Delaware Birders robbed of 1st State Record?

Editor’s note – 4/4/13 – The identification of this bird is far from settled, and hummingbird experts and banders have varied opinions. Bruce Peterjohn, who banded the bird, sent out an email with the original measurements which seem to place it solidly in the Anna’s Hummingbird column. Read his post, along with the case that Sheri Williamson lays out below for a hybrid and the comments on this blog. We want to facilitate discussion of the pertinent observations and reference materials. More excellent photos from Hank Davis, Tom Johnson and Howard Eskin show the bird with the newly molted gorget.

Also, read the 1996 paper on the Characterization of Calypte anna x Stellula calliope by Gary Graves and Nancy Newfield. 

Certain immature hummingbird species are notoriously difficult to identify. This is especially true of rare western hummingbirds that turn up on the east coast, where even hummingbird experts and banders have made high- profile identification calls that turned out to be incorrect. Perhaps the most famous case of mistaken hummer identity was when a Selasphorus hummingbird turned up in Cape May County, New Jersey in January 2012. It was carefully studied by many local birding experts, all of which were unsure of the bird’s ID until better views of the bird’s tail were seen and photos were taken. At that point, the bird was unanimously identified as an immature Rufous Hummingbird. That is, until March came around and the bird had molted in a new tail – a big, broad, black tail. At that point it became clear that the bird was in fact New Jersey’s first-ever Broad-tailed Hummingbird. The bird was originally misidentified, but luckily it stuck around long enough to be properly identified once it had molted, resulting in a new state record.

Now there is a new case of mistaken hummingbird identification, but I am sad to say that this one isn’t going to end as well for the birders of Delaware.

I have posted twice on Nemesis Bird about the hummingbird that has been present at a feeder in the Newark, Delaware backyard of Diane and Steve Freeberry. When first discovered in November 2012, this hummingbird was originally identified as a Archilocus species (Ruby-throated or Black-chinned). Once more experienced humming-birders had the chance to study it (and a bander was able to handle it), the identification was changed to an immature female Anna’s Hummingbird, a first state record.

The Delaware hummingbird back in January. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The Delaware hummingbird back on January 2nd, when it was considered an immature female Anna’s. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Since then hundreds of birders from all over Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and many other nearby states were able to chase the bird and see it for themselves. Thousands of photos were taken and hundreds of hours of observation time seemed to seal the deal for the bird being a female Anna’s. But then the Delaware hummingbird began to undergo molt in late March, and by April 1st it had grown in a full pink gorget and crown. Tom Johnson and Howard Eskin were some of the first to get photos of the result of the hummingbird’s transformation, and it became obvious that the hummer was not an immature female but rather an immature male.

The immature male hummingbird in Newark, Delaware on April 1st. (Photo by Tom Johnson)

The Delaware hummingbird on April 1st, sporting a stunning gorget and crown which made it an immature male. (Photo by Tom Johnson)

My recent post about the mistaken sex of the hummingbird caught the attention of Ned and Gigi Batchelder. The Batchelders are western hummingbird banders that noticed something a little peculiar about the bird, particularly the shape of the bird’s gorget and its tail pattern and shape. They alerted Sheri Williamson (author of the Peterson Guide to Hummingbirds of North America), who in turn emailed me with a bit of news: “I know this is going to bum out a whole bunch of folks, but it’s clearly a hybrid, probably Anna’s x Calliope.”

Sheri explained to me,

“When Mike Moore (the person who banded the Delaware bird) asked my opinion about [the hummingbird] in November, I wrote this: I think you’ve got yourself a state record! Its molt is running well behind most of the juvenile Anna’s we see, but that could indicate a more northerly point of origin. There seems to be too much white in the outer rectrices for a juvenile male, but the gorget pattern suggests that it’s going to be very colorful if it’s a female.”

The Case for a Hybrid Identification

In retrospect Sheri said, the unusually large white tip on R5 (tail feather number 5) and late molt schedule were clues that it wasn’t a pure Anna’s. Below are a few identification features that Sheri pointed out to help make the case for why this Delaware hummingbird is actually a hybrid Anna’s x Calliope (Calypte anna x Selasphorus calliope):

  • The tail is definitely not an Anna’s tail in either overall shape or shapes of individual feathers. The R1s appear to have the “spade-shaped” triangular tip characteristic of Calliope, and the left R5 has a white smudge near the tip that is a common variation in adult males of both Calliope and Broad-tailed (Sheri has never seen it in Anna’s).
  • The “pearling” of the gorget feathers suggests Calliope, though Sheri has seen a similar phenomenon in males with no other evidence of hybrid origin (usually second-years).
  • The primaries also suggest a blend of Calliope and Anna’s characteristics, the inner primaries being unusually broad and flared at the tips similar to Calliope.
This photo, taken on April 1st, shows the bird's tail shape well. (Photo by Howard B. Eskin)

This photo, taken on April 1st, shows the bird’s tail shape well. (Photo by Howard B. Eskin)

Also taken April 1st, this photo shows the gorget and crown in detail. (Photo by Tom Johnson)

Also taken April 1st, this photo shows the gorget and crown in detail. Shape of the bird’s primaries can also be seen in this photo. (Photo by Tom Johnson)

This photo shows the primary feather shape well. (Photo by Howard B. Eskin)

This photo shows that the inner primary feathers are broad and flared at the tips. (Photo by Howard B. Eskin)

More information on Anna’s x Calliope hybrid males, one of which wintered in Louisiana (at least until it was collected) can be read at this link. In conclusion, Sheri mentioned that conflicts between the migration instincts of the two parent species may make hybrids more likely to occur outside the species’ normal ranges than true species vagrants.

So there you have it – a single bird that could be studied easily at close range, for hours on end, and even captured and held in the hand went from being identified as an Archilocus species, to an immature female Anna’s Hummingbird, to an immature male Anna’s, and then finally to an immature male Anna’s x Calliope Hummingbird hybrid!

Why Should You Have to Only Check One Box?

Unfortunately that means that loads of birders are going to not only have to subtract a tick from their Delaware lists, but many will also have to lose a lifer. Currently, if it is not one solid species, it doesn’t ‘count’ on any official state lists, but maybe it should – Why should the fact that this bird is a hybrid prevent it from being accepted as a first state record, and why shouldn’t birders celebrate it regardless of its mixed ancestry? Isn’t it interesting that both Anna’s Hummingbird and Calliope Hummingbird genes have made their way to the state? It will be very interesting to see what the DE Rare Birds Committee ends up doing with this bird.

What are your thoughts?

Do you agree with the change to a hybrid identification? If you have gone to see the bird, we would love to hear your comments below.