There’s a delicate, jewel-toned mystery afoot in the Franklin Mountains, causing a buzz among bird enthusiasts.
A shimmering green and blue hummingbird, with a white underbelly, frequented feeders on the Westside in the foothills of the Franklins, but the bird’s identity has been a puzzle for both birders and scientists.
But University of Texas at El Paso scientists hope for answers within a few months using a genetic sample to find out just exactly what the bird is.
The little bird was first spotted by avid “hummingbirder” Janiece Ward, 61, after she put up some feeders to help “migratory feathered friends” during the winter season. Ward had previously spotted Anna’s Hummingbirds on the mountains’ western slopes during winter months. This year, she hauled sugar water and a dozen feeders to leave out for wintering hummingbirds, hoping to catch a few on camera.
She first spotted the bird Jan. 25 in the late afternoon, sipping sugar water from a feeder. She snapped a few photos.
“I just think hummingbirds are magical,” she said. “This one in particular, was so splendid.”
She sent out pictures to birders, who sent them to other experts, all stumped by the bird’s unique appearance. Scientists and birdspotters initially thought Ward spotted a White-bellied Emerald which is found in Central America and Mexico, according to emails exchanged with Ward.
If that were the case, it would be the first sighting of one in the United States about 1,000 miles outside San Luis Potosí in Mexico, the northern reach of its habitat — an extremely rare and unique birding find.
Barry Zimmer, a nature tour guide for Austin-based Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, said while several people came out from Colorado and California when the bird was first discovered, a lot of the interest dried up following discussion that it was a hybrid.
Zimmer said he’s still curious.
“Here’s this bird that you have all these experts looking at. Some of them say ‘it’s a white-bellied emerald’ and you can have some say ‘it’s definitely a hybrid,’ but then they all come up with different combinations,” Zimmer said. “It shows it’s a learning experience one way or the other.”
While only the Black Chinned hummingbird nests in the region, other hummingbird species travel thousands of miles to winter in the Paso Del Norte. Those include the Rufous hummingbird, which travels up to 4,000 miles between its nesting in Alaska and winter home in Mexico, or the Calliope hummingbird from the Pacific Northwest.
As other birders caught more photographs, a different hypothesis dominated: that the mystery hummingbird is a hybrid, a cross between two different hummingbird species.
Michael Harvey, an assistant professor in biology at UTEP, is reserving judgment until he can complete a genetic analysis on the bird in the next few months.
“Usually, if you get good photos of a bird in this part of the world, it’s pretty obvious what species it is,” Harvey said. “So it was interesting that no one knew what it was.”
Experts have floated nearly a dozen guesses into the bird’s parentage, but Harvey said the genetics make it complicated to just analyze a bird’s appearance — since offspring can look like one, both or neither parent.
“It’s hard to predict what a hybrid of any two species will look like. And as a result, we don’t know what species, or if this is a hybrid, what two species are involved,” Harvey said. “The only way to figure that out is through genetic analysis.”
But hybrids aren’t just limited to one generation, Harvey said, as many bird hybrids are able to have their own offspring.
“In nature, it’s actually not super rare to find hybrids. We’re finding more and more of them the closer we look, basically,” he said.
On Feb. 1, with help from colleague Oscar Johnson, Harvey safely netted the bird. They measured its bill, tail and wingspan, and finally plucked two tail feathers for a DNA sample, hoping to test genetic material in the blood or skin cells.
Harvey said his responsibilities to classes and other research mean it will take several months to develop a good sample, and compare it to data on hummingbird genomes developed at the University of California, Berkeley.
This analysis is only possible because of years of effort to make genome projects public, said Chris Witt, a professor of biology and the curator of birds at the Museum of Southwestern Biology at the University of New Mexico.
Witt worked on the project with Jim McGuire, a scientist specializing in bird evolution at UC Berkeley, starting in 2002, making six genes across hummingbird species public in 2014.
But getting definitive answers may be tricky, Witt said, since the genomic library’s collection is limited. He said universities and museums don’t have the resources to do basic science work needed to collect, analyze and publish samples.
“It’s just a handful of genes. And not a ton of population sampling. So I think this shows how far behind we are in building reference libraries for biodiversity,” Witt said. “That’s gonna make Mike Harvey’s job a little more tricky to come up with a definitive identification.”
Witt hopes the genomic reference library for hummingbirds will offer at least some partial clues about the bird.
“It’s a jaw-dropping bird because it’s obviously something super rare here,” Witt said.
Letting love for hummingbirds bloom
People can plant flowers for pollinators such as hummingbirds in their own backyards according to Denise Rodriguez of the El Paso County AgriLife Extension out of Texas Tech.
“Trumpet-shaped flowers are the best, and many native plants have this shape,” she said.
Barry Zimmer, a nature tour operator, said he planted anisacanthus, penstemons and salvia flowers at his home in El Paso to supplement hummingbird feeders in his own backyard, but also recommended lipstick sage, autumn sage and anisacanthus plants (fire bush or hummingbird brush).
Hummingbird feeders can also use one part white sugar cane (no substitutes) to three parts water. Zimmer said people can keep feeders up through the winter, to feed wintering species.
“There are hummingbirds here. You need to keep your bird feeders maintained so they have something to eat,” he said. “If you get birds that are dependent on you in the wintertime, then diligently keep your feeders full.”
Cover photo: A mystery hummingbird in El Paso’s Franklin Mountains has captivated area bird watchers and researchers. University of Texas at El Paso scientists hope to unlock its parentage with a genetic test. (Courtesy of Janiece Ward)