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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Unusual Anna’s hummingbird sightings have local birders scratching their heads looking for ways to help bird make it through winter

UPDATED: Mon., Dec. 27, 2021

An Anna’s hummingbird as seen near photographer Joanie Christian’s Colville home in late December.  (Courtesy of Joanie Christian)
An Anna’s hummingbird as seen near photographer Joanie Christian’s Colville home in late December. (Courtesy of Joanie Christian)
By Joanie Christian For The Spokesman-Review

As a wildlife photographer, sometimes nature throws me a curveball.

At the end of December in rural Northeast Washington, we have an Anna’s hummingbird visiting our feeder daily, something I’ve never witnessed in my 50-plus years in the area.

The species is unusual, as is the timing.

Rufous, calliope and black-chinned hummingbirds are considered the native hummingbird species in our area. I love photographing the whizzing little marvels, highlighting their colorful personalities and beautiful, intricate details not seen by the naked eye.

This summer, however, a friend identified one of my images as an Anna’s hummingbird. Anna’s are not native in our area but are common west of the Cascades where they often overwinter. Thinking the identification was perhaps an error, I forgot all about it.

This autumn, our hummingbirds stayed long past when they usually migrate. We took down the feeders, hoping to shoo them along. The hummingbirds stayed … AND hovered at the window, demanding we put the feeders put back up.

Concerned, I reached out to regional Facebook birding groups whose members are knowledgeable about Pacific Northwest birds. They said hummingbirds are more frequently being seen east of the Cascades this time of year and to put the feeder back up. So I did, and the hummers kept coming. Then during a mid-December cold snap and fresh snow, one showed up at the feeder.

I was gobsmacked. The Facebook groups confirmed it was a female or a juvenile male Anna’s hummingbird, like the one in my summer photograph. What was an Anna’s hummingbird doing here, and in the winter?

Twenty or more years of research data show Anna’s hummingbirds are rapidly expanding their territory from California northward into Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia and even Alaska, where they overwinter in ever-increasing numbers. This northward expansion is also occurring with other bird species, capturing scientists’ attention.

More than 40 people in the Inland Northwest who saw my posts reported similar stories. Thirty-four Anna’s hummingbirds were reported in the Dec. 18 Special Solstice birdcount in Chelan and Douglas counties. Our experience was not an isolated occurrence, leading me to believe even more Anna’s may be in our area. Experts have many theories about why this is happening, including climate change, habitat loss, plentiful food sources outside their normal range and human habituation; there is compelling information to support each of these possibilities.

Regardless of the reason, we now had a hummingbird at our feeder in December, and I was concerned about the fate of our unexpected winter resident.

Through research, trial and error, we learned strategies to improve the hummingbird’s chances of survival, which I hope will also help others who find themselves caring for a late migrating or overwintering hummingbird. With subzero temps forecast just after Christmas, they’ll need all the help they can get.

Hummingbirds need a constant body temperature of 104-108 to survive. They conserve their energy and adapt to cold conditions by going into ‘torpor,’ a sleep-like state where they drastically slow down their metabolic rate and lower their temperature to the edge of survival.

The temperature of feeder nectar is important. Even above freezing, cold nectar can ‘cold stun’ them, lowering their body temp to dangerous levels where they can’t survive torpor or have sufficient energy to eat insects they need for winter survival.

Optimal nectar temperature is 60 degrees if possible. Nectar should be three to four parts water to one part granulated sugar. Any other ratio can cause health issues for hummingbirds.

Knowing this, we realized we needed to up our game to keep the nectar and the hummingbird warm. We learned not all feeder heaters work well and a better-designed feeder heater is on order. Regularly changing out a cold feeder with a fresh warm one works well. Bring cold feeders in after dark, and put outside at first light.

High-quality brooder heat lamps with shatterproof bulbs (found at feed stores) keep the nectar near 60 degrees and warm the ambient air around the feeder. Mount heat lamps in spots near the house where it might be sheltering. Be sure to mount heat lamps away from flammable items.

The measures we’ve taken have been successful, even in single-digit temperatures. Each morning I nervously approach the window overlooking the feeder, hoping the hummingbird has made it through the night. Each morning, it shows up like clockwork just after dawn, thriving in a place where it shouldn’t belong, quite literally flying in the face of adversity.

I wonder what new knowledge and lessons these birds and their unusual behavior have to teach us. Until then, our winter unicorn continues to bring unexpected joy and wonder, and we’re celebrating the Anna’s.

Joanie Christian, a freelance nature photographer, has lived in Northeast Washington for more than 50 years.

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