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Hummingbirds: an Ongoing Commitment

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This Gaura has been as delightful a plant as any I’ve ever grown. Catching a glimpse out the window this morning I marveled at it again, dancing in the breeze in early September sun. I planted this a couple of times in the ground, but it wouldn’t overwinter, so I tried again this summer in a big clay pot. The combination of pink, white and red flowers has been spectacular.

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It draws hummingbirds as well as bees, even though the hummingbird feeder is just five feet away. Nothing is better food for these tiny dynamos than actual flower nectar.

I’ve mentioned some tips about feeding hummingbirds in previous posts, but I’m motivated today to just tell all. A friend asked me the other day, When should I take down my feeders? She asks me this every year. Every year, I tell her, About ten days after you’ve last seen a hummingbird.

Really? I thought you were supposed to take them down so they don’t miss their migration. Somehow this Myth resurfaces every fall instead of the answer I’ve given everyone who asks me for years. The birds won’t stick around late just because you have your feeders up: in fact, even after your summer population leaves, migrants passing through will benefit from your feeders staying up and clean.*

It’s not just the feeding schedule that matters when you commit to sustaining a hummingbird feeder through the season. Every summer, I inevitably encounter ill-kept feeders at the homes of people who should know better. Some of you have learned to keep your feeders clean, and some of you haven’t. Next time I have to say something, I’m naming names! And yes, I am scolding. I can’t help it, it’s in my nature. I’ve been subtle about this issue long enough.

COMMITMENT

Everybody means well when they put out feeders. Despite our best intentions, as frail and fallible humans, we don’t always follow through. Feeding hummingbirds isn’t something you do at your convenience, because it’s nice to have the pretty birds around. It’s a commitment: You commit to serving the welfare of the birds daily, because otherwise you contribute to their demise. There are so many ways to do it wrong, and the consequences are dire.

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Blue and red salvias planted in pots around the patio, when fed and deadheaded regularly, provide bountiful food for young hummingbirds migrating later than their parents, and learning to trust my garden as a reliable resource. I’ve learned it’s worth it to buy these tender perennials annually and tend them well, for the bountiful beauty they provide with both their blooms and their pollinators.

IMG_7334-131IMG_7300-132Caveat: exactly when to take down feeders is an art as well as a science; some people in the far north take them down at the first hard frost, or even earlier. This may be where the Myth originates. Places with year round hummingbirds obviously don’t need to stop feeding at all. I could send you straight to Audubon for all you need to know about feeding hummingbirds, but that would leave me nothing to say.

Here in the central latitudes of the continent, experience tells me to leave my feeder up for at least ten days after I’ve seen the last hummingbird, cleaning and refilling it as needed.* There is always a last hummingbird, sometimes after I’ve taken down the feeder, so I keep a jar of nectar in the fridge for a few weeks even when I think I’ve seen the last one, just in case of an exhausted straggler. I’ll make one cup, and if I don’t use it in a week I may make another cup. A small waste of sugar is worth a hummingbird’s life.

This time of year, I see mostly summer’s youngsters in my garden. They’re learning what’s good food and what’s not. They check out all the flowers, and don’t use the feeder nearly as much as their parents did earlier in summer. Many adults, especially males, are already moving south. These juveniles are exploring, gaining insight and wisdom, as they check out red honeysuckle berries and rose hips as well as salvia and snapdragons.IMG_7225-128IMG_7329-130Tending hummingbirds demands dedication. When you put out a feeder you initiate a real relationship with a particular population of little beings, the closest thing to fairies in our remaining wild world. Connie and John used to feed hundreds of hummingbirds of four species just a few miles south and a thousand feet higher than I live here. They were committed. They brewed gallons of fresh nectar a day, and their feeders never had a chance to get cloudy or moldy. The sound was amazing! They moved to Wisconsin.

NO RED DYE!

That shit shouldn’t even be legal to sell. Would you add an absolutely unnecessary red chemical to your every meal? No, you wouldn’t. Red food for hummingbird feeders is a sales scam, and hard on their tiny kidneys. Yes, they’re attracted to red, and that’s why feeders are usually red, but the food in them should be clear.

Once and for all, the best and cheapest nectar takes just a few minutes of your time. One (1) part refined white sugar to four (4) parts water. One to four, sugar/water, nothing else. You can put them both in the pan together, bring to boiling, and boil for a minute or two (no more!), or you can boil water in your kettle, pour it into the jar with the sugar, and shake the bejesus out of it until it settles clear, and you can’t see any sugar residue. The reason you heat the water is to increase its absorption of the sugar granules. There’s no need to cook it, as long as you make sure the sugar is thoroughly dissolved. Then let it cool to room temperature before pouring into clean* feeders.

I hear that hummingbirds don’t like to drink cold nectar, so maybe when you have refrigerated nectar you want to change your feeders at night. When they come to feed in the morning, the nectar is ambient temperature. On super hot days, nectar can spoil quickly, so change it every day or two even if they haven’t finished it. In early spring or fall, if it’s going to freeze at night, bring feeders in for the night and put them back out early in the morning so the food is there, not frozen, when they wake up.

*ALWAYS CLEAN FEEDERS!

You don’t have to scrub them every time you fill them, but you do have to rinse thoroughly in hot water, and swish away any sticky residue with a bottle brush or your fingertips, depending on the design of the feeder. Audubon recommends no soap, as the residue can harm them. Clean your nectar storage jars the same way you clean the feeders, every time you empty them.

You do need to rinse and refill more often during hot weather than in cool weather. And if there’s any sign at all of cloudiness in the nectar, or debris, or black or grey on the feeder, you DO need to scrub with hot water or a light hot water-vinegar solution, and rinse really really well. By the time you see that black stuff on the feeder, you’re already killing birds. It’s that simple.

An adult hummingbird who acquires fungus from your feeder carries it home to her tiny babies in their nest. She could die from it and leave them to starve, or she could transmit it to them. Or both. So keep your feeders clean. Invest in a bottlebrush or two, and get a pack of these perfect little brushes for the ports. It doesn’t take long for nectar to spoil in hot weather, and it doesn’t take you long to keep the feeders clean if you have the right tools for the job. I use really hot water if I’m cleaning a glass feeder, and less hot if I’m cleaning a plastic vessel.

OH, AND… CATS

I got rid of the feeders I kept for seed-eaters the summer before I started letting my two new kittens outside. It isn’t fair to bait the birds in when I’ve got cats that can’t help trying to catch them. I compromised on hummingbird feeders, cutting my three down to one, and kept that one mainly to supplement the flowers, which don’t always bloom at the right times anymore, another consequence of climate chaos. Last week I found the first dead hummingbird ever at my front door, and I think it was the one I photographed the day before, struggling to fly and feed.

IMG_6813-147You almost never see a hummingbird sitting still to feed. This little one was crashing about in the flowers all morning, clinging to stems while trying to feed, and tangling in the potted plants, most unusual behavior. Was she too young? Or too weak, or injured, or what? IMG_7016Another hummingbird kept diving at her, and I first thought it was the usual mine!mine!-aggression they all display while protecting a food source or territory. But the struggling bird didn’t seem to mind the other one, and when I followed them into the honeysuckle (with binoculars) it looked as though the strong bird was trying to feed the weak one. Were they migrating together?

IMG_6857-145Everywhere she flew this other bird followed, at times flying up underneath her as though for support or encouragement. Something was very wrong. It looked like the little slow one had a tuft of feathers sticking out where there shouldn’t be one, as though she might have an injury. It’s possible that this bird was snagged by a cat claw, or perhaps hit a window, or was in some other way compromised. IMG_7086It was one of those heart-wrenching moments when you wish there was something you could do but you know there’s not. Though she was flying badly she was still too fast for me to catch. And if I had, what then? So I left her to her fate, which I suspect was to be brought to my doorstep the next day, intact though darkly damp from cat saliva. I feel bad about that. These are the complex paradoxes that keep us dancing on our ethical toes.

Every choice we make has consequences, some (or most) of which we never fully know. Know that if you choose to put out hummingbird feeders, there’s only one right way to do it: Keep the feeders sparkling clean all summer, and keep them up til all the migrants have flown through your area. With habitat fragmentation, compromised migratory routes, and climate chaos all throwing anthropogenic challenges at these energetic little jewels, the least we can do if we choose to feed them is to do it right, helping rather than harming them.IMG_7232-140-141

 

On Fire

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Hummingbirds surf the desert willow as she continues to throw out waves of flowers.
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Sunset the other night behind the western edge of Grand Mesa. Smoke from a distant fire… also some closer fires, including the Buttermilk Fire just ten or twelve miles away.

This is the first day in over a month that I’ve been able to spend a whole morning outside. I usually get to spend two, at the very least one day a week devoted to the yard and gardens. With oppressive smoke and heat outside all day and night these recent weeks, and inside flames, of love, fears, blame, I’ve been neglecting my garden, my center, my path. I am still learning to walk.

The patio pots are out of control, in desperate need of deadheading and trimming. Stellar can’t stand that I’m talking to myself about it and not to him. He flops onto his left side and rolls his head toward me, then tries to roll his bulk onto his back, pawing at the path and making little noises. Rolling after running and eating is dangerous, so I go to him, get up baby, such a fine boy… He comes to standing, shakes, leans against my knees as I fold over him rubbing his belly, my cheek pressed to his velvet ear, his chocolate cheek, murmuring love words as he emanates his whole-hearted response. I’ve been neglecting the dogs as well as the garden.

A light shower last night and an even cloud cover this morning gave hours of enjoyment and work, nurturing the place that gives me succor: pulling prostrate knotweed and bindweed from paths, deadheading rampant gladioli and snapdragons, cutting back early salvias and dahlias, pulling from cracks between flagstones the errant catmints; leaving thymes and gourmet salad-size purslane. All the pots are buzzing with bees and other aerial creatures. Below, honeybee drinks from abundant Gaura in the pink clay pot.

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Honeybee prays for clarity on a smoky day

The sky has also been abuzz. The Buttermilk Fire at the west end of our mesa held my attention for a full week. I readied the Mothership for evacuation though I didn’t really think it would be necessary. This time. To date, around 750 acres have burned, mostly in wilderness piñon and juniper in steep canyons and ridges. Firefighters have contained 15% of the burn area and remain focused on keeping the fire heading south and east into the wilderness, protecting human habitations at the northeast edge and minimizing the threat of an ember rain.

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One water chopper coming in empty just south of the house, on its way to the reservoir. Below, another heading back on the north side, carrying 2000 gallons of water in its bucket. We all, when we gather, speak of our gratitude for these hardworking women and men. People bring them treats. Little kindnesses matter in the midst of chaos.

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Honeybee treats herself to pollen from a dahlia, gathering as she wipes her face.

What blooms along the seam of the path and the patio foundation varies year to year depending on what seeds sow, what weeds grow, what gets mowed down by the tortoise, dogs, garden cart or hose in daily passing. I keep hoping snapdragons will self-sow here, as they do at Rosie’s house, but so far the seeds haven’t landed in optimum conditions. As I trim and weed around the patio I wear gloves and watch closely. There’s always a chance of a black widow, though they don’t tend to inhabit this kind of niche, they prefer a deep and secret place with little or no traffic of any sort.

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Bumblebee on a snapdragon, maybe Bombus griseocollis, the brown-belted bumblebee.

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A bee fly, Bombylius, feeds at the Gaura. This delicate beauty is a parasitoid, feeding in its larval stage upon the larva of a solitary bee, killing it. In a sense, a predator as well as a parasite. Who would guess, from its gentle appearance?

Leafcutter bees have been crazy for the dahlias this week. I’ve finally figured out how to overwinter them: leave them in pots, bring the pots into the mudroom after the foliage dies back, and keep a paper bag over them. All those I saved in a box or a bag over the past few years since I started growing dahlias have withered, despite occasional misting, and failed to revive in the ground. Those I kept in pots last year grew again in abundance. Next spring when I bring them out I’ll divide them into even more pots. They bloomed early this year, like everything else, but they keep on going as long as I keep tending to them, and it’s hard to name a more cheerful flower.

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Share and share alike, at least with flowers…

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…or maybe not. Next time, more fun with Rocky Mountain Beeplant, Cleome serrulata. 

All the west is burning. Smoke obscures horizons for days. This is chaos, not change. The practice is to witness. The work is love. Our living planet needs each of us to rise up. Some hearts burn with passion, some with shame. Mine smolders with both but at least I’m on fire again.

 

These Planetary Winds

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Weidemeyer’s Admiral butterfly in one of the hanging baskets. Don’t see many of these and it’s always a thrill. This was as close as I could get, and he skipped away seconds after this shot, never to be seen again. Yet.

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The dahlias are blooming nicely with lots of buds coming on, and finally snapdragons are opening in their vivid hues, blue and red salvias are filling in. Gladioli are budding, and the desert willow is packed with more blooms and buds than I’ve seen since it was young, almost twenty years ago. Pink gaura, also called wandflower or whirling butterflies, accents the corner patio pot with a spray of pale pink flowers dancing in the breeze, attracting bees.

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Gaura, or whirling butterflies, or wand flower, with roughly 22 species in the genus.

Funny how some things like the dry, I’ve heard a few people say this summer, unrelated incidents in exactly the same words. Certain cacti thrived this spring, blooming abundantly despite the drought, notably the claret-cup, or hedgehog cactus, Echinocereus. And some other plants did surprisingly well after the driest winter I remember; though not the hayfields…IMG_9345.jpgIMG_9346.jpg

But oh! these planetary winds! I’ve spent hours this spring, more hours than last, and more hours last spring than the spring before, holding down the patio table and monitoring the umbrella so my outside office doesn’t get blowed away. Days like these the gaura wands crack like whips, and swallowtails struggle to hang onto flowers.

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Note the little claws grasping, above and below.

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We’ve had a few brief reprieves from wind this spring but mostly it’s been consistent, day after day after day, swirling and gusting like the winds of Mars, shooting out tendrils that grab a bucket from the table and leave a book unruffled, dropping down microbursts from the larger, raging currents high above.

Nearly constant winds dehydrate leaves on limbs, evapotranspiring plants to their own doom, and fan the flames of wildfires all over the west, not to mention drying our eyes and noses and skin. But on the bright side, at least it’s been an assist in weed management, with ground drying so fast that one or two good mowings leaves bare brown dirt with no more cheat grass…

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Sometimes we feel like this butterfly, tattered and holding on for dear life to what sustains us…

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…or stalled, making no headway against the wind…

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These planetary winds have been building for years, exacerbating global drought, excessive flooding, and crop unpredictability. Most people aren’t talking about it, though: it’s as if most American politicians imagine the world is one big golf course and they can manage climate chaos just fine with enough groundskeepers; or worse, as if they know how terribly it’s affecting the poorest people on earth, and are eager to ramp up the demise of equatorial countries.

But the world is not a monocultural, controllable golf course. It is a vast and miraculous and mercurial thing, with millions of unique ecozones and ecotones, whose climate grows more complex each day as our species continues to blunder over and into it with little comprehension of our devastating effect on our only home. With each war, each oil spill, each frack job, each billionaire born, the cost to Earth grows more complex and irrevocable.

And so we gardeners, we givers to and lovers of the planet, continue as best we can to create as small an ecological footprint as possible, wanting what we have, cherishing beauty and life in its many forms. We provide habitat, water, and food for the wild where we’re able, and TLC to our own food plants, with deepest gratitude to the birds, bees, snakes, frogs, butterflies, and other creatures that keep life spinning in our own little lands.

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The peach tree benefited from all the bees this spring, with abundant fruit. And yes, neighbor, I’ve thinned them since this picture, leaving only a couple to each twig… painful as it was to do.

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Marla Bear, here are those butterflies you loved on the Coreopsis.

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This one tattered tiger swallowtail fed on the patio flowers for hours the other day, braving planetary winds and bringing me into deep contact with my better nature.