A tiny rufous hummingbird was released safely in Vancouver late last month after it was found flying around Prince George, more than 500 kilometres north, long after it should have migrated for the winter.
The bird first caught the notice of Clive Keen, an editor with B.C. Birding magazine, when his wife Susan pointed it out in early October.
According to eBird, an online resource that lets users record bird sightings around the world, the latest recorded sighting of a rufous in Prince George up to that point was in September, with most migrating south by the end of August.
But since the city was enjoying an unusually warm autumn, Keen assumed it was simply waiting for the frost to set in before taking off.
However, when he saw it again on Oct. 26 after the city’s first snowfall, with temperatures forecast for -15 C, he started to get worried.
“Clearly, it wasn’t going to survive if it stayed around,” he said. “I kept thinking … ‘Surely, you’re going to take the hint and head off south.’ But no, it kept hanging around in my tree.”
So he turned to the online birding community to devise a plan worthy of a Looney Tunes cartoon to trap the bird and transport it to safety.
A species in peril
Rufous hummingbirds are one of the smaller species of hummingbird, measuring approximately eight centimetres long and weighing roughly four grams when fully grown — or, as Keen puts it, “about the amount of a dime.”
They spend summers in the Pacific Northwest and B.C., as well as into the Yukon and Alaska, before migrating over 3,200 kilometres to Mexico and parts of the southern United States for the winter.
As a result of this wide range, rufous hummingbirds have been identified as a top “surrogate species” by researchers at UBC for measuring the impacts of climate change and habitat loss since their livelihood is dependent on the well-being of larger ecosystems.
And there is concern about their survival: Research from the Grouse Mountain Refuge for Endangered Wildlife, which tracks hummingbird migrations, indicates a rapid decline in their numbers.
Earlier this year, the committee on the status of endangered wildlife in Canada recommended they be urgently assessed for possible inclusion on Canada’s national list of species at risk.
All of this meant there was high interest from birders across Canada as Keen provided updates on his late-season hummingbird in forums and email groups, asking for advice about what he should do.
Eventually, he got creative, setting up a feeder inside a cage with a string attached to the door. Similar to Wile E. Coyote in Roadrunner cartoons, he and his wife lay in wait, ready to use the string to pull the cage shut once they acquired their target.
And just like the cartoons, the bird proved elusive — flying near the cage and sitting on the string, but not actually going inside. In all, Keen says, it took 14 hours over two days of watching and waiting for the plan to be successful.
“It was an endurance test.”
Several people said they were willing to transport the bird south or chip in for a plane ticket, but in the end, it was Keen’s wife who made the trip, immediately driving nine hours to release the hummingbird in a Vancouver park.
“What can you do?” Susan Keen said. “You’ve got this tiny thing. If you leave it there, it has no chance at all.”
She says she found a sheltered clump of trees to place the feeder and release the hummingbird. The couple hopes it will survive and perhaps return to Prince George — which is currently experiencing temperatures below -20 C — once things warm up next year.
Although it took a lot of work, Clive Keen says the payoff of getting to help the bird and see it up close was worth it.
“I mean, they weigh about the same amount as an insect. It’s astonishing that such a thing should exist,” he said.
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