Cover photo: Calliope Hummingbird by Amanda Guercio
By Stacey Lee Kerr
There is something magical about hummingbirds. Perhaps it’s the peculiar way that humans love all things miniature and tiny, or maybe it’s the delicate iridescent sheen of their feathers as they flit from flower to flower. Maybe it’s their specialized wingbeats that are strange and wonderful as they zip by, or – if you’re lucky – to your hummingbird feeder. Whatever the reason, these little speedsters of the bird world can bring murmurs of delightful appreciation to even the most seasoned of birders.
In Ontario, the spring and fall migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds make them a relatively common sight for those who are experienced or lucky enough to spot them as they stop to rest or feed. But we’ve also been visited on occasion by other species of hummingbirds that are decidedly rarer – especially when they decide to camp out in someone’s backyard for an extended stay.
This past November, the Ontario birding community was set atwitter by the news that a Calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope) was sighted for the first time ever in Ontario – in the backyard of the Johnston family in Goderich. More than a thousand birders, both new and experienced alike – flocked to the Johnston home to catch a glimpse (and lots of photos) of the tiny unexpected visitor. The juvenile male appeared to have lost his way on what was likely their first migration South after being born somewhere in the western Boreal forest. Named “Gem” by their generous host family, this little hummingbird stayed for a few weeks, bulking up on nectar from flowers and a special feeder, as well as insects. On the morning of November 30th, Linda Johnston went outside to refill the heated nectar feeder, and little Gem was nowhere to be found – it seems that finally, it was time to migrate to his warmer wintering grounds in Mexico.
Gem is not the first wayward hummer to end up as a tiny celebrity in an unsuspecting Ontarian’s backyard. In fall 2004, Janice and Art Haines of Niagara Falls became the hosts of Hannah, an immature female Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), who also experienced some wonky migration cues or bad directions on her trip South. While not the first or last rufous hummingbird to be found in Ontario, Hannah can be considered an uncommon visitor to the area (though they are the second-most commonly sighted hummingbird species in Ontario, next to the ruby-throated). The main range of her species and others in the Selasphorus genus is usually farther west, breeding in BC and Alberta and up into the Yukon and Southern Alaska. There may be more rufous hummingbirds in Ontario than we realize each year, because they are so small and difficult to spot, let alone identify different species. Similar to the hullabaloo caused by Gem’s visit this year, Hannah caused a stir amongst Ontario birders, with at least 500 people signing the Haines’ guestbook. Hannah was the first rufous hummingbird in Ontario to be banded during her stay in the Haines’ yard. Bird banding is a common method that allows scientists to track their migrations via the networks of bird banding stations and observation programs that exist throughout the world.
After settling into the comfort of plenty of fall flowers in September, the food sources dwindled as the garden plants died and the cold set in. Winter creeped onward for Hannah, who unlike Gem the Calliope hummingbird, stayed well past November and continued to visit the feeders that Janice had set up with sugar water to keep the little bird going, hoping that she would be off South eventually. Janice and Art set up a Scotch pine Christmas tree mid-December, strung cheerily with lights. Hannah roosted up near its peak, hunkering down each chilly night, sharing the tree with a lone song sparrow. On the morning of December 16, Hannah flew off into the distance, and Janice hoped that the time for Hannah to leave had finally come, but first thing the next morning, there was little Hannah feeding at the sugar water again. She spent the afternoon perching in the bushes of the Haines’ yard, flitting about the branches, keeping a watchful eye out for predators like the sharp-shinned hawk that also frequented the yard.
The sun rose on the morning of December 18 with what felt like little power against the cold snap that had taken hold of the area. Visitors had come again to see Hannah, but she was missing from her usual 7am feeding under the warmth of the heated lamp by the hummingbird feeder. Janice went out to investigate Hannah’s Christmas tree, and her worst fears were confirmed – Hannah had died during the night, and would not be making the journey South.
Hannah’s story did not end here. On Christmas Day 2004, Mark Peck, an ornithologist at the Royal Ontario Museum, received a special gift from his father-in-law, a fellow birder himself. He put a tiny rectangular gift box adorned in gold and white stars into Mark’s palm, and wished him a merry Christmas. Inside the box was Hannah – donated to the museum collections by Janice, so that the little bird could remain as a permanent record of her species being found in Ontario.
Hannah’s prepared and stuffed skin sits to this day amongst other hummingbirds in the Ornithology Collection, part of millions of specimens that make up the ROM’s invaluable Natural History Collections. She is still visited regularly – Mark gives many tours to different naturalist groups, students, visiting scientists, artists, and more, and Hannah’s story is always a highlight. A tissue sample from Hannah was also sent to the University of Guelph to be analyzed and to allow her DNA to be used for population studies and bird conservation projects. Holding her tiny skin in your palm, and stroking her delicate feathers is a unique experience. Though she is now a preserved specimen in the museum, the tale of her unexpected visit lives on.
Hannah and Gem provide a perfect example of how individual birds can have a big impact on people’s lives. Hundreds of people visited these birds, and turned the lives of their gracious hosts upside down for their brief stay, but generally brought out the best in everyone. The Johnston and Haines families welcomed eager birders into their homes and yards, providing cookies and coffee and tea. The overall experience of these rare visiting birds creates a positive ripple into the birding and naturalist community, and provides an unparalleled way to share the enthusiasm and love that this community has with a broader audience. People drove from far and wide to catch even a brief glimpse of these tiny hummingbirds, and to share that experience with fellow birders. Both Janice and Linda, the women who led the charge for making their unexpected guests (both bird and human alike) comfortable, are active members of local birding groups. After Hannah, Janice was inspired to continue birding and is an active member of the Ontario Field Ornithologists, and a strong advocate for bird conservation in Ontario.
It doesn’t take a big, flashy trip to an exotic locale to get people to care about biodiversity. Sometimes, all you need to light a spark that will connect a person to nature for the rest of their lives is a little bit of kindness, a welcoming spirit, and a chance for the curious kid inside us all to come alive and explore.