Correction:

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that it was not unusual for the rufous hummingbird to frequent the Washington area. It visits in small numbers. The story also said that western hummingbirds migrate to the mountains of western Mexico between mid-March and mid-April. Rufous hummingbirds do migrate to Mexico, but between mid -March and mid-April they migrate back to their breeding range in western North America. This version has been corrected.

Female rufous finds a temporary, and public, roost in Fairfax

(Bonnie Jo Mount/ The Washington Post ) - A Rufous hummingbird — rare to Virginia — is wintering at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, Va. on February 5, 2013.

(Bonnie Jo Mount/ The Washington Post ) - A Rufous hummingbird — rare to Virginia — is wintering at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, Va. on February 5, 2013.

The white gazebo at the Green Spring Gardens horticulture center has become somewhat of a spectacle. Visitors and staff members tend to linger just a bit longer, staring at the red bird feeder under the bright lamp — a spotlight of sorts — hoping for a glimpse at an unexpected but very welcomed guest — one that doesn’t often make such a prolonged public appearance.

A rufous hummingbird has taken up residence at the center in Fairfax County and is drawing the attention of a small but devoted fan club. At about an eighth of an ounce and measuring a mere 33 / 4 inches, the rufous is an eye-catcher — that is, if you can catch it.

The rufous hummingbird visits the Washington region in small numbers. It migrates to Mexico, but between mid-March and mid-April they migrate back to their breeding range in western North America.

“I would expect her to remain no later than April 15th through 20th,” Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the Bird Banding Laboratory at the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, said of this rufous in an e-mail. “If she were to remain later into April, then I would consider her migration to be unusually late.”

Someone reported the bird’s presence to Green Spring officials in early November, said Sandy Rittenhouse-Black, the visitor services and education manager there. After it became clear that the bird might stay for a while, the center’s officials consulted with hummingbird experts and decided to build the visitor a guest room befitting its status — and one that would protect its food from the elements.

The rufous’s daily visits vary in time of day and duration. Spectators have to squint or use binoculars to find the bird. Then there’s its changing appearance. Without the spotlight, it seems to have a little green around its head and back; hints of orange and brown on the wings and legs; and a white belly. Under the light, the orange dominates, making the belly and wings a radiant copper.

But the fact that this rufous is in a public place and is easily accessible is ultimately what’s made it somewhat of a celebrity, Peterjohn said. In the confines of a private house garden, such spectating would not be so permissible. And certainly not conducive to frequent fan visits.

“There is an element of drama, because there are some days when we don’t see her — sometimes for an extended period of a week or so,” said Jim Clark, 65, of Alexandria. “And, of course, we get all concerned wondering if she survived the freezing-cold nights.”

He and Chuck Roth, 75, of North Springfield have been monitoring the bird at Green Spring Gardens for a while now. They aren’t birders. In fact, Roth had been coming to the gardens to photograph birds, flowers and insects long before the rufous arrived. But since coming across the bird, well, they’ve become a bit like the paparazzi.

“We haven’t seen her today,” Clark said one recent afternoon, eyeing the feeder. “And there’s only a possible earlier sighting — no confirmed sighting today — so now we’re gonna be watching for her. Then, when she shows up when people haven’t seen her, it’s practically a celebration. People say, ‘Yay, there she is! She’s still with us.’ So this kind of drama kinda goes on day to day. It’s almost like a soap opera — is she gonna show? Is she still here? Is she okay?

“Initially, I couldn’t spot her, because I had no experience looking for birds — especially a bird as big as your thumb,” he said.

He paused while Roth flipped through pictures he had taken of the rufous.

“It doesn’t even look like a hummingbird,” Clark said. “It just looks like a little cotton ball, maybe that got blown in the wind, and is sitting on top of the hydrangea plant.”

Roth chimed in: “One of the things you’ll notice is that she has a very metallic glint to her external feathers, but when it’s real cold like that, and she puffs up, she turns much whiter.”

Larry Meade, president of the Northern Virginia Bird Club, first saw the rufous in mid-November.

By that time, the staff had put up a feeder, Meade said. “I asked them if they’d be interested in having the hummingbird banded.”

Meade put the garden staff in touch with Peterjohn, who banded the bird Nov. 29.

Although the gardens have attracted hummingbirds before, this is the first rufous anyone can recall seeing there, Rittenhouse-Black said.

But Peterjohn, who has banded 39 rufouses out of 42 hummingbirds of various species in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware between November and February, said the rufous is less of a rarity than “an occasional visitor.”

The Mid-Atlantic region tends to attract seven species of hummingbirds, Peterjohn said. The rufous is the most numerous of all hummingbirds to visit in winter, but that’s not to say that it’s so common that the bird’s presence has become mundane.

So, what to make of the stir this rufous has caused?

“There’s something about her that’s captivating,” said Clark, who first spotted the bird in late November. “When you first see her, then you want to see her again. And you start looking for her.

“It just never stops fascinating us,” he added.

As he reminisced about that first glimpse, the bird appeared on the bushes near the gazebo. Clark and Roth approached cautiously, excited for the day’s first sighting. Clark pulled out his binoculars, zooming in as the bird jumped onto the feeder, rested there momentarily under the light in the white gazebo.

 
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