Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sweet Nectar and Hummingbirds

     Last year, in my first spring season on this particular mountain, I installed some decorative hangers around the decks and dutifully set my hummingbird feeders out to attract my diminutive avian friends over for a sugary free meal.  I have a long history of feeding these gentle birds, so I was disheartened by the scarce numbers of my friends-in-flight that came and visited.  During that first season of warm temperatures, the need to frequently discard soured and/or ant infested nectar tested my determination, but each week I continued to wash, sanitize and refill the bottles in desperate anticipation of the absent flocks with which I had become accustomed to since living in North Carolina.
     This year, fearing a similar disappointment, I was tempted to forego my annual spring tradition, but in an attempt to stave off the depression of my solitary life, I once again revived the practice of wash, fill, and wait.
     To my delight, the word must have gone out via the avian social networks (Eggbook, Tweeter, Beakerest, and Feathers +), because by my count, I have more than two dozen tiny friends dining and dancing each day on all sides of my home.
     The handsome and dapper ruby-throated males,
From my deck, this male is pausing between courses.
along with their minions of drab-dressed hens, swoop and flit between the dense forestation and my half-dozen bottles of calorie laden, sweet liquid.  In the frantic chases between shelter and food, the incessant buzzing of their impossibly fast wings is frequently accompanied by the soft staccato chirps of tiny vocalizations.  Yes, hummingbirds do sing!  Their soft chirp-chirp-chirp belies the widely held belief that they, as a species, had in mass, forgotten all the bird-words and were condemned to a forlorn life of sadly humming their tunes.  
     Their presence around my house has become as accepted to me as my presence in their secluded woodland has become to them.  They are so accustomed to me being outside that they often hover within mere inches of my face to say hello and investigate the friendly giant that keeps their plastic flowers full of energy juice.  I talk to them; I know that sounds crazy, but each day I acknowledge them in a quiet voice, assuring them of their safety and my delight at their presence.  They have abandoned their instinctive fears, and in turn, answer me back in tiny voices of acceptance, gaining more confidence each day, approaching nearer and nearer, and staying a little longer with each visit. 
     These are the gentlest of creatures, each weighing not much more than a tenth of an ounce (or for my European friends, about 3.4 grams).  The rapid drumming of the Archilochus Colubris’ wings foretells their approach, flapping their 3 - 4inch wingspan about 55 times per second.  Everything is dynamically quick in the world of Apodiformes: Mating takes only 2 - 3 seconds, but that is 110 - 160 wing-flaps.  I don’t know about you, but I would be exhausted.  Their tiny hearts beat about 1260 times per minute and they breathe approximately 250 times per minute.  If that alone is not testament to their incredible athleticism, perhaps knowing that during flight, their oxygen consumption per gram of muscle is more than ten times that of our most well-trained human athletes.  But with that I am left to wonder how those biologists were able to strap a miniscule oxygen mask over those tiny needle-like beaks and take measurements.  And where did they get a stethoscope small enough to listen to a hummingbird’s heart?  I’m not one to question science, but…?
     Anyways, the darts and dashes around and across my porches are so ordinary, that I rarely take notice any more.  I still speak to my friends when they come right up to my face, but their flights to and from the feeders are no longer novel enough to capture my attention.  There are however, infrequent times where I am forced to duck and cover.  Apparently, in the world hummingbird courting, it is common that two or more females will violently fight over access to their desired male.  Now I am used to these shenanigans in my own life, but I found it interesting to see that behavior in another species of females.  The sex-craved hens fan their tails wide, swooping, dive-bombing  and engaging  in spectacular midair dogfights (cat-fights?) that would make the best of our Top Gun pilots jealous.  The speed and chaotic paths of their catty competitions endanger anyone or anything in their proximity.  Twice, my instinctively spastic recoil brought the fighting hens back to hover close in an investigative apology; their argument momentarily suspended due to the inadvertent vexation of their giant benefactor.  Once they were confident that I was unharmed and not annoyed, their frantic wing-chase resumed with renewed death defying aerial acrobatics.
There is an abundant and diverse population of animals in the Great Smoky Mountains, but there are only a few that I enjoy and welcome as much as my hummingbird friends.  Sure the bears, wolves, fox and cougars are neat to watch, but I don’t want them as close neighbors.  The deer, elk, turkeys, eagles, and hawks I fear would be difficult and messy in close environs.  The smaller critters like rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and raccoons would be ill-fitted at the house with my dog.  So while I enjoy the outdoors and all that nature affords me in these Edenic mountains; I will leave the animal life to the wilds, but continue to cultivate friendships with my dear acquaintances, the hummingbirds.

As a side note, I am finishing this little muse in a motel room on the outskirts of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  My friend Sandra, my dog Sebastian and I took the rare opportunity afforded by a momentary lapse in my workload to cross the state line and explore this country’s most visited national park from the Tennessee side.  We are going to spend the day driving / hiking / photographing our way through Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I hope to have some fun tales and spectacular pictures to share with you in the coming days.  Until then, does anyone know where I can get a cup of coffee?  This motel sucks, but everything else was booked solid.  Spur of the moment has its disadvantages.

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