Fabulous Hummers

Walking the dog early one morning this week, enjoying the pre-dawn New Hampshire mist, a little visitor swooped down, with a flash of color out of the morning sky. A beautiful Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovered inches from my face, inspecting me bill-to-nose. The humming of his nearly invisible wings was mesmerizing. I fought the urge to reach out, offering him a mid-air perch, a strange sounding proposition to most people. Then again, they haven’t been where I’ve been, or seen what I’ve seen. After spending nearly six years in Utah, my desire for a connection with the miraculous little creature seemed quite natural, something I’d come to expect. Diane Fossey had her gorillas in the Rwanda mist. I had my no-less humble hummers in the Rocky Mountain highs of Utah.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Utah is prime avian migratory territory offering mind-numbing quantities of every species. When the turmoil and disruption of planting our home in the middle of the wild sage and scrub-oak-covered mountainside subsided, a handful of California Quail appeared. Like me, they were strangers in a strange land – not native Utahans. Our presence increased, rather than decreased their survival chances, lawn and landscaping providing food and shelter resulting in a dramatic population increase. Clumped together, they’d move as one across our yard, bobbing-plume syncopated-darting, zigging and zagging like a tightly packed school of feathered fish, making them unpredictable for predators.

Utah’s native wildlife was equally as amazing. Elk and mule deer wintered-over in our yard, leaving moon-sized snow craters as well as crushed landscape lighting. A cougar borrowed our neighbor’s deck, for a few nights of sleep, while we stationed ourselves at windows, waiting for a glimpse. Rattlesnakes slithered and tarantulas stomped through our planting beds, recipients of our loudest screams.

Good Things Come In Small Packages

Of all the natural wonders, the arrival of hummingbirds was the greatest surprise. I never expected to share the dry, harsh, seemingly inhospitable high-desert environment with something that seemed, from appearances, to be so fragile. There are over 338 species of hummingbirds in the western hemisphere, with 16 in the continental United States. On average, Utah claims nine hummingbird species during the migratory season.

They arrived in droves during our first Utah spring, drawn by the expanse of flowering chokecherry bushes bordering the mountain creek tumbling past our home, carrying its snowmelt cargo to the high desert valley, miles below.

When flowers turned to fruit, the hummingbirds swooped into our yard, inspecting our elk and deer-proof landscaping, finding it unsatisfactory. Through a little research, I discovered Utah’s Wildlife Department encouraged backyard “hummer” feeding, as a buffer against the hostile environment.

Immediate Gratification

I jumped to it, making my own nectar, using 4:1 ratio of water:sugar, filling one 8-spout hummingbird feeder when the solution completely cooled.

I experienced immediate gratification. In less than half an hour, the feeder took on the appearance of downtown Salt Lake City rush-hour. A platoon of green-hued Broad-Billed Hummingbirds occupied all eight feeding spouts, mirror-images of one another, equally perfect in shape and coloration, voracious in appetite.

Before long, the hummers were backed up, stacked two high, one drinking, with another hovering inches overhead. Unlike humans, they weren’t cutting in, exhibiting frustration or road (feeder) rage.

That is, until the peace was disrupted by a lone Rufous, his bright-orange head flashing in the sun as he dove into the packed feeder, dispersing its occupants into a panicked flurry, leaving him as sole proprietor.

Just as quickly, I drove down into the valley, in search of another feeder, figuring the Rufous might need his own. By the time I returned, peace had been restored, the Rufous vanished.

Four feeders and 32 simultaneously feeding hummers laters, a fleet of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds arrived. Known as the Hummingbird of the Rockies, they were soon followed by Calliopes, the luxurious Anna’s, a few dramatic Black-chinned, several Blue-throated, royal Costa’s, and the aptly named Magnificent Hummingbird.

They seldom mixed species on one feeder, instead, preferring to hover over their own kind. To my amazement, they began sharing spouts, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, bill-to-bill, doubling the feeder populations to 16 hummers each, for a total of 64 simultaneous sippers. I was thankful I didn’t suffer ornithophobia as did one of my friends.

Busy Hands, Happy Heart

It wasn’t long before 5-pound bags of sugar were woefully inadequate, replaced by 25-pound sacks from Costco. During a shopping trip when I loaded two more 25-pound sacks of sugar into the shopping cart, my husband asked, “Didn’t we just buy two of those last week?”

He likes to build spreadsheets. We have them for every major decision made in our life. After we got home, he “ran the numbers”.

We were averaging 250 pounds of sugar during a season which equaled 550 cups of sugar, along with 2,200 cups of water, resulting in approximately 150 gallons of nectar. “That’s impressive, honey!”, he remarked, “Carry on!”

Each feeder needed daily cleaning, but even when all the figures were there in front of me, in plain old black and white, it never felt overwhelming or like “work”. I was content – “Hummer Happy”, as he put it, and he, being the perfect match for me, was content in the joy it gave us.

Humility Comes in Tiny Packages

Winter board games in front of a crackling fire were replaced by sitting out on the deck, from which the hummingbird feeders were hung, playing “guess how many hummers are in the yard”. It’s nearly impossible to describe what experiencing 100-200 hummingbirds is like. It’s a little like trying to recount the experience of The Big One That Got Away.

Such was the skeptical attitude of a good church friend – a highly intelligent and cynical paleontologist, who good-naturedly “guffawed“ at my hummingbird descriptions. He’d spent years hunting, locating, digging and handling rare specimens, often receiving international acclaim which had, in my view, dulled his sense of wonder in the Here and Now.

Within five minutes of settling down on our deck with his family, not a word was heard for nearly an hour as he speechlessly watched “my” hummingbirds. It was only when the final fluorescent rays of the sunset melted into the black of night, the last little hummer was securely tucked into the boughs of the Colorado Blue Spruce I’d planted for their protection, he said, “I had no idea. I am so humbled.”

Thy Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Hummers

One July, during the height of the fourth summer feeding frenzy, a frustrated neighbor, who had spent three summers watching my yard active and alive with swooping, looping hummingbird activity, snapped.

I’d become used to her marching through the shoulder-high scrub oak, a natural barrier between our properties, insisting on inspecting the planting of trees, or the placement of wind chimes. This time, though, she seemed as aggressive and hostile as the little Rufous who daily exercised his ability to clear a feeder of all occupants in under 5 seconds.

From my bird’s-eye view, looking down from my deck, I watched her swinging her arms, breast-stroke style, clearing branches from her path while she mumbled, “hogging the hummers – keeping them all to herself”. I made it down the deck stairs just in time to meet her as she popped through the wild growth into the relative civilization of my yard.

Crisply she informed me that she and several neighbors (other Mormons) had a “little conference discussing how YOU were the last home in the area, in our little cove, and BEFORE you were here, we hardly EVER saw a hummingbird, but NOW that you’re here, we see them all the time, but they’re in YOUR yard, and YOU have them all to YOURSELF and WE don’t think that’s very fair”.

I offered her a gallon of my sugar-water solution, suggesting she abandon the use of her red-dye solution, guaranteeing she’d have hummers within a day.

Sure enough, her feeder populated the very next day with hungry hummers. It didn’t put a dent in the numbers drawn to my yard – but no matter how many feeders the neighbors installed in their yards, my yard remained the primary destination, much to their dismay.

Flight Patterns

Until I lived in Utah, I had no idea that each hummingbird species had their own vocalizations, mating displays and flight patterns. With careful observation, we saw not all circles were, well, circles. When viewed at different angles, they became ovals, or triangulations.

The point at which they vocalized was unique to each species. Some vocalized at the apex, 20-30-feet in the air, as if signaling everyone to watch as they plummeted towards earth, pulling up at the last possible second only to veer skywards at a seemingly impossible velocity. Our enthusiastic rounds of applause only seemed to encourage them in yet another round of acrobatic feat displaying their astounding flying abiltiies.

Friends

The hummers became so used to seeing us on the deck, we could easily stand within a foot of the feeders, allowing us to study their unique markings and personalities.

My favorite Broad-Billed Hummingbird, who I named Sergeant, given his “at attention” stance, was blind in one eye. Sergeant always chose the feeder and spout closest to my deck chair, even if it meant sitting at the Broad-tailed Hummingbirds feeding station.

I’d “rescued” him several times from the aggressive bullying tactics of the Rufous. While his friends romped around the yard, he’d quietly sit and observe me with his intense one-eye gaze, leaving me little doubt he viewed me as Protector. He liked hearing the sound of my voice, especially when I spoke directly to him, leaning on the deck railing, telling him I thought he was magnificent. He’d cock his little head, contentedly fluff out his feathers, occasionally catching a few winks of sleep. Instead of taking his sleeping as a commentary on my lack of entertainment value, I saw it as yet another sign he felt safe with me.

He remembered from summer to summer where “his” perch was and by the 4th summer, I’d gotten into the habit of waiting for arrival, the second week of May, anxious to see his sweet little face after a long winter of separation. I waited that summer, far beyond his normal arrival date, faithfully checking the feeders multiple times throughout the day, and many days thereafter. It wasn’t until late July, my hopes faded. I never saw him again, grieving the loss, despite the great numbers of others who’d successfully made the journey to my yard.

Another favorite was a Broad-tailed Hummingbird, named Chutzpah, meant in every good possible sense. She was so bold as to drink out of the stream of nectar I poured from the bottle into the feeder funnel, the wind from her nearly-invisible wings fanning my hand as she hovered in place. It wasn’t long before others followed Chutzpah’s lead.

Her next bold move was to perch directly on my hand as I poured solution, again, soon joined by her trusting companions. Words fail me in attempting to describe the intense joy derived from being used as a hummingbird perch. It’s lump-in-the-throat material, even to try to write about it, much less experience it. They don’t weigh more than a nickel – although from my experience, a nickel feels heavy and dense compared to their touch which felt no greater then that of a feather. Their minuscule feet left no impressions on my skin.

I nearly passed out the first time they landed on me, for fear if I breathed, they’d disappear, taking the amazing moment with them. Fortunately for me, I learned that breathing didn’t disrupt them in the slightest.

I’d spend afternoons sitting on the deck, intending to read to my then 1-year-old daughter. Book pages were drab, no match for the fascinating hummers. They eventually became comfortable with her presence, investigating her more closely, landing on my arm giving her a piercing once-over from head-to-toe, finally deciding she was an acceptable flock member. It helped that at less than a year of age, she’d learned “appropriate bird behavior” – “hands still“, and “arms at our side“ – aided by her experiences with our own indoor flock of parrots.

Things Too Wonderful

I’ve found that sometimes, in this life, there are things almost too wonderful to behold, so intense in their beauty that it can feel overwhelming to mere mortals, joy causing as much pain as if it had all been deceptively awful in some way. My Utah hummingbirds were that for me….they still are.

It]s taken me years to try to put words to it. Even now, I’ve done quite poorly, feeling stilted and cautious lest the intensity of such overwhelming joy draws too near the surface. I miss them. Dreadfully. But always, I’m abundantly thankful for the time I had with them.

The Lord, Sovereign over all His creation, allowed that season in my life, to bear witness of Him. Living in an area that was 90% Mormon, in which we were strangers and pilgrims, He chose to send his blessings – a sign of His enduring presence and faithfulness.

Prov 30:18-19 “_There are three things which are too wonderful for me, four which I do not understand. The way of an eagle in the sky¦”

The Hebrew word for “wonderful” is “Pala”, used to describe something extraordinary, beyond one’s power or ability to grasp. As the theologian Matthew Henry said of this, The kingdom of nature is full of marvels”.

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Rom 1:20)

And so it was, early this morning, when the lone Ruby-throated Hummingbird came to inspect me, I was flooded with memories, intense joy and grieving – joy for the blessing, and grieving that His presence, at times, seems hidden from me.

But, maybe, He no longer needs to send a couple hundred hummingbirds to get my attention. Now, just one will do.

I’m grateful for the reminder He sent that He can clearly be seen, even here in the New Hampshire mist.

But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you; And the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you. Or speak to the earth, and let it teach you; And let the fish of the sea declare to you. “Who among all these does not know That the hand of the LORD has done this, In whose hand is the life of every living thing, And the breath of all mankind. Job 7-10

The Hummingbird – God’s Tiny Miracle – article for further reading in Answers in Genesis


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