- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2001

ROANOKE Little Ruth made one heck of a wrong turn.

Like other rufous hummingbirds, she probably spent the summer in Oregon, Washington or Alaska. When the first nip of fall came, the tiny birds headed south to wintering grounds in Mexico or South America.

Except Ruth. She flew east. Way east.

She landed in Roanoke County. She must have liked it because she hasn't left.

Carol Whiteside saw Ruth for the first time in early October. The bird was one of four hummers that had stopped at the Whitesides' home in Roanoke County, near the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Mrs. Whiteside knew three of the birds were ruby-throated hummingbirds, which are common in Virginia during the warmer months. But the other had an unusual touch of burnished red on its side.

"Wow, that bird's different from the others," Mrs. Whiteside thought.

She was pretty sure the bird was a female rufous hummingbird and her friends in the Roanoke Valley Bird Club agreed. It was an exciting sight. Rufous hummingbirds have been known to stray east during their migration, but it is rare.

Mrs. Whiteside expected the hummers to be on their way in a day or two. Three were. The rufous stayed.

She figured the bird was totally confused.

"She didn't know where … she was," she said.

Mrs. Whiteside, along with her husband, Bob, enjoyed their surprise visitor. Each day the bird made dozens of trips to their feeders. The feisty hummer began to show her personality. Sometimes she would challenge her own reflection in glass. If another bird intruded on her space, the hummer would dive-bomb the visitor.

"I've seen her chase countless birds," said Mrs. Whiteside, who added that the hummingbird backed down from only one bird a titmouse.

A family friend named the hummer Ruth, because she liked the name's ring. Ruth was a toughie, but Mrs. Whiteside couldn't stop worrying. November had arrived and it was getting colder each day.

"If she didn't appear one morning, I would have been convinced that she had died," Mrs. Whiteside said.

"When I get up in the morning, my first question isn't 'How are you doing, Bob?' " Mrs. Whiteside said as her husband smiled and nodded. "It's 'Have you seen Ruth yet?' "

The answer is always yes.

When Carol Whiteside is outside, Ruth often tags along.

"When I go up to the barn to do barn chores, I can hear her clicking," Mrs. Whiteside said. "She's watching me. I don't know if she's encouraging me or fussing at me."

On Nov. 21, another visitor arrived at the Whiteside home.

Fred Moore of Pelham, Ala., had learned of Ruth though an Internet bulletin board. Mr. Moore is one of just 12 licensed banders with the Hummer Bird Study Group, a national group of hummingbird enthusiasts. To confirm the rare sighting, he wanted to catch, band and positively identify Ruth.

With a video camera rolling, Mr. Moore hung Ruth's feeder in a cage. In minutes, the hummer flew to the feeder and Mr. Moore tripped the door with a remote control. Ruth buzzed around for a moment but was calm when Mr. Moore reached into the cage and gently cupped the tiny bird in his hands.

Over the next 10 minutes, he weighed, measured and collected feather samples from Ruth, a confirmed rufous.

She was about 3 and 1/2 inches long and weighed a little less than 4 grams, not much more than a large paper clip. Mr. Moore estimated the bird had enough body fat to get her to the Gulf Coast, but not enough to cross the Gulf of Mexico into South America.

Around Ruth's toothpick-sized leg, Mr. Moore clamped a tiny band number Y84981. During the entire process, Ruth remained calm.

"She never once struggled," Mrs. Whiteside said.

When the work was done, Mrs. Whiteside held Ruth for a few moments as Mr. Moore snapped pictures. The tiny bird eventually buzzed out of her hand and went straight to a feeder.

Because of the plentiful food and cover at the Whitesides' place, Mr. Moore said, Ruth just might decide to stick around through the winter. He said Ruth shouldn't have any problems with the cold weather. Rufous hummingbirds arrive in Alaska as early as mid-April for the breeding season, so they can handle the worst weather Virginia has to offer.

Above one of the two hummingbird feeders still hanging at their home, the Whitesides rigged a heat lamp to keep the water and sugar nectar from freezing.

Mrs. Whiteside used to hope the little bird would get back on track and fly south, but now she's not so sure.

"If she left us today, I would be heartbroken," she said. "She's part of the family."


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