Written by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener
Sometimes moth species, like the white-lined sphinx (Hyles lineata) above, are mistaken for hummingbirds. Unlike most moths, it often feeds during the day. At first glance, its bulk, rapid wing movement, swift flight, and habit of hovering as it feeds resemble that of a hummingbird. No wonder these insects also are referred to as hummingbird moths.
However, the only hummingbird species that breeds in eastern North America is the ruby-throated hummer (Archilochus colubris). It has an emerald green back and white breast (like the female pictured below). Only the male sports throat feathers that appear iridescent ruby red (or black depending on the light’s angle).
Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate from Mexico and Central America in early spring and return in late summer. Females produce one or two clutches a season. They may catch up to 2000 insects per day (Barnes, 2000) to feed to their developing chicks. Adults consume the nectar of hundreds of tubular-shaped flowers—especially those brightly colored red, orange, yellow or white—per day. Native flower examples are Lobelia cardinalis, above, and Lonicera sempervirens, below. [Additional flowers that attract hummingbirds are listed and pictured in For the Birds, Butterflies & Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats. You also will find information there about using hummingbird feeders to supplement garden flowers to ensure hummers have a continuous food supply.]
Unlike Virginia’s regular summer resident, rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus, above) is a common Western species. It summers in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest and typically winters in Mexico. On occasion, a few migrate eastward in the fall and unlike the ruby-throat, a rufous can endure Fahrenheit temperatures below zero degrees.
According to eBird, “… immatures that stray to the East and survive the winter are likely to return in the following year, and there are numerous records of banded birds reappearing in subsequent years.” Over a two-month period from October to December 2012, thirty rufous sightings were reported at Green Spring Gardens in Fairfax. If you decide to leave a hummingbird feeder up into winter for a stray rufous, try to keep the feeder sheltered and take it in each night to prevent the contents from freezing.