A new way to identify Selasphorus hummingbirds?

by Greg Neise on January 18, 2012

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In November, a Selasphorus hummingbird showed up at a feeder near Chicago, IL and caused quite a stir. There were many reasons for this (this genus is rather rare in Illinois), but mostly because it had heavily-marked green flanks:

This bird showed no rufous markings on the back at all (not even a slight reddish fringing to the upper tail coverts), and had a very limited amount of rufous in the tail … with no rufous markings on the central tail feathers at all. Additionally, the bird had rather heavy mottling on the undertail coverts, tail projecting well beyond the wings at rest, a “cold” gray face and three rose-colored gorget feathers.

If you take these field marks and apply them to the illustrations in any current field guide, you will come to the conclusion that this bird is a young male Broad-tailed Hummingbird. And you would be wrong.

A few weeks later, this birds was captured and measured, and still there were some questions about its identity. What sex was it? The rose-colored gorget feathers seemed to indicate a young male, but the hummingbird banders know that a young female Rufous can show this also. Was it a hybrid?

DNA samples were collected and the bird was positively identified. While the samples were being worked on, I looked closely at the photos I took of the bird while we had it in-hand, and something jumped out at me:

This bird has rufous feathers on the lower eye-ring. Or more accurately, the beginning of a rufous eye-ring … or perhaps even more accurately, rufous lower eyelashes.

I waited a few days with this information, because the DNA results were soon to be released, and they confirmed what at least a couple of banders had said all along: this bird is a hatch-year female Rufous Hummingbird. So there we have it. But the rufous eye-ring intrigued me, so I began looking at pictures of Broad-tailed and Calliope Hummingbirds.

Here’s a couple of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. A female on the left and a HY male on the right. The white eye-rings are easy to see.

Here’s another Rufous Hummingbird, and adult female, that I photographed a few days after the Chicago-area bird:

Again, the rufous feathering in the forward quadrant of the lower eye-ring is easy to see.

I scanned hundreds of images on Flickr (where the two Broad-tails above come from), and discovered that once I knew what to look for, telling a female/juvenile Rufous from a Broad-tailed was pretty straightforward. Or was it?

There is still more work to be done. In the coming weeks, I’ll be looking at specimens. The things I’m particularly interested in learning are how early do the eye-ring feathers change color in Rufous, is the extent of rufous feathering different on Allen’s? Do Calliope of Broad-tailed ever show rufous feathering on the eye-ring?

I’ll keep working on it, and keep you posted.

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