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Catch me if you can: An unlikely hummingbird is banded at a Virginia park

Bruce Peterjohn peers through a magnifying glass at a rufous hummingbird in Green Spring Gardens. The rufous is not native to these parts, especially not during winter, when hummingbirds move south. But every now and then one overwinters. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Bruce Peterjohn peers through a magnifying glass at a rufous hummingbird in Green Spring Gardens. The rufous is not native to these parts, especially not during winter, when hummingbirds move south. But every now and then one overwinters. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Since 2006, Bruce Peterjohn has slipped teeny-tiny aluminum rings on the little toothpick legs of more than 3,000 hummingbirds. But that didn’t guarantee that banding his latest quarry would be a slam dunk.

“Now we wait for her to come in,” Bruce said last Tuesday at Green Spring Gardens, just off Little River Turnpike and Braddock Road in Fairfax County, Va. The time was 9:50 a.m.

There shouldn’t be a hummingbird at Green Spring Gardens this time of year. It’s winter, the season ruby-throated hummingbirds spend in Mexico or Central America.

And there should never be a rufous hummingbird, a species that spends the summer in the west of the United States and Canada, not in the east.

That’s what bird-loving visitors to Green Spring Gardens thought they’d spotted: a doubly rare rufous.

“A volunteer in the rock garden saw it,” said Tatiana Lisle, who serves on the board of the Friends of Green Spring.

That was before Christmas: a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flowering evergreen called a mahonia.

“Word gets out quickly,” said Larry Cartwright, who compiles the District’s annual Christmas bird count, when birders from all over identify and enumerate as many birds as they can see.

Last week, Tatiana and Larry were at Green Spring, eager to see Bruce at work.

“I banded a rufous here in 2012,” Bruce said. “There’s a chance this could be the same bird.”

This has been quite a year for vagrants, which is the term ornithologists use for birds hanging out somewhere they normally don’t. Right now, the area’s most famous feathered hobo is a painted bunting. He should be wintering down south with the hummingbirds, but he’s drawing crowds at the C&O Canal.

How do you band a hummingbird? First, you catch it. That means luring it to a nectar feeder. After seeing the hummingbird in the bushes last month, the folks at Green Spring Gardens put up three feeders full of sugar water. She soon began visiting them.

Then you do what Bruce did: Put a cylindrical cage about the size of a water cooler jug around a feeder. Bruce attached fishing line to the cage’s sliding door then walked about 30 feet away, unspooling the line. He held the end and waited.

He didn’t have long to wait. Five minutes later, the hummingbird flew to the feeder and Bruce shut the door. He ambled over to the cage, knelt beside it and stuck his arm inside.

“I’m not good till I get her in the bag,” he said.

Soon he had her in a bright green mesh bag.

Bruce is the guy you want when you have a hummingbird that needs banding. Before his retirement in 2019, he ran the bird-banding program for the U.S. Geological Survey. He’d driven down from his house in Delaware just for this.

“This is the 19th hummingbird I’ve banded since Nov. 1,” he said.

Banding birds requires a federal permit. Bruce, 68, said around 1,700 people in the country are authorized to band birds. Of those, only about 100 have permits to band hummingbirds.

Bruce took the bird-in-a-bag over to a folding table that was set with his tools: a digital scale, a ruler, a magnifying glass and a little bit of nylon stocking into which he slipped the pinkie-size bird.

“Hi there, little girl,” he said. “How’re you doing today?”

It’s hard to say precisely why vagrancy seems to be increasing. Is it climate change? A blip in the polar vortex? Are birders — stuck close to home because of pandemic restrictions — just noticing more errant birds?

Bruce examined the bird — “She’s not already banded,” he said — then crimped a lightweight aluminum band the diameter of a grain of rice around her right leg. He measured the bird’s length — wings, 43.69 millimeters; tail, 27 millimeters — and weight.

“She weighs 3.4 grams,” Bruce said. “That’s an eighth of an ounce. You could mail eight hummingbirds with one first-class stamp. Of course, getting eight hummingbirds in an envelope could be difficult.”

Feeling the bird, Bruce could tell she had no fat on her. “I’m not surprised. She’s probably going to be here all winter,” he said.

Migration is encoded in a bird’s DNA. Bruce said it’s possible this particular rufous may pass on to her offspring the urge to winter in Northern Virginia.

After seven minutes, it was time to release the bird. “I can band a bird in two or three minutes, when I’m not talking to people,” Bruce said.

He put the bird against Tatiana’s flat outstretched palm.

“She’s so warm,” Tatiana said.

When Bruce took his hand away, the hummingbird — sporting an anklet engraved with “J45264” — zipped off.

Susan Eggerton, visitor services manager at Green Spring Gardens, turned to Bruce and said, “Thank you.”

Bruce nodded. “If you track any others, let me know,” he said.

And then the man who has banded 3,000 hummingbirds loaded the cage in his car for the drive home.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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