In the fall, we increasingly see western species of hummingbirds, especially rufous hummingbirds, that come east and are generally detected thanks to feeders that are left up. Doug Hitchcox photo

After weeks of “where are the birds?!” questions coming in, I’m happy to report that the tide is turning and activity at feeders is picking up again. As dropping temperatures kill off the late flying insects, and fruit-bearing shrubs get picked over, birds will return to supplementing their diet with food from feeders. If you are still in a feeder bird drought, be patient! Take the opportunity to clean your feeders, especially your hummingbird feeder, and keep it up for a few more weeks.

Female ruby-throated hummingbird. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

While the vast majority of our summer-resident ruby-throated hummingbirds have already begun their migration south, currently passing the Gulf of Mexico on their way to Central America, a few late birds could benefit from a persistent food source. Every year we see ruby-throated hummingbirds linger into the first weeks of October, and even, in diminishing numbers, into November. These birds are typically seen coming into feeders, as nectaring plants become increasingly scarce. In 2016, there was one ruby-throated hummingbird in South Portland that lingered into mid December, which was found in a yard with a healthy crop of pineapple sage in bloom. Interestingly, this bright red salvia is native to the areas of Central America where ruby-throats spend their winter.

A common misconception about keeping hummingbird feeders up is that “it keeps them from migrating” but almost the exact opposite is true: it may be the last bit of fuel they need. Earlier in the fall, it is easy to see hummingbirds fueling up as native plants like spotted touch-me-not (impatiens capensis), also known as orange jewelweed, are in blossom all over the landscape, their irregular orange-red flower the perfect vessel for hummingbirds to drink from. Now, flowers are hard to come by, especially native varieties, as even our latest asters are going to seed. It is important to keep in mind that hummingbirds feed on more than just nectar, with insects and arachnids being an important protein source. That said, birds need to fuel up before they will make the next leg of their migration, so this is where we have an opportunity to help by keeping hummingbird feeders up so the birds can top off before heading south.

The other exciting thing to be on the lookout for this time of year is different species of hummingbirds. In the fall, we increasingly see western species, especially rufous hummingbirds, that come east and are generally detected thanks to feeders that are left up. While rufous hummingbirds historically wintered in and near Mexico, a few began overwintering in southeastern states. One theory of catalysts for vagrancy is that those “lost” birds are actually prospecting, and it is easy to understand how a rufous hummingbird that doesn’t have to travel as far during migration may be more successful than one that does. Those birds could be returning to their breeding grounds earlier, occupying better habitats, being more productive, and passing on their genes – possibly including a gene that sends them east in the winter.

We still have a lot to learn about these fall visitors, and because many of the western birds are in the same genus, selasphorus, they can be difficult to distinguish. It’s not always easy to know which species we are dealing with. There is a small but very active network of trained and licensed hummingbird banders in the area who can catch, measure, and band these western strays when they show up, and their cumulative efforts have shed a light on the patterns these birds are establishing. Last fall, with the help of Scott Weidensaul, we banded an adult female rufous hummingbird in Dayton, that was seen from Oct. 22 through Nov. 14. Another Selasphorus hummingbird in Freeport, that showed up on Nov. 5, was a huge excitement as it was identified (thanks again to Scott for catching and measuring it) as a broad-tailed hummingbird, the first record for New England!

As a reminder, the proper hummingbird food is a simple 4-to-1 ratio of water to plain white sugar. Do not use red dyes, and sugar alternatives (like honey, and raw or brown sugar) contain levels of iron that can be lethal. Go get those feeders refilled and let us know if you have any visitors! If you see any hummingbirds this fall, please let us know at

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to and visit to learn more about birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug and other naturalists lead free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 7 to 9 a.m., at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.

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