It wasn’t 24 hours after I hung up a hummingbird feeder outside my studio in the woods of Bluemont that I was greeted by no less than a half dozen of the little devils that next morning. What a thrill! Who would not be entertained by the symphony of squeaky chirps (hey you, get out of my face!) and varoom! varoom! (move over, move over!) as these avian bombardiers jockeyed for a perch at the sugar bar.
During lunch, I noticed one hummer in particular returning to a nearby limb to rest on what looked like a child’s tea cup pasted with tiny bits of greenish paper. Could it be a female nesting on eggs? Indeed it was. Absolutely elated, I grabbed my camera and zoom lens to record this rare sighting.
She was a Ruby-throated hummer, one of the most common species in the eastern half of North America. Courtship is apparently very brief, and once mated, the female raises her young alone. She likely was sitting on two eggs about the size of navy beans, laid one day after the other. Unable to view from above, or else risk my life falling off the roof, I watched every day through my camera for a little needle nose or two to pop up and out.
The nest fascinated me. Only a couple of inches wide, its interior was made with soft plant fibers from dandelion, thistle down, clematis, honeysuckle, or milkweed; the exterior was pasted with lichen bits from a neighboring tree bound together and anchored by stolen spider web silk. The silk allows the nest to expand as the hatchlings grow, and is the strongest natural fabric in nature – five times that of steel!
Secured on a low, smaller branch in the shade, she was always protected from the elements. I watched her sit firmly one day during a terrific, windy downpour as it tossed the branch and its moored nest back and forth like a dinghy on a stormy sea. The sun appeared, and she was off to feed again. She often came very close to me as I sat in amazement, more so when I wore a red shirt.
A week later two tiny beaks appeared. From what I could tell they were a week old as hatchlings have no feathers and these did. They would occasionally move around, darting their tongues out and opening their mouths as if Mother Hummer was about to feed them the regurgitated nectar and insect mix but it was another good week before I could see the tops of their little bodies.
Hummers don’t eat just nectar: they are carnivores and devour small insects and spiders, an important source of protein, minerals and vitamins that will give this 3 gram creature the energy to fly up to 40 mph at 200 wing beats per second, and migrate thousands of miles. I never witnessed the hatchlings being fed, oh how I wanted to photograph that!
Like two kids in a single bed, back and forth, up to go to the bathroom, back under the covers to sleep, they continued to preen and fluff for one more week until graduation day arrived. Migration begins next month to return to Central America, and if the nest survives over the winter, she may return to it. Youngsters continue to feed locally to gain weight before departing on the last flight south, so keep those feeders up until it freezes! And forget the red dye sugar mix: just use 1 part refined sugar, 4 parts boiled water. Your hummers will love you for it.
Fly away, fly away, please come back another day!