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.
I’m grateful I celebrated these tulips yesterday, before one of them got eaten. A couple of others that hadn’t bloomed yet also got – nipped in the bud! And, I’m grateful I heard the first hummingbird today! I rushed inside and boiled some nectar, set it in the mudroom to cool for a few hours, and put the first feeder up. I wish I’d thought to make nectar ahead of time like Deb did, so when I heard that first unmistakable zzzzip! through the air I could have put the feeder out right away. Oh well! It’s out now, that’s all that matters.
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.
Someday, I will find the photo I took of acres of beeplant along the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument when I was a ranger there decades ago. Acres of it! Right next to the river, in a disturbed field. That was my introduction to this native medicinal, dye, and food plant. When I lived in a trailer here 26 years ago, I scattered a native seed mix, including Gallardia, Ratibida, Linum, and Cleome. Of those four, only the beeplant has appeared erratically. Some years there are many, some, like this year, few. Maybe it doesn’t like drought. This particular patch, essentially two large stalks, I let grow in the raised bed between the Mystery Tomato and the Bolting Leeks.
Certain times of day, much of the day, these flowers buzz with the camaraderie of multiple insect species feasting at the same table. What is wrong with us?
Young hummingbirds, this year’s fast-fledged hatchlings, seem to experiment more with the flowers than adults who’ve become accustomed to the quick-fix of the single feeder that hangs below the deck. They’re trying out the patio pots with red and blue annual Salvia, and the hanging baskets.
Amidst loss and chaos throughout the summer, in my personal life as well as in community and country, and around the planet, this peach tree has brought peace and joy. Nurturing and watching from the last snow, through leaf and bloom, drop and grow, these last weeks of ripening, I’ve savored this tree in far and away its most abundant year. It keeps reminding me what’s real. One fruit of the romantic debacle/deception is that it’s driven me deeper into the larger love of my closest friends, my community, and my garden sanctuary. Let me remember to be grateful for love and lessons, every living moment of every day.
This week in sunflowers… and other yellow things. Diverse native bees, including the sunflower bee (Svastra, I think: the males have unusually long antennae) are buzzing and feeding in the sunflowers, and a few goldfinches have come for seeds but fly too fast from me when I come out with the camera. Grasshoppers continue to maraud every living plant, including the gladioli, giving me a window into a bud.
Dahlias are suffering worse than glads from grasshopper predation, though these later blooms are in better shape than those in early summer; enough flower left to provide for this bumblebee. Bumblebees are so complicated, with any one species having so much variety in parts and patterns, queens and workers and males all different sizes with different color sternites, tergites, and corbicular fringes, variable leg part sizes and cheek ratios… It would take more time and focus than I have now to even try to learn them. We have about 13 species in this part of Colorado. But I can’t even remember that many. One, two, or possibly three more species below, on Prince’s Plume, mullein, and Rocky Mountain beeplant respectively.
Those horrible thunks against the window… I heard one on the west kitchen window last week and saw the body drop. Dashed outside, around the Foresteria loosing masses of purple berries to the ground, beyond the woodpile, and tiptoed through the mess of palettes, hoses, wire cages, and empty pots to find this young yellow warbler out cold on the ground. I carried him around to the south side of the house looking for a good shady perch, and set him in a sturdy crook in the apricot tree. Brought the cats inside and left him there for awhile. When I went back he had flown, so that was one good deed for that day.
Then, just this afternoon, another smack into the east window. Outside, a tiny hummingbird facedown in a geranium pot. Its beak was a little askew. In my hand it was weightless, but its minuscule heart pounded. Cats secured inside, I set the hummingbird in a shoebox in the shade, putting a twig under its barely perceptible toes, and set a small bowl of water in front of it as it wobbled on its perch. I shut the lid for awhile, then checked, and tipped the water bowl so it could reach without moving. It flicked its threadlike tongue into the water. I dumped the water and filled the bowl with nectar, and it drank again from the tipped bowl.
I shut the lid for another ten minutes; checked again, tipped again, left again. The fact that it was still alive encouraged me, though I was distressed it didn’t fly right off. Half an hour later I returned and opened the lid, tipped the bowl for another drink. I left the lid open and checked again in another half hour, dismayed to see the bird still there. But as I moved toward the bowl, the little bird cocked its little pea-head then zipped out of the box, up and out of sight! Sometimes all they need is a safe space for long enough to get their head on straight.
Not long after that, I caught a goldfinch in the sunflowers.
Because the days are full of beauty, because each little bird is a jewel and each flower a masterpiece.
With cutting back and a few feedings through the summer, and I mean just a few, the snapdragons and other potted flowers are blooming again, with bells on. And hummingbirds. And bees. Cooler days and nights, and a few good rains, really rejuvenated them after the dog days of July. Dog days, ha. This was a pretty mild and cool summer. Cooler nights, five to ten degrees lower many nights than the same time last year, have also contributed to the tomatoes’ lack of productivity. I haven’t seen the dear old doe for weeks, and wonder if she’s eaten her last from my garden, from this good green earth, and moved on to feed a lion, or just sink back into the flow. So I’m finally harvesting a handful of small tomatoes, or, a small handful of tomatoes, about once a week.
Funny how the garden changes so dramatically over the course of the summer, but does it so slowly, in barely perceptible increments, so that one day I look across a certain way and see how completely different it is from the last time I looked. Rabbitbrush is in full bloom already, and it seems the hummingbirds are heading out a little early, though still plenty in my yard. The skies have been full of Canada geese the past few days, flying over in ribbons of dozens at a time, honking enthusiastically about their journey. The bee plant continues to flourish and hum, blooming garlic chives are also full of bees, and fall peas have just pushed through the ground.