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'Megararity': ruby-throated hummingbird sighted for first time in Oregon

This is the first ruby-throated hummingbird ever documented to be seen in Oregon.Trent Bray shot this picture of it on Sept. 16, 2006, five miles south of Pendleton. (Photo/TRENT BRAY).
This is the first ruby-throated hummingbird ever documented to be seen in Oregon.Trent Bray shot this picture of it on Sept. 16, 2006, five miles south of Pendleton. (Photo/TRENT BRAY).

- Dick Mason

- The Observer

The ruby-throated hummingbird beats its wings an average of 52 times a second.

This astounding number, though, is not what some Oregon Bird Records Committee members mention first when discussing the colorful avian creature. A different figure is cited, one pointing to the birds' place in state history — 499.

The ruby-throated hummingbird recently became the 499th documented bird to have been seen in this state. The Oregon Bird Records Committee added the ruby-throated hummingbird to the all-time state list at its April meeting.

The addition is based on a sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird five miles south of Pendleton in the backyard of Aaron Skirvin's home in September. Skirvin, who has since moved to a different part of the Pendleton area, first saw the bird Sept. 14 at 4 p.m. at his hummingbird feeder.

The bird's red throat jumped out at Skirvin like flashing lights on an ambulance. If the bird was a male, it was highly unusual. A male with a red throat in Umatilla County would most likely be an Anna's hummingbird, Skirvin thought. Anna's are extremely rare in Umatilla County but not unheard of.

Skirvin called June Witten of Pendleton, a fellow birder who came immediately to his house. They checked the bird's markings carefully, got out a bird identification guide and determined that it was likely a ruby-throated hummingbird. They both knew its potential historical significance.

Skirvin did not have a feeling of deja vu, but it would have been understandable if he did. In the mid-1970s, near Junction City, he helped make the state's first documented sighting of a hooded warbler.

That time things were much different since he instantly knew what bird he had spotted. Last September, though, the identification took much longer. Skirvin did not know for certain what the bird in his yard was until the morning of Sept. 15. Then he could tell that it had a black chin, the final proof he needed to conclude that it was a ruby-throated hummingbird.

Skirvin had not been able to determine this earlier because it was so late in the day that he couldn't tell if its chin truly had black marking or just appeared that way because of shadows.

Upon determining that the the bird did have a black chin Skirvin knew he had a positive identification. He called birder Dave Herr of Pendleton, who came out and photographed the ruby-throated hummingbird.

La Grande connection

The ruby-throated hummingbird was still in Skirvin's backyard when he left later the morning of Sept. 15 for a trip to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County. While in Malheur County, a member of the Pendleton Bird Club wrote a message for Oregon Birding On Line, an Internet message list serve on which people share sightings. The birder mentioned the birds he and others had seen in Malheur County. His last line mentioned the sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird in Skirvin's Pendleton backyard.

The last sentence, written matter of factly, shocked Trent Bray, a La Grande birder, who was reading the Internet message board the afternoon of Sept. 16 in La Grande. The mention of the ruby-throated hummingbird screamed for an exclamation mark, in Bray's mind. The look of amazement on Bray's face provided it.

"I couldn't believe it,'' said Bray, the owner of the Bobolink, a La Grande birding supply store.

Bray closed his store early and rushed to Skirvin's home. Bray immediately began snapping pictures of the bird. He about took 100 photographs with two cameras. Several were used by the Oregon Bird Record Committee to document the sighting. He describes this as one of the most memorable experiences of his life.

"To be part of this is priceless,'' Bray said. "This is a mega rarity.''

The pictures Bray took made a huge difference in getting the ruby-throated hummingbird sighting confirmed.

"No matter how many descriptions you have they do not mean as much as a photo, which doesn't need a description,'' Bray said. "One photo of a bird is worth a million words.''

Bray arrived just in time, for the hummingbird was last seen in Skirvin's yard Sept. 17.

Today the Pendleton resident shudders at how close he came to missing the bird. He said that had he been doing something away from home that day, or if the bird had arrived a day later, he could have easily missed it.

"It could have just as easily arrived at my feeder, stayed for a couple of days, left the area, and gone undetected while I was at Malheur.''

Skirvin speaks humbly of his accomplishment.

"I think I have to call my sighting of an extremely rare Oregon bird what it really is: stupendous luck."

He was also aided by a bird that behaved almost like a fashion model.

"The hummingbird," he said, "was very cooperative, determined to show all its field marks.''

Skirvin has been an active birder for 35 years.

"You can call it just dumb luck or bullheaded persistence, but I guess if you look at enough birds, you might have the privilege to see a truly unusual or rare bird.''

Skirvin said it is possible that the bird had started visiting his feeder days before Sept. 14.

He would welcome another such visitor.

"Luck or not, it was a great bird to have in the yard, and if given the opportunity, I would gladly do it all over again.''

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