Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Saturday, August 13, 2022

August: the month of tiny treasures

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

Every year as March folds into April and winter feels more and more endless, I start yearning for hummingbirds. Usually I’m sufficiently realistic, or resigned, to leave my hummingbird feeders packed away until May, but this year I jumped the gun in April because of the Rufous Hummingbird that turned up in my yard last November and remained until December 4. But like every one of the years I’ve lived here, not a single April hummer turned up, and my first Ruby-throat of the year appeared right on schedule, on May 10. 

As thrilled as I am to see the first hummingbird, a whole lot of other birds appear at that exact same time every spring. Warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers, and a host of other new arrivals divert my attention. I can count on daily hummingbirds through the rest of May into September, and of course I’m delighted to see each one—how could I not be? But I'm afraid I take them pretty much in stride. 

Well, I take them in stride up until August. By then, both local adult males and migrating ones from further north are everywhere, along with increasing numbers of local fledglings growing independent, and suddenly the air around feeders and hummingbird gardens is electric with hummingbird activity. At the exact same time, bee balm and jewelweed are in full bloom, both depending on this huge wave of hummingbirds for pollination. August is the month to photograph hummingbirds up here, when so many are visiting these colorful flowers.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

This year, I’m spending just about every weekday babysitting another tiny treasure, my grandson Walter. His birthday is in August, which has thus evolved into both my month of hummingbirds and my month of Walter magic. The previous owner of Walter's house planted a wonderful stand of bee balm in the front yard. It's on the west side of the house, so it’s shaded all morning but comes into ideal light for photography right at Walter’s nap time. That’s where I’ve been spending my time while Walter is asleep.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm
Notice the tiny flecks of pollen on this bird's head and the base of the bill.

Hummingbirds are extraordinarily territorial. One adult female has claimed ownership over every one of those bee balm plants and goes ballistic whenever another hummingbird shows up. When not feeding there or somewhere in the backyard, she perches in a birch tree where she can make sure no other hummingbirds dare visit. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird resting in birch

Unfortunately, she does not approve of paparazzi, so if I don’t already have my camera up and my eye behind it when she arrives in the bee balm, the moment I move into position to take a photo, off she goes. 

I do have some nice photos of her from when I’m ready and don't have to move when she flies in, and I have some even better photos of a second hummingbird who doesn’t seem to care at all if I’m moving about right near her. Unfortunately, I don’t have too many photos of her because she gets driven off the moment the other female notices, so I can only photograph her during the first female's brief forays to the backyard. And even more unfortunately, I can’t tell the two birds apart in the photos except when the "owner" is in the birch tree—it’s only their behavior in reaction to me and my camera that distinguishes them in the bee balm.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at bee balm

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm 

I haven’t seen any adult males at the bee balm. I’ve watched male Ruby-throats take on birds as large as Bald Eagles, but they’re intimidated by the slightly larger females. So I haven’t had a chance to get any photos of a male at Walter's bee balm, and soon those adult males will be gone for the year. (Young birds and adult females stick around weeks longer.)

Walter and Chuckie Chickadee

Walter has seen hummingbirds hovering at the window where the house’s previous owner used to have a feeder. He’s SO delighted to see these sprites, even tinier than the chickadees he loves so much. Walter's most thrilling encounter with hummingbirds was last week when he came to our house for dinner. He and I were on the front porch when a female flew to my feeder, a few feet from us. Walter has an adorable habit of waving and saying “hi” to animals, and he said "hi" over and over to this tiny creature who hovered, wings buzzing, and looked straight at him. A palpable magic filled the air between this tiny bird’s sparkling eyes and those of my entranced little grandson. (My son-in-law made a recording of Walter saying "hi" last week, and I mixed it with buzzing hummingbirds to make this approximation of the audio.)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

There is so much magic that deserves nurturing and preserving on this Earth we all share. Why is it so easy to forget and to take this incredible planet for granted?

Discovering milkweed