovering at Ms. Mansfield's bird feeder each morning is a rufous hummingbird, one of the rarest of eight hummer species that appear in Georgia.

But usually, hummingbirds are here only in the spring and summer. And the rufous - a Western bird that normally migrates a 3,000-mile course from Alaska to Mexico - isn't supposed to turn up in Georgia at all.

This year has been vastly different.

"It's an exceptional year, and nobody knows why," said Terry Johnson, manager of Georgia's Non-Game Endangered Wildlife Program. "We've had 150 to 200 reports - the most ever. And it's several species, not just the rufous."

An even rarer bird - the calliope hummingbird - was documented in Augusta this winter, too. Its recent sighting is among only six occurrences statewide.

Mr. Johnson travels statewide to capture, band and study the unusual birds. But no one knows why they sometimes choose to winter in Georgia in lieu of migrating South.

Perhaps it is a consequence of global warming and climate change. "One theory is, we've had all these mild winters, and they're behaving differently. Or maybe it's habitat destruction in Mexico. We don't know."

They are challenging to study; their tiny bodies are too small to hold a transmitter to track their movement. They lay eggs smaller than black-eyed peas and fly with wings that flap 78 times per second.

The rufous hummers, in particular, were once thought to have arrived here by accident, perhaps forced eastward by a storm system. But Mr. Johnson and other scientists are learning otherwise.

"What we're finding now is that they're not being blown off course," he said. "Georgia is apparently where they want to go. Even though they usually stay out West, the birds we're catching indicate they're coming back again and again to the Southeast."

For example, Mr. Johnson has observed the same rufous hummingbird at a woman's feeder in Alpharetta, Ga., for three consecutive winters. "We also had a bird we banded in Suwanee last year that was recaptured near Nashville."

One reason for the increased number of sightings could be that more people are leaving hummingbird feeders out during the winter, said Anne Waters, a local Audubon Society member.

"Originally everybody thought all hummingbirds migrated South," she said. "All the `people who knew' always recommend taking down feeders. Then people who accidentally left them up started seeing hummingbirds."

Mr. Johnson has established a database for winter hummingbird sightings and would like to hear from anyone finding them in Georgia during the winter months. His office number is (912) 994-1438.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.

Tiny travelers

Eight species are known to appear in Georgia.

Only the ruby-throated hummingbird is known to nest here.

The rufous hummingbird routinely migrates 3,000 miles.

Hummingbirds flap their wings approximately 78 times per second.

Their hearts beat 1,200 times per minute.

They enjoy nectar from feeders, but live on insects.

Migrations are triggered by day length, not temperature.