Aug
19

Mountain Morning Magic – and a Hummingbird

Early morning a bit over a week ago. Homey Wes Clogston was settled onto his comfortable hunting stool by a tree in the north hills above our Paradise Valley. Properly blaze orange-vested, he was awaiting one of the crop-raiding elk known to sequester themselves in that area after feasting on some rancher’s Kittitas Valley irrigated ground overnight.

As he sat quietly, ravens (maybe crows) flew nearly silently through the forest around him. A pretty nosy hummingbird zipped and buzzed around him. Over his sitting time, several bucks, does and fawns wandered within yards of him, with one young barely-a-three-point approaching within feet before changing his mind. At one point, a coyote approached silently. When it was within a few feet, it suddenly realized the mistake it was about to make. Its eyes got as big as silver dollars and it did that coyote thing: it suddenly inverted right back through its skin, leaving its tail where its head had been only a millisecond before.

This is the magic we all seek when we go afield. And even all of that paled before the biggest moment of Wes’ morning.

As he related his story, I got to thinking about hummingbirds – those “zoom birdies and their traveling circus” as the Hucklings once called them. Hummer time is nearly always circus time. Some rufous male dive-bombs some kid standing too close to “his” feeder and makes a life-long memory. Another dances up to an evening feeder and a quiet family meal at dusk becomes a celebration. A young bird, startled at the feeder, somersaults into a rolling escape maneuver and the awe of the moment becomes family legend. Honestly, I have had few glimpses of nature as amazing and cool as the zippy up, down, back and forth, or “stop!” of these tiny aerial artists.

Here in Paradise (eastern Washington), we have three hummingbirds. Naturally, the Science Education Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association requires that I pass along the following information. The two‑and‑a‑half‑inch calliope (Stellula calliope) is the smallest of U.S. birds, and the male is the only hummer whose throat is streaked, with red-colored feathers against white. The black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri) is the only North American hummer with a truly black throat. Rufous (Selasphorus rufus) is named after the male’s solid rusty‑colored back.

These tiny birds traveled thousands of miles from their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. The males arrived first – sometimes as early as late March. The females generally arrived in May to get the circus underway, as they began choosing mates with whom to make more hummingbirds. They played out some of the avian world’s most amazing courtship rituals. For example, the black‑chinned, to charm some feathered beauty, will swing pendulum‑like before her, then rise 15 feet, hover, and drop with a whizzing noise. The rufous, a big-time show‑off, will often fly complete ovals before his current heartthrob, then dive to face her from inches away. At the bottom of that dive is an unmistakable trademark “whine” of air rushing through wing feathers. The tiny calliope male looks like a daredevil, climbing 65 feet or so before swooping down before his love.  After a short “bzzt,” he does it again.

Once love bloomed, the inch and a half camouflaged nests of spider web silk, cattail fluff, and other appropriate building materials held a couple white eggs the size of grapefruit seeds. 15 to 18 days later, the young would have hatched. After three weeks or so on insects, they are now in line at feeder, at flowers, or even out catching tiny insects on the wing.

Hummingbirds go through nectar like jet fuel. (Feeders, as you know, should be only a mix of four parts water to one part white sugar – skip the commercial stuff.) In flight, their wings beat up to 80 times a second, and their hearts more than 1200 times per minute. To hover, they hold their bodies at a 45‑degree angle and move their wings in a sideways figure eight pattern. A hummer may feed 15 times an hour, and visit 1,000 flowers a day. At night, both metabolism and heartbeat will slow enough for the tiny bird to survive until morning.

Studies have shown that hummers may take in five times their normal body weight in insects and nectar, each day, to fuel metabolism. (For us that’s about 125,000 calories, or 220 big chocolate shakes.) Urine production in this process is 75 to 80 percent of body weight (think 15-20 gallons a day for us)!

In August and September, even with full feeders, our hummers will head south in response to photoperiodism – changing daylight. In returning to wintering grounds, some will apparently fly across the Gulf of Mexico. Given their food needs, how they do that is a big mystery. (Some want to attach tracking chips, but even the tiniest chips are huge to such a tiny bird.)

Find more for yourself. At www.hummingbirds.net you will find migration maps, videos, photos, new science and hummer festivals all over the USA. Www.hummingbirds.net/states.html has info by state and province across North America.

Oh, yeah. Wes’ best moment. That hummingbird kept returning to his bright orange vest. It actually landed on his shoulder. He took a picture of it sitting there, but the bird beat the shutter. When he sends out the picture, he notes that, “Right here is where that little bird sat!”

Mountain morning magic, my friend. And a hummingbird.

Ah, Paradise.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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