Community Columns

Say hello to a tiny winged wonder

These common cooter turtles, which grow as large as 12 inches across, were sunning themselves along the edge of a pond at the botanical park we visited recently.

Recently we began to hear reports of a number of hummingbirds in our area, so we checked our feeder more closely and sure enough, we spotted the beautiful male ruby-throated hummingbird passing through on its annual migration north. Hummingbirds have left their winter quarters in Central America on their epic journey north; some on their way inland, some actually flying 18 hours across 500 miles of the Gulf of Mexico. We were lucky enough that some of them came inland and treated us to a splendid show of their aerial agility and dazzling colors before leaving after only a week or two to rest and refuel.

These hummingbirds reminded me of some of my experiences with the brilliant-colored gems that glitter like precious stones in the late sunlight as they land quickly, feed for a few moments and disappear as quickly as they came. When not on the feeder the hummingbird would try out our purple petunias, but preferred the feeder for a few quick drinks and then he was off to our bright red geraniums. They also enjoy trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, honeysuckle, jewelweed and bee balm flowers, where we photographed them in our garden at home. Try putting a feeder out this year in hopes of attracting some of the nesting ruby-throated hummingbirds in our area.

The first time I saw one of these fragile little fellows was when one came to a trumpet creeper on my dad’s back porch years ago, when I was very young. It left a lasting impression on me, how this little bird, whose wings beat so fast I couldn’t see them (200 times a second), could move in any direction — up, down, forward, backward — or just hover in midair.

Later, when I became interested in photography, I was going to try to photograph some night herons on a duck farm, now the Indian Island County Park in Riverhead. I was carrying a bird blind, camera and binoculars along a path to where the night herons roosted when I became aware of a buzzing sound around my head. I thought it was a wasp and swished it away only to have it come back and buzz me again.

When I stopped to see what it was, I found it to be a ruby-throated hummingbird guarding its nest a mere six feet off the ground. The night herons would have to wait, as I quickly set up my equipment and tried for a photo of this tiny bird that had stopped me in my tracks.

Looking through the opening in my blind, I could see the nest had been built on the limb of a tree and was covered with lichens, so it seemed to dissolve into its surroundings. Luck was on my side and the female soon came back and settled into her tiny walnut-sized nest. Just before I left I looked into the nest and saw two white pea-sized eggs in this cozy little nest built of plant down interlaced with spider webs and shingled with lichens. Since that time I’ve photographed the broad-tailed hummingbird in Colorado while camping with the family and the orange hummingbird on the Pacific Coast when Barbara and I toured our western states.

The ruby-throated hummingbird feeds on nectar and insects and spiders, which I once witnessed up in Canada, where we spent time at our friends’ fishing lodge. As we sat on the porch after a day of fishing we began to notice some activity in the top of the high ceiling. We watched for a while and to our surprise we saw something slowly tumbling down. On closer inspection we found it was a hummingbird tangled so badly in spider webs that it could not move. We untangled it and let it go. It wasn’t long before we saw this feisty little hummingbird go right back to her feeding frenzy among the spider webs. This time as it tumbled down we untangled it and took it a good distance away and released it.

On our recent visit to the botanical park near us in Florida we noticed what looked a bit to us like a beautiful pink dogwood blooming but we discovered it to be a tree with long, pink, tubular flowers — called the purple trumpet tree — much like our trumpet creeper back home that the hummingbird, with its long bill, enjoys getting nectar from. What a beautiful blossom for the migrating hummingbirds to find and enjoy on their short stay here.

While there along the water’s edge we spotted three common cooter turtles sunning themselves, only to realize as we looked at the photo later there are actually four, if you look closely.

Along with spring come all sorts of birds, flowers and insects. While watching for the hummingbird one day Barbara spotted a large wasp. It turned out to be a paper wasp, probably the one that built the small nest suspended on a short stalk in our shed.

There are always exceptions to the rule in anything and that goes for nature as well. Ruth Oliva was visited by a western Rufous hummingbird one winter. It got so cold that Ruth had to take the feeder into the house at night to keep it from freezing and put it out again the next day. Day after day that little bird would come from somewhere and enjoy the sugar water that was set out for it. Ruth surmised it must have been spending the night across the street in the low brush to keep warm. It was a great holiday gift that Ruth enjoyed.