Hummingbirds in December? November Feeder Survey results

BIRD COLUMN FOR November 30, 2003

By Benjamin P. Burtt

The December Feeder Survey starts today and continues through Saturday. Of course December doesn't start until tomorrow, but this is the week we will make the observations.
For each species report the largest number you see at any one time during the next seven days. For example, if you see 12 house sparrows this week, but never more than 3 at a time, then 3 is what you put on the list.

At the end of the week, put your list on a postcard or in a letter and send it to B. P.Burtt, care of Stars Magazine, PO Box 4915, Syracuse, NY, 13221. Or send the results by email to: and in the subject line write "For B. P. Burtt".

List all the species in the order shown in the summary of the November survey on this page.
For complete written instructions, choose "Library" on the left side of this page near the top and click on "Feeder Survey Directions".


What birds were visiting our yards in early November? Were the numbers up or down? Are birds migrating down from Canada for the winter in their usual numbers? These and other questions are answered by this feeder survey.

This year it looks as if we will be seeing some of the northern finches. While only a few pine siskins and evening grosbeaks were spotted on the feeder survey in the first week of November, many more have been reported in the weeks after the survey. One Canadian person mentioned early this fall that the seed crop on the evergreen trees was poor and that these northern finches would probably be moving south to find food.

What birds were appearing at most feeders? Ninety-eight percent of the feeders had at least one jay and one chickadee. Next on the list was the junco with 92 percent of the people reporting it. 86 percent of the people had mourning doves, downy woodpeckers, crows and cardinals.
Just under 80% spotted goldfinches and white breasted nuthatches. 65% had house finches.
This year there were lots of red-breasted nuthatches on the survey and there are many other sightings too. Before 1993 this bird was seen in small numbers and it bred in some of the higher areas of Central New York.

Starting in the winter of 1993-94, the number reported on the feeder survey tripled over what it had been in most of the earlier years. The next year the numbers dropped to normal. Since that time, the numbers have been high every other year. The numbers in the "high years" have continued to be about three times what they are in lean years.

To my surprise, the white-breasted nuthatch population has been following the same alternate year cycle. I suppose it has something to do with changes in the availability of food or nesting success. Both birds eat insects as well as seeds. They both and must find a natural cavity in which to nest. For the moment, I don't have any thoughts as to why their populations go up and down in alternate years. Both species have their "high" in the same year.

This is another bit of interesting information that has come from your helping me gather data for the feeder survey. If you haven't helped with the feeder survey before, can you make observations for the December Feeder Survey? It is fun and you can make a contribution to science. (You can read the directions by selecting the Library near the top of this page at the left and once there, choose “Feeder Survey Directions”)

The cedar waxwing seldom comes to feeders, but flocks move about feeding on berries where they can find them. In the first week of November, there were very few listed, in fact it was the lowest count in many years.

Among the sparrows, the tree sparrows have begun to appear from the north as they usually do, but the big influx comes in December. White-throated sparrows were about normal, but there are more white-crowned sparrows than usual.

Dark-eyed juncos were numerous as they were last year at this time. The big change for the junco was not in the sheer numbers, but in the fact that nearly every report listed them this November.

A Winter Hummingbird

The most unusual bird for the first week of November was a ruby-throated hummingbird at Janet Allens feeder in Syracuse. Normally, most of these birds leave in the last days of September. This bird showed up in mid-October which is the time the last stragglers leave for the winter.

It spent long hours at the feeder every day through November 5. That night the temperature dropped into the low 20's and the bird was never seen again.

Caption: (Photo courtesy of Janet Allen)

Hummingbirds normally leave for the south in late September. The last ones leave by October 15. This hummingbird broke all the rules and first showed up in mid October at Janet Allens feeder in Syracuse. It spent much time at her feeder every day through November 5. That night the temperature dropped to 22 and the bird was never seen again.

This one was reported on the Feeder Survey for the first week of November. Never before in the 45 years the feeder survey has been conducted, has a hummingbird been reported on a November Feeder Survey.

There was another hummingbird at Ray Burts feeder in South Otselic from October 8 to November 6. This bird had a lot of brown on it and he thought it might be a rufous hummingbird. It is identical to the Allen's hummingbird except for some feathers in the tail.
He sent me some pictures that I shared with Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. His opinion was "It certainly looks like a female Rufous/Allen's based on the rufous showing on top of the tail and up the rump. The fact that the tail is longer than the wings rules out Calliope."

This pretty much makes it a Rufous/Allen's. There are usually scattered reports each year of these birds in the Eastern United States.

There was a third hummingbird at Alice Alsever's feeder in Nelson.It was at a feeder very close to the window. She described it as having a lot of rusty color. It was present from November 6 to the 8th.

Unfortunately, I did not hear from any of these people in time to make it possible for anyone else to see these birds.

There is a possibility I suppose that some or all of these hummingbirds were wandering about the south eastern states and were swept in our directions by the winds of hurricane Isabel.
How many species did people see in their yard or flying over? Fifty-six fairly common species were spotted in November compared to 65 in early October. I call these fairly common if they were seen by at least two different people.

In addition to these birds, 23 other species were each reported by 23 different people. This brought the total to 79.

The typical report this time listed 14 species. Half of the people had more than 14 and half had less.


Here is a list of all species reported. The first figure is the number of birds spotted by 100 observers. The number in parentheses is the number of reports out of 100 that listed the species. If you divide the number of birds by the number of reports, you get the average number per observer. You may wish to compare this with your own tally for that species.
Great blue heron 5(5); turkey vulture 20 (7); blue goose 8 (1); snow goose 26 (1); Canada goose 9,679 (52).

Ducks: wood 3 (1); black 6 (1); mallard 216 (10); bufflehead 26 (3); hooded merganser 1 (1); common merganser 5 (1).

Hawks: harrier 4 (4); sharp-shined 5 (4); Cooper's 7 (7); red-tailed 25 (20); kestrel 2 (2); pheasant 5 (3); ruffed grouse 10(5); turkey 58 (8); killdeer 2 (1).

Gulls: ring-billed 117 (16); herring gull 30 (4); black-backed gull 5 (1); rock dove 265 (31); mourning dove 495 (86); ruby-throated hummingbird 1 (1).
Woodpeckers: red-bellied 39 (33); sapsucker 1 (1); downy 144 (86); hairy 65 (44); flicker 11 (8); pileated 2 (2).

Phoebe 1 (1); horned lark 2 (1); blue jay 322 (98); crow 595 (86); raven 6 (2); chickadee 415 (98); titmouse 96 (48); red-breasted nuthatch 56 (39); white-breasted nuthatch 127 (77); creeper 2 (2); Carolina wren 4 (3); house wren 1 (1); winter wren 1 (1).

Golden-crowned kinglet 3 (2); ruby-crowned kinglet 1 (1); bluebird 15 (7); robin 259 (30); mockingbird 2 (1); cedar waxwing 34 (5); starling 2,217 (36); towhee 1 (1).

Sparrows: tree 18 (10); chipping 21 (10); field 2 (2); savannah 2 (1); fox 4 (2); song 34 (18); white-throated 66 (29); white-crowned 40 (16); junco 498 (92).

Cardinal 170 (86); red winged blackbird 254 (9); grackle 229 (16); cowbird 40 (4); purple finch 39 (16); house finch 342 (65); siskin 2 (2); goldfinch 556 (79); evening grosbeak 11 (3); house sparrow 551 (49).

To get in touch with Benjamin P. BurttVia Mail: Write to B.Burtt, Stars Magazine, P.O. Box 4915, Syracuse,, NY 13221.

Via E-mail: Send to Be sure to put “For B.Burtt” in the subject line.

Hurricane Isabel and the birds

BIRD COLUMN FOR November 16, 2003

By Benjamin P. Burtt

A day or two after a hurricane strikes the Atlantic or Gulf coast, unusual and rare birds often turn up here in Central New York. For those who enjoy seeing birds that almost never appear here, a hurricane can be a bonanza.

Many of these are pelagic birds. These are birds that have largely cut their ties with the land and spend their lives in the open ocean. They return to land only to breed. Some are from the Atlantic Ocean, east of South America and others from the Caribbean.

Their pictures are shown in your field guide, but we normally never see them unless we are in a boat far at sea. They include shearwaters, fulmars, petrels, and storm petrels. A very rare one would be an albatross , a booby, a frigate bird or a tropicbird.

Other birds that show up here after a hurricane include some that are normally found only on the edge of the sea from New England south to Florida and along the Gulf coast west to Texas.
Today, I want to discuss how the birds get here and what sort of weather conditions they encounter along the way. We will explore the dangers such storms cause for the birds and why so many are killed in a hurricane.

The Nature of a Hurricane

How did hurricane Isabel affect birds? When strong winds were felt, many small land songbirds took shelter to wait it out.

While hurricane Isabel approached from the south east, it is important to know that hurricane winds are not steady winds from one direction. The storm is circular and like a huge whirlpool, 700 miles across, it draws the winds and the birds in them in a spiral path towards the center in a counter-clockwise direction.

When the storm is forming over the ocean to the south and east, pelagic birds are swept into this region from all points of the compass like swimmers going downstream in a strong current.
While the storm is still over the ocean, the whirlpool begins to form a small area in the center where the winds are gentle and the sky may be clear. This is called the "eye" of the hurricane. In Isabel, the eye was 50 miles in diameter, which is large as eyes go.

Land birds may be migrating south at the time and passing over the ocean heading for South America. They too may be drawn into the storm and end up in the eye along with the pelagic birds. After a time, thunder storms form around the eye and before long and it is ringed by a wall of thunder storms, shoulder to shoulder about 7 miles thick. This is called the eye wall.
The highest winds in the storm are just outside the eye wall and were slightly over 100 mph in Isabel.

The birds in the eye are in a sort of sanctuary for there is almost no wind and it may even be sunny. The water below the thunder storms in the eye wall becomes turbulent and there are 40 to 50 foot waves there. These waves move right into the calm air of the eye, so while the air is quiet in the eye, huge waves are commonplace.

The pelagic birds can no longer rest on the surface of the water or even find food there. They must keep flying. Land birds in the eye must keep flying too. This eye moves along to the north west at 10 miles per hour at first.

There are many birds flying about within the eye and the hurricane hunter aircraft have reported great flocks there. Ships that have been in the eye report many pelagic birds flying about and lots of land birds resting on the ship and in the rigging.

On early Thursday morning, September 18, high winds began to buffet the shore of North Carolina. By noon the center of the storm was passing inland at about 20 mph. The pelagic birds were now being carried away from their life at sea, and would not be able to go down to rest or feed unless a large body of water appeared below them as the storm moved along.

If the land birds in the eye could see the ground, some would fly down to rest. However, over the land, the eye fills up with clouds and the visibility is poor, so that all birds must continue flying.
If a pelagic bird became exhausted, it might be so weak that it would drop down through the clouds and could end up in someones back yard.

Check the Hurricane Maps

At this point, I suggest that you look at two maps that I have made. The first shows the path of the storm and the second, shows how the strong winds are arranged around the center of the storm.

Now back to the hurricanes movement over the United States. As the eye of the hurricane with its bird passengers, moved over the land, the winds on the south side of the storm would sweep birds flying there, out over the ocean.

Those on the north side of the storm would be swept to the west and would go inland sometimes as far as Ohio and Indiana.

The hurricane moved to the northwest. As the storm passed over central Virginia at 23 mph, the winds within it dropped to 65 mph, some birds that could see the ground probably left the storm there.

Six hours after passing over central Virginia, the storm was over the panhandle of West Virginia and the spiraling winds were down to 50 mph. However, the storm had picked up speed and was moving over the land at 35 mph.

As the storm moved across West Virginia into western Pennsylvania on September 19, the winds decreased still further. The visibility was better and birds could leave the storm and return to the earth.

A Pelican turned up at DeRuyter

An immature brown pelican wandering about on the east coast was in the air and apparently, flew northwest to avoid the storm. The winds on the fringes of the hurricane were pushing it in that direction.

When the center of the hurricane was near Pittsburgh, the winds were now pushing the pelican north. With this tail wind the bird eventually found itself over southeastern Onondaga County and spotted the Deruyter Reservoir on Friday September 19.

The pelican cruised over the Reservoir and down below it could see some people struggling to secure their boats, their docks and moorings in the wind and rough water.

The pelican saw Berry Buyea and Charles Beeler Sr. and Jr., Mike Curran, John Kennedy and Jack Konig who shouted, "look there's a pelican" but everyone else laughed. Later however, John Kennedy took some pictures when the bird was far out over the water.

As the pelican flew down the lake, it might have thought to itself, "You fellows think you are having a tough time, you should see what I've just come through."

The bird stayed two days and then disappeared. The only previous record in Central New York ( Region 5) was in 1920. While John's photograph was taken at quite a distance, the bird could be identified. It was the shape of a pelican and was dark in color with no white patches, and that was all that was needed.

Many pelagic birds turned up on Lakes Erie, Ontario and Cayuga. These birds had been flying steadily without food or rest and many died and the survivors that arrived were weak.

A White-Faced Ibis turned up at Montezuma

About a week later, an immature white-faced ibis turned up at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Normally found on the Gulf coast in Louisiana and Texas, it may have strayed to the east before the storm and then was swept north to establish the first record of its species in upstate NY. To see two nice photographs of that bird, go to Images and select "White-faced Ibis". The second hurricane map shows the normal range of this bird where it is colored in red.

Many Birds Died in the Hurricane

How many birds were killed in the storm? We will never know, but now that we understand what the hurricane was like, lets review what they went through.

Birds trapped in the eye when the storm formed over the ocean, could not escape through the eye wall because of the strong incoming winds. If they were still alive when the storm moved over the land, they eventually may have been able to fly down to the surface. This is probably the way the surviving pelagic birds got here.

Many probably died from exhaustion and fell to the ground along the way for they had been flying for two days without rest.

Land birds that were skirting the storm on the east and northern side were not likely to be caught in the storm, but the spiraling wind did push them far inland.

However, birds that flew too close to the storm could be swept into it by the winds that spiraled in. When they reached the eye wall, they would probably be drawn into the wall itself.
Instead of passing through the wall into the eye, the strong winds in the eye wall carried them upward in a tight spiral. How high the birds would go we do not know, but the spiraling winds go up 17,000 to 50,000 feet. The higher the birds were carried, the lower the temperature and the birds could encounter hail and subfreezing temperatures as they were carried upwards.
It does not seem likely that they could survive. Battered and exhausted, they probably were not able to keep on flying and would die there in the sky. The carcasses would be scattered over a wide area and never be noticed.

The hurricane made for some interesting birding, but the birds from the Atlantic Ocean or the coast that were seen, were the survivors and probably many more perished along the way.
There is one other way that the hurricane can make some unusual birds be visible in Central New York. The phalaropes are sandpiper-like birds, but they swim as well as wade. They breed in Canada and some very far to the north.

They migrate south to spend the winter at sea. Since they travel overhead at high altitude, we seldom see them. At the time of the hurricane, many turned up on Lake Ontario and Cayuga Lake. These birds were not blown here by the storm, but as suggested by Dr. Kevin McGowan of Cornell, they probably, saw the huge storm ahead of them and veered to the west to avoid it and then came down on the lakes to rest and sit out the storm.

I am indebted to several people who helped me become more knowledgeable about hurricanes. Chris Brandolino and Peter Hall of WSTM-TV were the first people I contacted. They shared some of their knowledge and told me about the National Hurricane Center and its web site with all the records of Hurricane Isabel.

There I was able to see images of the storm at six hour intervals. I was also able to consult with a hurricane specialist, Tracy Stewart who through a number of emails answered many questions for me. Thanks to you all!

Coming in the next column on November30: The results of the November Feeder Survey and the announcement concerning the start of the December survey.

To get in touch with Benjamin P. BurttVia Mail: Write to B.Burtt, Stars Magazine, P.O. Box 4915, Syracuse,, NY 13221.

Via E-mail: Send to Be sure to put “For B.Burtt” in the subject line.

Titmice on the increase & October Feeder Survey results

Bird Column for November 2, 2003

Here is a discussion of the results of the October Feeder Survey. This includes all the material that appeared in the Post Standard as well as additional details including the species that were most often seen as well as a complete list of all the birds observed.

Sixty-seven people from the Central New York area watched their feeders during the first week of October and sent in a report listing the largest number of each species that they saw at any one time during the week.

The survey is conducted the first week of each winter month. With the help of hundreds of readers for 44 years, useful scientific information has been obtained. It has enabled me to see that the cardinal increased gradually during this period. We have seen the pheasant decline.

Tree sparrows come down from Canada for the winter in November. We found that their numbers increase gradually and reach a peak in February. By early April one-half have returned to Canada. Just a few are left for the May count and they soon leave.

The evening grosbeak also visits from the north, but it only comes every other winter. The red-breasted nuthatch comes down every year, and its numbers are always high one year and low the next.

The count of tufted titmice this October was the highest ever recorded. In the early 20th century it was found only in the Southern states. It started to move northward and two of them were first reported at Bessie Bradt's feeder in Manlius in 1959. By 1980 it was on 10% of the feeder reports. It reached 20% by 1994 and now, 47% of the observers list it.

These illustrations show how your efforts on the feeder survey have provided valuable and interesting information over the years.

The November feeder survey starts today and ends Saturday. Please watch whenever you can and keep a record of the number of birds of each species that you see each time. At the end of the week, list the largest number of each species that you saw at any one time during that week.

I need more people to help with this project. No list is too short. If you live in upstate New York you are invited to participate even if you do not subscribe to the Post Standard. There is a set of directions for participants that includes how to make the observations, how to prepare the report and where to send it. To read those directions, select LIBRARY at the left and once there , choose The Feeder Survey Directions. Some history of the feeder survey is given there as well.

Sixty six fairly common species were seen. In addition to these 66 fairly common birds, 22 others were each reported by only one person. So the total of all reports was 88 species.

As usual in October, the Canada goose was the most abundant bird with 6,765 per 100 reports. Next came the starling with 858. There were 479 house sparrows, 464 grackles and 465 mourning doves.

After the mourning dove, the other abundant birds were the goldfinch, blue jay, crow, chickadee, house finch and rock dove.

In addition to the numbers, we can ask how wide spread each species was. That is, what percentage of the feeders attracted the bird?

Almost everyone had blue jays and chickadees. Eighty-seven percent had mourning doves and goldfinches. Other species spotted by over half the observers were crow, white-breasted nuthatch, downy woodpecker, cardinal, house finch and Canada goose.


Some people have long lists and some have short lists. Every list is important regardless of its length. It tells us what birds are visiting your vicinity. It tells us what the numbers are for the species you have. When all of the lists are tabulated, you can see how many of the species are visiting the average feeder.

Sometimes an observer does not send a list because there are not very many birds on it. All your lists are important. So let me hear from you. By counting them and keeping a copy of the list, you can also compare the way the numbers change at your feeder during the winter or from one year to the next.

The shortest list on the October survey came from the combined observations of two third grade classes at the New Haven Elementary School. In October, they saw 4 mourning doves, 1 blue jay and 5 goldfinches.

The typical list this time had 14 species on it. There were 4 on the list from Debbie O'Connell of Camillus. Eight species were listed by David Bigsby of Verona Beach, Alan Fitch of Marcellus, Elaine Lyon of Cortland, Albert Neveu of Scriba, Linda Shuron of Solvay and Donald Windsor of Norwich.

The longest list was turned in by Paul Radway who lives near Pompey. He tallied 43 as he did last year. Bill Purcell of Hastings reported 41 species and so did Ken Zoller of West Winfield. Linda Quackenbush of Waterloo had 39.


The first figure for each species is the number of birds spotted on 100 reports and the one in parentheses is the number of reports out of 100 that listed that species.

If you divide the number of birds by the number of reports, you get the average number of birds visiting a feeder. Lets do it for the goldfinch. There were 446 seen by 86 people. 446 divided by 86 is 5.2. So that means the average person had about 5 of them in sight at once. How many goldfinches did you have?

Here is the entire list:

Great blue heron 5 (5); turkey vulture 54 (24).

Ducks and geese: snow goose 71 (1); Canada goose 6,765 (62); wood duck 5 (2); mallard 34 (6); common merganser 1 (1).

Hawks: osprey 1 (1); harrier 3 (3); sharp-shinned 10 (10); Coopers 4 (4); goshawk 1 (1); broad winged 1 (1); red-tailed 11 (11); kestrel 7 5).

Pheasant 5 (4); ruffed grouse 8 (4); turkey 65 (10); killdeer 2 (2).

Gulls: ring-billed 211 ( 9); herring 9 (2); rock dove 218 (20); mourning dove 455 (87); screech owl 1 (1); horned owl 2 (1); barn owl 1 (1); hummingbird 2 (2); kingfisher 3 (3).

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 26 (21); sapsucker 2 (2); downy 122 (72); hairy 54 (41); flicker 57 (27); pileated 3 (3); phoebe 13 ( 9); kingbird 1 (1); tree-swallow 22 (2).

Blue jay 411 (93); crow 401 (84); chickadee 366 (95); titmouse 90 (47); red-breasted nuthatch 36 (26); white-breasted nuthatch 113 (75); Carolina wren 6 (5); house wren 5 (4); winter wren 1 (1).

Golden-crowned kinglet 22 (6); ruby-crowned kinglet 6 (2); bluebird 8 (4); Swainsons thrush 2 (1); wood thrush 1 (1); robin 164 (33); catbird 12 (10); mockingbird 6 (1); brown thrasher 2 (2); starling 858 (26); cedar waxwing 93 (5); warbling vireo 1 (1).

Warblers: blue-wing 1 (1); Tennesee 2 (6); Nashville 3 (2); black-throated blue 3 (2); yellow-rumped 26 (6); black-throated green 2 (2); palm 1 (1); mourning 1 (1); yellow throat 3 (2); rose-breasted grosbeak 2 (2); scarlet tanager 1 (1); towhee 7 (5).

Sparrows: tree sparrow 3 (2); chipping 78 (24); field 9 (3); savannah 3 (2); song 69 (32); swamp 1 (1); white-throated 191 (35); white-crowned 120 (29); junco 147 (47); cardinal 203 (69); rose-breasted grosbeak 2 (2).

Red-winged blackbird 114 (10); grackle 464 (18); cowbird 10 (4).

Purple finch 13 (7); house finch 275 (56); goldfinch 446 (86); house sparrow 479 (36).

To get in touch with Benjamin P. BurttVia Mail: Write to B.Burtt, Stars Magazine, P.O. Box 4915, Syracuse,, NY 13221.

Via E-mail: Send to Be sure to put “For B.Burtt” in the subject line.