We ambled along deer trails this morning, enjoying new trees and views and some angles we haven’t seen recently. Stellar picked his way zigging one direction then zagging another on the amazing network of narrow trails that criss-cross the forest floor, as I followed amiably. I heard a little buzz from the tree just ahead on the right and knew instantly there was a hummingbird nest nearby. While Stellar investigated smells on the ground, I tiptoed around the tree intently examining limbs but could find nothing. The hummingbird flew to the next tree south, and I knew she was keeping an eye on me. I continued my stealthy inspection around an intertwined tree, then stepped back onto the deer trail. The hummingbird buzzed closer, and I realized I was getting warmer.
The nest was in the tree across the trail from the first I suspected, just above eye level. Mama zoomed past again. I took a quick step close to snap a second shot and then left her in peace. Reaching the camera above the nest blind without getting too close, I didn’t know what I’d get. I was grateful to get this image.
But I was grateful for the thrill of discovery even before I saw the picture. Just knowing that a certain sound in a certain context signifies these tiny treasures nearby brings a sense of joyful satisfaction. Even if I hadn’t located the nest I would have hummed happily the rest of the day, just from knowing I knew there was a nest in one of those trees: I marvel at my good fortune to live here and know these woods so well.
The walk continued to reveal surprise treasures. It’s a very good spring for the claret cups. Their scarlet blossoms, backlit by early morning sun, sparkled like jewels scattered on the forest floor in numbers I’ve not seen before.
Our lovely Sunday morning continued back at the house, where we sat on the patio, I with a latté and a book, Stellar with a big smile, enjoying the flowers, the phoebes’ feeding flights, and the hummingbirds’ frenzy at the new feeder.
After a full day of yarden work, cousins’ zoom, meditation, and coursework, it was time for Zoom Cooking with Amy! Tonight we made an easy smoked salmon taco, following the recipe in this video that Amy sent last week. We both had flour and corn tortillas, and tried one of each. A quick slaw of carrot, celery, and Granny Smith apple, with a basic sauce of mayo, mustard, lemon juice, cumin and salt, some flaked salmon, and a bit of lettuce on top. So simple, so delicious!
After dinner it was still light, and Stellar had the strength to go for another walk, so we strolled again into the woods. We came upon one of the same cacti from a different perspective, and it was new again to both of us.
Then a white glint through the trees caught my eye, a strangely symmetrical shape, and I walked over to examine it. Another treasure: a reminder of impermanence, making all the treasures this day held even more precious in retrospect.
Deer, or someone, have eaten most of the Indian paintbrush along the trail to the canyon. I’m grateful that there are still a few little spots of color. I keep thinking, this is why we need to feed hummingbirds. In a balanced ecosystem, the deer would leave enough paintbrush for all the hummingbirds. But we live in a world out of balance. I believe it really does help, and it’s worth it to us, to supplement the diets of wild birds: we’ve taken over so much of their habitat, it’s the least we can do.
Deer have been starving for the past year, maybe longer. Between drought, and monocultures, they’re now eating yarden plants here that they haven’t bothered for 25 years: the little naturalizing tulips, even the grape hyacinths, in the garden, and paintbrush out in the woods. Neighbors have noticed more of this as well. Stressed wildlife can aggravate humans in their habitat and along the fringes (the ecotones) between urban and ex-urban in this way, eating things they normally wouldn’t need to in order to get the nutrition they require. Ecosystem health revolves around diversity: when they only have hay and alfalfa for much of the year, they weaken. Maybe now they’re figuring out how to diversify and prosper.
That’s been my motto since before I moved here: Diversify and prosper. Seems even more fitting now.
I’m grateful also today for yet another fine female physical care provider, the eye doctor in Hotchkiss, Diane. Her gentle staff of women and her gentle chairside manner made me very comfortable as I embarked upon my fourth healthcare catchup since getting fully vaccinated a month ago. Their Covid precautions are exemplary, and I felt so confident of them that I’d even feel comfortable working there, not just spending way more than my fair share of time as a patient. I’m grateful for their patience with me. I’m grateful I’ve had a whole year to really observe the quality of my vision, and discern exactly what spectacle traits will maximize visual acuity going forward, for the time being; grateful for an eye doctor who was willing to really hear me. I can’t wait to get the new glasses I’ve ordered! Ah, vision. I’m so grateful for vision.
Thankful for the physical well-being and energy I’ve had this summer that has enabled me to keep up with the garden (though not with sharing its joy online!). Above, a selection of late-summer delights, starting with a plumtini, just a martini shaken with a very ripe plum, yum!
Thankful for half a dozen perfect strawberries gleaned from as many plants. Maybe next summer they’ll do better, but each fruit was certainly a burst of flavor as bright as its color.
The past months have been a whirlwind of harvesting, pickling, canning, freezing, cutting back, drying, fermenting and other fun fall festivities. I’ve been spinning through each day drenched in gratitude, swimming in astonishing colors, savoring and storing for winter the flavors of summer.
It’s almost impossible to believe I am the same person as that awkward little girl in the DC suburbs who spent every free minute curled up in an armchair reading books. How did I come to be here? Living close to the land in this fertile valley for almost half my life now has allowed me to approach some understanding of my true nature, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.
Never have I been so excited to photograph a honeybee on Nepeta, the catmint. Here it is mid-May and today I am relieved to finally see honeybees! Last year bees were late arriving; this year they were even more alarmingly late. Maybe because it’s been so wet and cold all spring? Maybe because there are fewer bees. There are definitely fewer bees.
When Amy first visited me a decade ago, she pointed out the sound of my yard: buzzing everywhere. For a couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about sending her a video of the big Nepeta patch outside my front door, with a “What’s missing from this picture?” caption. These flowers, usually crowded with bees from the minute they begin to bloom, were silent.
Spring is exceptionally green this year, after nearly incessant precipitation since Christmas. This is great, for the garden, the fields, my potential to sell my field, the irrigation ditches; also for the weeds, now knee-high throughout the yard where I haven’t gotten them whacked yet. And unless the precipitation continues through the summer, it could be a very good year for the wildfires. Not for those of us at risk, all species, but good for the fires themselves, which thrive on the fuel grown in a verdant spring once it dries out.
Oh well. As Bill Nye the Science Guy says, “The planet’s on fucking fire!” Only with conscious effort and some sacrifice from everyone (that “everyone” raises so many questions about justice; it’s a rabbit hole I’ll not go down right now) can we slow down climate chaos. This has been the coldest, wettest May that anyone remembers, generations back. A wheel of upper level lows has been plaguing the western half of the US… Something about the jet stream being stuck in an exceptionally low trajectory. Climate chaos.
It begins snowing big steady flakes as I write this. No wonder the bees aren’t out. But they were earlier, just a few, in the few days that have been warm and sunny rather than wet and windy.
Butterflies and hummingbirds have also appeared but not in their usual numbers. I saw about half a dozen species of butterflies in April during a warm week, but not the usual Mourning Cloak.
Mountain bluebirds, inspiration for our famous Colorado “bluebird sky,” are nesting close to the house, providing joyful glimpses frequently throughout the day. Magpies successfully fledged at least one chick from the nest north of the house, after spending months shrieking all day. It’s a sound I don’t mind, though; like the spring flicker drumming on the metal roof, or the phoebes chirping around their nest in the eave over the front door. I’ve done some experimenting with the beautiful red salvias which are annuals in our zone, and might elaborate on those results later. It’s been far too cold to put them all in patio pots yet, so I put out the tray of tender flowers every morning, and bring it in every evening. I’ve had to put them outside even on cold blustery days like yesterday, and they’ve survived multiple hailstorms, snow showers, and wind attacks, though much the worse for wear, because the dear little hummingbirds started feeding on them right away, while they’re in 4″ pots on the patio table.
At last though, just this weekend, it looks as though the weather pattern may shift, and we might start our spring warmup a month late. Fingers crossed for some semblance of normal balance.
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.
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.
Caveat: 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.Tending 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.
You 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? Another 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?
Everywhere 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. It 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.