Monday, July 13, 2015

Summer Notes: A Rainy June and Hummingbird Questions

The rainy days of early summer
See more at Illinois State Climatologist
While the planet as a whole has continued to heat up, increasing its insistence via extreme weather events that humans really do need to “pay attention already, dammit!”,  Illinois has been in its very own extremely deep pocket of coolish, rainy weather. It’s easy to notice conditions are far from normal when the basil in your raised bed is not growing with its normal exuberance, while the lettuce, normally starting to bolt already, continues lush and sweet; you put the tomato starts in on July 1st, a month overdue, because the soil in your allotment is just too wet; and when traveling in mid-June to help with a bioblitz at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge on the Illinois river, you notice that fields where corn and soy should be growing are vast shallow ponds, some with ducks. 

Just how rainy? According to the Illinois State Climatologist, an average of 9.3 inches made this the rainiest June in official record-keeping history (which only goes back to 1895, but still). And he asks us to note that seven of the last eight Junes have been rainier than average (4.09 inches) and that seven of the ten rainiest Junes on record have occurred since 1993. Perhaps it’s a trend.

This June was so outstanding in its overall wetness that not only was it the rainiest for us, but Illinois was the rainiest state in the entire continental US. And July is continuing with more of the same. Odd to think that just three years ago I was biking to work in the midst of intense heat and drought. I won’t discuss destabilized jet streams or the polar vortices of the past two winters. More of us need to be paying serious attention, and taking action at every level.

So, about the hummingbirds
The other morning I was looking at a robin perched on the dead branch at the top of my neighbor’s apple tree two doors down, where the birds like to gather in groups of several species to take the air and discuss current events. Through the binoculars, what had appeared to be a bump on a large twig resolved into a hummingbird. This year, my next-door neighbor Muriel and I have been seeing two of them around since late April. They must be a mating pair, though at this point the female, identified by the lack of a red patch on her throat, is raising her clutch of two chicks on her own, and they should be flying soon, if not already.

I often see her—or possibly a juvenile—and after demonstrating her flight skills around our yards for a while, she usually disappears into one of the tall silver maple, honey locust or elm trees in the back yards across the alley and on that street. This is the first year that hummers have been around during mating season—that we’ve seen, anyway. Since Muriel first put up feeders in 2008, and we started our project more formally in 2009, they’d only appeared during the late summer-to-fall migration period. Our project is described here on this page.

"Ruby Throated Hummingbird" by Joe Schneid, Louisville, KY
To those who reside in western states where multiple species congregate, or in less urban parts of our area, boasting multiple pairs visiting feeders, this would be no big deal. And ruby throats are in no way endangered or unusual. Yet considering that until we set out to attract them, not one had been seen on our block for a minimum of twenty years, it’s pretty exciting for us. We provided habitat, and two feeders (now reduced to one); they stopped by during migration, and now appear to have decided to nest. It’s a thrill to stand by a patch of scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) and see a hummer hovering right there, not two feet away, sipping nectar from the tubular flowers most conveniently designed to suit its needs and preferences. Ain’t co-evolution grand!

I wonder what the process was and how they finally decided to settle in for the summer. Have we by this point planted enough of the right flowers? Did juveniles who stopped by last year during fall migration decide to return here for mating this year? Were they here all along and we just never saw them? That I doubt. We’ve both been keeping close watch for six years now.

If they come back next spring, I’ll consider our whole project a success.

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