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Winter nectar

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The hummingbird outside my back door is about 3,000 miles from where it should be. In mid-December, the core of our Chapel Hill winter is just beginning. Its food sources—flowers and small insects—now range from slim to zilch. Is there a problem?

I keep track of what time the sun will rise each morning, making sure I'm downstairs just before dawn. I hang out my hummingbird feeder, then sit inside with my coffee and wait for the hummer to show up for its morning coffee. I first spotted the bird a month ago in mid-November, telling my wife we had a female ruby-throat at the feeder. I was relying on its coloring, of course; not being much into birds, I was wrong, of course.

I told our friend Rob about the bird. A former editor of the Chapel Hill Bird Club's newsletter, he was over the next day with his binoculars. He arrived at a split decision—either a rufous or an Allen's. Rob posted the sighting on the birders' listserv with instructions that interested people should call him. If they checked out, he'd give them my phone number. They'd call me and ask to come over. I always said yes, and during the course of the next month, about 20 birders (formerly "bird-watchers") from all over the Triangle came to my driveway to observe. It's a young male rufous, goes the consensus.

At this time of year, all rufous hummers are supposed to be wintering on the west coast of Mexico; for most of the year their habitat is our Pacific Northwest, with a narrowing finger of their homeland curving up to Juneau. The rufous at my back door saved these folks considerable travel time and airfare. For these Triangle birders, this was likely the first, last and only rufous they would see in their lifetime. As I understand it, seeing such a bird and adding it to one's Life List is central to birding.

I asked Rob why the bird is here instead of in Baja. No one knows for sure, he said, but the current thinking is that global warming confuses a small number of birds of various species each year, causing them to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's an anomaly on the part of Mother Nature. What's a windfall for birders is a problem for the hummer at my back door.

At least he won't starve to death—I'll see to that. For my part, I'll religiously sanitize his feeder with bleach, mix up new food for him every three days, refill the feeder with fresh liquid every morning and bring it in each night so it doesn't freeze. For his part, he'll somehow have to keep his tiny body from succumbing in the subfreezing nights ahead. How he'll do this is something I don't understand, but, as I said, I'm really not much into birds.

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