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Avian world aflutter over rare sighting of a hummingbird in South Hall yard

Species native to California frequents local feeder, drawing bird experts to area

POSTED: January 6, 2011 11:30 p.m.
Photos by Carole Gohman/For The Times

An Allen's Hummingbird, one of only 10 spotted in Georgia, has been frequenting the feeder in Carole Gohman's South Hall yard. Experts, photographers and birders have been setting up camp in her yard to capture a glimpse of the rare West Coast bird. It has been banded by Rusty Trump, president of the Georgia Hummer Study Group, Inc.

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A spoonful of sugar not only helps the medicine go down, it also draws hummingbirds all the way from California.

Although hummingbirds typically get their food from the nectar of flowers and small insects, they have also been known to get a quick snack from bird feeders. Typically, such feeders contain a simple, sugar-water solution.

"I usually take my bird feeders down in the winter, but I took a class at Elachee (Nature Science) Center and they said to leave the feeders up because there are some winter hummingbirds that may stop by," said Carole Gohman, a South Hall resident.

"I decided to give it a try, but I didn't expect much. I freshened things up and low and behold in the middle of December, there was this little hummingbird."

In an effort to identify the bird, Gohman contacted Elachee staff, who suggested she contact Rusty Trump, president of the Georgia Hummer Study Group.

After capturing the bird briefly to band it, Trump — who holds a state and federal banding license — was able to identify the animal as an Allen's Hummingbird.

"As soon as the word got out, I had birders from all over setting up shop in my yard. People have come as far away as Tennessee," Gohman said.

"They come as early as daybreak. At one point, we had six people setting up their equipment to get pictures. They had really high-tech stuff. I was totally surprised by the interest."

Sure the bird's apple-green spotted plumage is pretty to look at, but why all of the attention?

Well according to the National Audobon Society, there are only around 530,000 of them worldwide and they have one of the "smallest breeding ranges of all U.S. hummingbirds." Typically, the birds spend the warmer months breeding along the Pacific Coast before heading to Mexico for the winter.

Gohman's bird is one of only 10 Allen's to be spotted in the entire state.

"It's been around five years since one has been spotted in Georgia; this is the first one spotted in Hall County," Trump said.

"Since they typically winter in Mexico, the further east they go, the more rare that sighting is."

The million dollar question on many people's minds is how did the hummingbird end up here?

"I think some of the birds are testing their range," Trump said.

"In situations like this one, some of the birds could truly be lost, but others could be testing out the area to see if they find an area to be suitable (to their needs). If they find the area to be suitable, they could come back."

By banding the birds with a unique identifying bracelet, experts are better able to study their behavior.

"Putting a unique marker on an individual bird helps us learn about its whereabouts, among other things. If someone in another area spots it, then that helps us learn its travel patterns," Trump said.

"We can also learn things like how long they live in the wild. For instance, we think this bird is at least 2 years old. If someone spots it in five years, then we know it's at least 7 years old."

Banding the birds also can help change existing thoughts about animal behavior. For instance, experts have changed their tunes about the travel patterns of the Rufous Hummingbird.

"Atlanta has now been added to the edge of their normal wintering grounds. There are more than 100 Rufous sightings every year in Georgia. All of them can't be lost," Trump said.

"They are intentionally coming here."

The fact that the Allen's have gotten so far off of their "normal" travel pattern is nothing short of amazing, Trump says, as is their ability to locate their usual wintering habitat.

"They don't travel in flocks, so how does a bird that's never been to its wintering grounds know where to go," Trump questions.

To answer that and other questions, Trump says it's important for people to contact groups such as his when they have unusual bird sightings.

"It's important for us to band these birds so that we can learn more about them," Trump said.

"When we (sight) a bird that's been banded somewhere else, that's when we can begin to track their movement."



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