The Return of Rufous

by Milt Lum, Staff Writer

Rufous Hummingbird
Rufous the Red

For many in our area spring is synonymous with the first blooms of the rhododendron bush, but for me spring has sprung when my buddy Rufous the Red returns. Rufous is a long-distance traveler flying up here from somewhere in Mexico every spring. I’m never sure he’ll make it back each year, and when he arrives, I can finally celebrate the arrival of spring.

Rufous is a migratory hummingbird in contrast to his slightly larger rival, the Anna’s hummingbird who doesn’t have the good sense to go south when rain and cold weather descend on our area. You’d think that a bigger guy like that would hardly cower to a smaller feistier rival like Rufous. But there is no doubt who dominates the feeder. Perhaps all that traveling does create some kind of toughness.

Some of Rufous’ clan are even more ambitious and head up to my old stomping grounds in the North Country, Alaska, a journey of nearly 4,000 miles. That long-distance flying requires a lot of fuel and there aren’t that many humming- bird feeders along the way. They make up for it with insects and flower nectar they find on the route.

When he first showed up several years ago, Rufous went right to work establishing his territorial rights to the feeder. It didn’t matter that the Anna’s had been there all winter. I assumed that Rufous would hang around all summer, but just like friends whom you take for granted that they will always be there until they’re not, he was gone by mid-July.

I see him most often during the evening. It’s a tradition in our home that my wife and I have a sit-down supper with each other at dusk. My place at the small table near the kitchen window affords me a clear view of the kolkwitzia (Beauty Bush), where Rufous likes to perch after a session at the feeder. It was on one of those long languid evenings with the sun still shining late in the day and a gentle breeze wafting off the water that I came to fully appreciate Rufous. His gorget was at its prime mating colors. As he turned his head from side to side it flashed in the sunlight like a neon sign. When he was buzzing about, the gorget appeared like it was on fire; but sedentary, I saw a spectrum of colors. He displayed green, scarlet, yellow, and brown iridescence in the soft light of evening, and posed long enough for me to capture those precious moments on thousands of pixels.

That evening had already been a confluence of simple plea- sures: An idyllic setting, a good meal, and a glass of wine with someone special. To be entertained with Rufous’ bril- liant display of colors added to that special moment when life is better than good.

But Rufous’ survival may be in jeopardy. Rufous hummingbirds were reclassified in 2018 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature from the least-concerned category to one of near-threatened exis- tence. Climate change altering the blooming schedule of flowers has disrupted the migration patterns depriving the birds of much-needed nourishment along the way. Habitat loss along the migratory routes and a dearth of insects upon which they feed have also contributed to their declining numbers.

Rufous is a marvelous bit of bird magic, so much energy in a little body that travels long distances and returns to our little feeder year after year. Modernity has stacked the odds against this little guy. I don’t ever take him for granted anymore. Each spring when Rufous shows up I am grateful that I’m around to see him and that for another year all is right with the world.