A male ruby-throated hummingbird has a red throat, but it changes color depending on lighting. (Photo/Terry Johnson)

Summer is the very best time of the year for Monroe County hummingbird watchers. It is when Monroe Countians host more hummingbirds than they do at any other time of the year. 

During some summer days, upwards of 100 hummingbirds will visit a single backyard in search of nectar produced by flowers and sugar water offered to them in feeders.

At a distance all of these birds seemingly look the same. However, when you take the time to really study them, it quickly becomes apparent that there appear to be at least three different kinds of hummers vying for the opportunity to dine at your backyard hummingbird cafe.  Later in the summer, it can become even more confusing when you might see one additional odd hummer.

The vast majority of these seemingly different birds are actually ruby-throated hummingbirds. These tiny aerial wonders are adult males, females and juvenile males. 

Although there are a number of subtle differences between them, here are a few simple tips that will enable you to easily tell them apart.

Adult Male - The adult male ruby-throated hummingbird sports a ruby-red throat (gorget). Since this gorget actually changes color depending on lighting conditions, identification of a male ruby-throated hummingbird can sometimes be tricky.

In direct sunlight, the gorget can appear bright red and then suddenly transform to charcoal black in the blink of an eye when a cloud slips in front of the sun. Once the cloud passes, the charcoal black color vanishes and the brilliant red hue reappears.

Juvenile Male -  During its first summer of life the juvenile male ruby-throated hummingbird’s throat is pale and marked with a series of black dots arranged in lines emanating from the base of its bill.

As summer leisurely moves closer to fall, a few red gorget feathers appear.  I have seen anywhere from one to 19 or more gorgeous ruby-hued feathers adorning the throats of young males before the birds disappear from my backyard by late summer.

Females - Both adult and juvenile female ruby-throated hummingbirds have light-colored, unmarked throats. As a result, it is next to impossible to tell a young bird from an adult female unless you can hold one in your hand and carefully examine its bill. The bills of all young hummers appear to have wrinkles whereas the bills of adult male and female hummingbirds are smooth.

Rufous Hummingbird - The rufous hummingbird is the most common hummingbird seen in Monroe County during the winter. These long-distance migrants nest from the Pacific Northwest all the way to southeastern Alaska.  While the vast majority of these birds winter in Mexico, each year thousands of them winter in the Southeast.  Although most of these wintering birds arrive in late fall and early winter, some show up in the Peach State during the summer.

The adult male rufous hummingbird looks like it has been dipped in cinnamon. Its gorget is orange-red. The bird’s back, sides and tail are reddish brown. It is next to impossible to misidentify him.

Female rufous hummingbirds look much like female rubythroats. However, if a bird has at least one brown feather on its green back and displays some brown on its tail, it is a rufous.

Juvenile male rufous hummingbirds resemble female rufous hummingbirds. However, like immature rubythroats, their throats will be accented with lines of dark dots and varying numbers of gorget feathers. These feathers are orange-red as opposed to ruby-red on young male rubythroats.

If you happen to spot a hummingbird that doesn’t fit any of these descriptions, you may be looking at a rare hummingbird. In that case, please get in touch with me. I just might be able to identify it for you.

In the meantime, I hope swarms of hummingbirds provide you with hours of enjoyment this summer!

Terry Johnson is the retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written an informative column for the Reporter for many years.