During one rainy February evening last year, I heard a metallic raspy noise while we were assembling the second shed in the backyard. A few days later, I saw a small, verdant creature, wings beating at a furious pace, moving quickly from the picnic bench to the fruit trees. Incredibly, it did a complete circuit of the backyard foliage–from fence to fence–in just seconds.
This female Anna’s Hummingbird fledged two youngsters in March (who were still hanging around), and promptly started a new nest and clutch of eggs. Sadly, that batch failed to hatch.
On the hunch that we didn’t have a giant day-glo green cricket wandering the premises, we purchased a hummingbird feeder (the Black-Capped Chickadees had already commandeered the old, less popular, burgundy-coloured glass-and-plastic hexagonal version) and hung it from the old apple tree.
We kept our fingers crossed, but it became a waiting game: days became a week. Weeks became a fortnight. A fortnight became a month. It seemed cruel and ironic that other private gardens in our neighbourhood were “thumbing their noses” with “their” hummingbirds, while we hadn’t a single customer. Perhaps we should just be content with our Black-Capped Chickadees, Fox Sparrows, Golden-Crowned Sparrows, White-Crowned Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, elusive Varied Thrushes, American Robins, House Sparrows, and Northern Flickers who frequented our forest.
Male Rufous Hummingbird visiting the local wildlife refuge on May 28. Getting him to pose at this nectar feeder in the “correct position” took an hour of waiting under the blazing sun.
Then, 32 days after hanging up that bright pink nectar feeder, I happened to be standing under the old apple tree (after sighting a Chestnut-Backed Chickadee for the first time) when the thrum of wings a foot from my face introduced me to my first Anna’s hummingbird up close. Both parties appeared to be equally surprised to see the other. I caught just a bright flash of pink — his gorget — as he took a quick sip and zipped away. Armed though I was with a camera, I could not get it up fast enough to snap off a shot. My mind’s eye would have to be the recorder.
After that, the building of the hummingbird garden in the backyard began in earnest. But that’s a story for another blog post.
As early as a decade earlier, when we went up to Manning Provincial Park in the Okanagan-Similkameen, one didn’t see hummingbirds (one didn’t see much of any wildlife). The only hummingbird I had ever read or heard of was the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, and we didn’t get any here because they couldn’t cross the Rockies (and perhaps, more importantly, they would not be able to drop into a state of torpor deep enough to survive our winters, mild as that season is).
Male Anna’s Hummingbird on the top of a fir at VanDusen Botanical Garden. He was photographed on April 6, taking a break between his courtship dives for an unseen female nearby.
Today, it’s a very different story. Earlier last month, we saw four nectar feeders hanging outside the Pinewoods Dining Room and no fewer than 10-15 hummingbirds (mostly Rufous and one single Calliope male — the latter being the smallest hummingbird in North America) in a constant feeding (and, in the case of the males, fighting) frenzy. All this activity provided visitors and lodgers with a perpetual source of entertainment.
Anna’s hummingbirds–once familiar and common sights in California, had gradually found their way to southwestern British Columbia, thanks to the flowers and bushes planted along the way to encourage them to “visit” us. Anna’s are our only year round hummingbirds; all others, like the Rufous, Calliope (and should you be lucky enough to have a backyard that has one of these, a visiting Costa or Black-Chinned) head south to warmer parts of Central and South America for the winter.
My First of Year female Rufous Hummingbird, photographed on March 18 at Ladner Harbour Park from about 20 feet away. This migratory species often doesn’t arrive in Vancouver until mid-April.
Hummingbirds are all the rage now. Nectar feeders sell out in the stores here. Nurseries sell every conceivable bush or flower to whet the little birds’ appetites for nectar. Need a way to break the ice at the party with plenty of strangers? The hummingbird is a surefire conversation piece. Google even named an iteration of its search engine algorithm after the hummingbird. I’m surprised that the Anna’s hummingbird wasn’t one of the City of Vancouver’s choices for 2016 Bird of the Year.
Why and how did the hummingbird become so popular? By being a package so small, fast, and feisty, that it will even attack Bald Eagles. It’s a creature who courts life and death with its high metabolic rates, and need to find food (protein, in the form of small insects) every 15 minutes or risk starvation. A bird brain, with an amazing memory for the thousands of flowers and the myriad of nectar feeders that it has visited over the past year, and can return to with unerring accuracy. An organism, who, at rest, possesses a heart rate at rest that’s in excess of 200 beats per minute and over 1,200 beats per minute when active or in flight.
The Calliope Hummingbird is the smallest bird in North America. This adult male was the only representative of his species that I found and photographed at Manning Provincial Park on June 5.
These little marvels are super athletes; they can circulate 100% of the nectar that they have ingested to every muscle in their tiny bodies in a matter of seconds. Given their high-energy lifestyle, one would expect hummingbirds to have mayfly-like existences — but the longest-lived one, a Broad-Tailed Hummingbird, reached the sprightly age of 11 years (science is predicting that some species will eventually hit the 20-year mark). Science is also predicting further speciation for these incredible creatures, which have already been in existence on this earth for some 20 million years. Tell me how I cannot be impressed. ♠