Rare Hummingbird Located in Escambia, Alabama

Article written and compiled by the Escambia County Historical Society
Submitted by Darryl N. Searcy


Photo courtesy of and copyright the Hummer/Bird Study Group,
Ann Biggs-Williams and Pat McArthur

Lightening is said not to strike in the same place twice, but it can certainly come down in the near vicinity. In this case the lightening is a beautiful rainbow of color and speed.

A couple of years ago Ann Biggs-Williams of Brewton was absolutely certain that a tiny hummingbird frequenting the feeder located just outside her dinning room window was not one of her regulars. She knew she had a number of hummingbird species flying in and out of her garden to take sweet water and nectar from flowers and feeders. But this bird was different! She was so certain there was something special about it that her first instincts told her to do something more in order to protect it from the neighborhood cats, who were keen on playing "cat and bird" around her feeders.

Ann moved the feeder so that it hung inside a thicket of branches and sharp prickles of a thornbush, thus taking the visitor out of harms way. Her second instinct told her to contact an expert in the field. She and her husband Mike made a couple of calls and a lot of people got excited -- especially a man named Fred Bassett of the Hummer/Bird Study Group (HBSG).

As Mr. Bassett patiently listened to Ann's description of the tiny creature his interest sharply increased until he decided it was time to change a few travel plans -- he needed to point the hood ornament of his truck onto any road that would lead him to Brewton. He needed to confirm what Ann already suspected; that she had somehow attracted the Buff-bellied Hummingbird. The Buff-belly is a rare Mexican native that just isn't well known to the eastern United States, and rarely ever seen east of the Mississippi River.

Ann was well aware that a bird fitting the description of her bird had been sighted in Pensacola some months back, as well as a sighting in South Carolina -- unusual, to say the least, as this particular hummingbird having been sighted in the eastern United States was virtually unthinkable. Indeed, it was well known to frequent the Gulf Coast region of Texas; but Alabama, Georgia or South Carolina! Is it possible? Yes, Ann, it was possible, and you are about to prove it.


Photo courtesy Ann Biggs-Williams

When Fred arrived in Brewton he set up a large cage next to the thornbush and placed the hummingbird feeder inside the cage. The idea was that when Mr. Buff-belly came to drink a trigger would release the cage door and the bird would be captured unharmed. From inside Ann's dinning room a number of people sat by the window and watched the cage. The wait was only a few minutes (hardly enough time for Ann to put on the kettle and serve hot tea to her guests). From a large mulberry tree it came, holding perfectly poised in the air. Not seeing the feeder in its usual place among the thornbush prickles, it made a few turns as if to fly away. However, seeing that the feeder had been moved, it made a sharp turn and went directly inside the cage. The bird found the sipping tube and began to satisfy its appetite.

The wait was over in the blink of an eye. It all seemed to happen too fast. Ann feared her new friend would harm itself in an effort to escape.


Not to worry. It seemed to understand that escape was impossible so it sat quietly while Fred and his aides simply lifted it out, carefully placing its tiny feet between his fingers. He assured Ann that when a bird's feet are entangled or trapped it knows that attempting flight is impossible so it doesn't waste precious energy in meaningless flapping of its wings.

It was time to examine, measure and photograph. The hummer was handled expertly with the most gentle of hands as it was transferred from one person to the other while being banded. Ann was given the joy of holding her precious little one while herself being photographed with "her" bird. It was indeed the Buff-belly Hummingbird. Ann was quickly being welcomed to a group of few people in the eastern United States to have not only fed the bird, but to hold it in her hands for a few minutes. As Mr. Bassett passed the tiny bundle of feathers to Ann for holding he declared with great joy that it was a girl. The bonding was immediate as "Buffy" seemed to enjoy the warmth of human hands gently holding and stroking her tiny body.


Photo courtesy Pat McArthur

Now, of equal rarity is that Ann has a friend who lives in East Brewton, or about 1.5 miles distance between the two homes. Pat McArthur lives on the south side of Murder Creek while Ann lives on the west banks of Burnt Corn. Pat just happens to be a collector of antique glass, as well as an avid grower of African violets and a lover of any and all birds, dogs, cats and gopher tortoise that take up in her gardens.

Pat and her husband Charles enjoy many quiet evenings on the front porch of their comfortable home watching neighborhood kids play, and all manner of things that come a-begging for cookies or food handouts. The bird feeders are always clean and full, and at any given time one should expect to see Cardinals, Blue Jays and Mockers perched on the same shed roof or tree branch waiting a turn at the grain box, bird bath or sugar water feeder.

In the summer Pat began to notice that a hummingbird visiting her feeder was slightly larger than the Ruby-throat or Rufous, and the color didn't match the Green-Violet, or the Broad-tail she had come to expect. She was certain that her bird was of something unusual and she mentioned it to several people, describing the bird in detail. Then one day she mentioned it to her friend Ann. They compared notes and Ann was convinced that Pat was feeding the same Buff-belly hummingbird. This called for a complete exchange of information, at which time Ann was convinced that Pat's bird was indeed the Buff-belly.

Another call went out to Fred Bassett. Fred wasted no time in returning to Brewton to view this wonder for himself. This time his travels took him across the creek to Pat's house. He had no trouble identifying the hummer as it was obvious to him that Pat had attracted the Buff-belly to her yard. Traps were again set up and the feeder was placed inside the trap. The wait was about 15 minutes so Pat had time to offer coffee and chocolate cake, as well as to call her family and friends to come over and witness the event. Well, it happened! The bird flew right into the cage, the door snapped shut and Fred went through the same routine of handling, measuring, banding and photographing. He then handed the beautiful specimen to Pat while proudly announcing that her bird was a boy. Again, while Pat held the bird's feet between her fingers a tube of sugar water was offered and it drank without hesitation. There was no mistaking Pat's pride as a wide smile crossed her face and she cuddled the handsome little creature against her cheek.


   Alas, it was time to let it go. Pat was told to gently fold her fingers around the bird and place it in her free hand. Release her fingers from around its body and it would lift off in a few seconds. Everything happened on time. Tears welled up in her eyes as she feared the handling might discourage him from returning to her feeder. Mr. Bassett told that while it does happen she should not be discouraged as it would most likely return the following day. Well, that wait didn't take much time at all as within minutes he was right back resting on a twig in a nearby tree. Pat made a chirping sound and he chirped back, as had been their custom for several months. Having responded to her call, it made a B-line to the feeder and drank. All was well with Pat and her new friend.

Pat related that when honeybees climb over the garden flowers, she can hear the little bird make chipping noises that clearly says he is not amused with all those bees hanging around. She goes outside and fans the bees away, all the while making a chirping noise of her own, which tells it the way is clear. It began to respond to her chirp quite some time ago and now it answers her call, or it chirps on its own to alert her that he's in the area and ready for food.

Ann calls her bird "Buffy," but to date we've not heard what Pat calls her little male.

Pat and Ann agree that to attract hummingbirds one should put the feeder where it can be observed and maintained easily. It is not necessary to buy ready-made nectar, since the birds get all the vitamins, minerals and protein they need from natural nectar and insects they eat. Partially fill your feeder with a mixture of one part sugar to four parts water, but do not use food coloring. Do not use honey or artificial sweeteners because they are harmful to the birds.

According to Mr. Bassett, when it is time for the Ruby-throated to migrate, it will depart with or without your feeders. Most Ruby-throated hummingbirds are genetically programmed to migrate to the tropics by the middle of November. However, a few do stay for the winter, and small numbers of several species of western hummingbirds migrate east to spend the winter in the eastern U.S.


Ann Biggs-Williams and Pat McArthur on a bird-banding
day held at Fort Morgan, Alabama

Wintering hummingbirds are not lost or confused. They often spend the entire winter in one location, and many return to winter at the same home year after year. The HBSG says that a Rufous hummingbird has returned to a home near Montgomery for five winters, and a Buff-bellied hummingbird spent seven winters at a home in Pensacola.

Hummingbird banders working with the Hummer/Bird Study Group (HBSG) have banded 13 different kinds of hummingbirds in the eastern United States: Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, Rufous, Allen's, Anna's, Calliope, Buff-bellied, Broad-tailed, White-eared, Green-Violet-ear, Magnificent, Broad-billed and Green-breasted Mango. The HBSB does suggest that you have a feeder up all winter, and you just might have one of those species spending the winter with you. Those hummingbirds are cold hardy and are not harmed by the mild winters known to this area.

The Hummer/Bird Study Group has a continuing research project to document wintering hummingbirds. Those who have a hummingbird at their feeder between November 15 and March 1, should contact Bassett, the hummingbird bander for the Brewton area, at fhound@aol.com or (334) 244-0227. Mr. Bassett will eagerly come to the home and capture, identify, band and photograph the hummingbird. He lets the homeowner release the bird back into the yard. After the identification process the homeowner can expect to receive photographs of the birding event. The public is assured that banding does not hurt the hummingbird or cause it to leave the yard. Over a period of three years, he has banded the Buff-bellied hummingbird in both Brewton and East Brewton -- that's quite a record!

The Hummer/Bird Study Group is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study and preservation of hummingbirds and other neo-tropical migrants (songbirds). Tax-deductible membership fees and donations help fund banding, research efforts and educational programs. Membership entitles one to four newsletters each year which include reports of all banding activities and tips for attracting and feeding hummingbirds and other birds. For information about membership, contact HBSG, P.O. Box 250, Clay, Alabama 34048. The e-mail address is hummerbsg@aol.com and the telephone is (205) 681-2888.

The Buff-bellied Hummingbird is described as being of large size, slightly less than four inches overall, thin bill with reddish base, metallic green head and breast and green back. The belly is buff-colored. It is notable that there are few, if any, color variances between the male and female of the species. Its Latin description says much about its preferred habitat, Amazilia yucatanensis, which clearly indicates that it usually hovers around the Yucatan Peninsula and the Rio Grand Valley.

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