Monday, September 20, 2010

Hummingbird Sightings

A hummingbird is back, right on late-summer schedule, for the third year in a row. So far I’ve only seen a female—it could be that the male has already headed south, which they do slightly earlier. To those who have multiples clustering about their feeders, this might not seem so big. Such a sight, as I have seen at the Indiana Dunes State Park, is indeed impressive. But for me and my next-door neighbor, who maintains the feeders, regular visits from one or two where no hummers had been seen for over twenty years, feels like an accomplishment. It’s a fine thing to see a hummer hovering at the feeder, but even better to see one browsing among the plants you have established just for its benefit. Of course the bees and butterflies don’t object either, so in the long run, what you get is multi-modal pollination. Yet hummers do have preferences: for tubular flowers, mostly red. (For a list, see the Hummingbird Project page above.)

Because of research, family obligations, setting up my new home office, and the semester’s start, the last few weeks have been mostly indoor time for me. (The garden has grown -- out of control and out of bounds, but that’s for another post.) I had noticed the hummer several times, sipping daintily at the feeder, and marked where she flew. She apparently lives in a towering honey locust across the alley. Some people say honey locusts have been overused for landscaping, but I’ve always liked their feathery leaves and dappled shade. A native species, they’re a good pollen and nectar source for native bees, relics of the days when mastodons roamed North America eating the sweet-tasting, leathery seed pods. Today, deer, cattle, rabbits, squirrels and some birds enjoy them.

But to return to the hummingbird. Two days ago I finally got back outside, and, under a lowering sky, started after some thistles and bindweed that had shouldered in among the prairie dropseed, prairie violets and blue-eyed grass. She suddenly materialized at the feeder; though of course she didn’t actually, but I had “got my eyes on,” as mushroom hunters say. There she was. I froze. She hovered. Then it was over to my butterfly bush, down to the licorice agastache right next to me, back over the fence to the feeder, on to some giant blue hyssop, up to an overhead electrical wire for a momentary perch, and then zoom! Up the long, concave arc into the top of the honey locust, where she disappeared.

The experience was so not-mundane that for some reason Tinkerbelle comes to mind at first and I want to get all Victorian and write about magic and how the little bird was fairy-like, feeding upon nectar and living embowered among the fluttering green leaves, her miniature nest constructed of spider webs and lichen a safe retreat from the strife of the outer air—but I’ll restrain myself. Besides, I’ve seen hummers fiercely defend their turf and snap insects while on the wing, not something Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairies would  do—though Peaseblossom or Cowslip might, Shakespeare being darker and less sentimental than many late Victorian writers and illustrators, or Disney. Or one could reference the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, in which stick bugs big as hummingbirds reveal themselves as fairies. But enough fantasy! Truly, observing such a tiny, alien, glittering, flying being, going about her own non-human affairs, opens a small window on one of the other, not entirely safe dimensions of life on earth, if you have your eyes on.

Time returning to its normal flow, I worked contentedly as a sprinkle slowly strengthened to rain. Back inside I went, not much weeding done, satisfied with that hour in the garden.