Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)

The hummingbird, a delicate mosaic of muted hues, is perched thoughtfully on a slender branch.

On a balmy mid-August day, I hiked with Bhavna in the Mount Rose Preserve. We've enjoyed walking the preserve trail many times, but not today. It was clear that the trail had yet to be maintained. The trail was overgrown, and bushwhacking our way in the heat and humidity was exhausting. I had my XF150-600mmF5.6-8 R LM OIS WR lens with me, and carrying it through the dense vegetation was a chore.

Bhavna was not enjoying the hike this time and wanted to turn back. But then I reminded her that large trees cover the second half of the loop trail and the understory is sparse. We agreed it would be less effort to complete that end of the loop.

While completing this second half of the loop trail, I heard the very energetic chee-dit calls I have learned to associate with the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I asked Bhavna to stop while I looked around. Once we stopped walking, I could hear the quiet humming sound somewhere between the branches of a fallen tree.

I pulled the viewfinder to my eye and panned the XF150-600mmF5.6-8 R LM OIS WR slowly around. Then I saw it. The delicate mosaic of muted hues of a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched on a slender dead branch of a fallen tree. The labyrinth of branches criss-crossing behind her made composition challenging. These branches, stripped of their leaves, outline a web of lines.

The female Ruby-throated Hummingbird feathers, though not as flamboyantly vivid as her male counterparts, shimmered under the August sunlight. Her watchful eyes, sharp and alert, seemed to scan the surroundings in the vigilance demanded by the wild.

Carolina Chickadee or Black-capped Chickadee?

Due to climate change, the range of the Black-capped Chickadee and Carolina Chickadee overlap.

I was uncertain about the identification of this bird, so I uploaded the image to ChatGPT, requesting identification.

Me: Please identify the bird in this photograph. Please describe the scene.
ChatGPT: This is a photograph of a Carolina Chickadee, identifiable by its black cap and bib, white cheeks, and soft grey back, wings, and tail. It is perched on a bare branch amidst a network of similar branches against a pale blue sky, likely in a deciduous woodland during the non-breeding season when trees are leafless.

For verification, I uploaded the same image to the Merlin ID app. Merlin also identified this bird as a Carolina Chickadee. However, after additional reading on All About Birds, I learned that this individual could be a Carolina or Black-capped Chickadee. They are very similar in colouring, and identification can be challenging. The calls of the Black-capped Chickadee are different from the Carolina Chickadee. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the presence of mind to use the Merlin app for an audio identification.

However, Merlin ID mentioned a 2014 study by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Villanova University, and Cornell University that indicates that the hybrid zone between Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees is shifting northward in alignment with rising winter temperatures.

This is the first time I have heard and photographed a Chickadee. I heard this individual's distinctive call when I was outside, about to leave on a short walk. The bird was in a tall tree in the small wooded area between two streets near my home. Despite the challenges of backlighting, I enhanced some of its features using Adobe Lightroom, drawing out the finer details that aided in its accurate identification.

Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) · 30 December 2023 · FujiFilm X-T3 · XF150-600mmF5.6-8 R LM OIS WR

Surveying the surroundings

The bird is likely a type of finch or sparrow.

Merlin ID app identified this individual as a female house finch. Female House Finches have streaked brown and white plumage, which provides camouflage among the branches and leaves. They lack the red colouring that male House Finches display.

Her soft, earthy tones express her role in the finch family, not the flashy singer commanding attention but the diligent creator of the nest and nurturer of her young.

House Finches, Carpodacus mexicanus, are small, social birds well-adapted to human environments. The females, measuring 5 to 6 inches long, are predominantly brown with crisp, streaked patterns across their back, chest, and sides. Their solid and conical beaks are adapted to their seed-based diet. They will also consume fruits and insects when available, especially during breeding.

These birds are known for their vigorous singing, and the females' more subtle vocalisations often go unnoticed. Yet, her role is critical. She is the primary nest builder, weaving together twigs, grasses, and feathers to create a haven for her eggs, usually in the nooks of buildings or other artificial structures, a nod to their comfort in urban settings.

Originally from the western United States and Mexico, House Finches have expanded their range to cover the entire country, thriving in various habitats. Their conservation status is of "Least Concern," reflecting their successful adaptation and resilience.