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The ‘Glittering Fragment of the Rainbow’

By Margo D. Beller

It is dusk in New Hampshire. It is raining and unusually cold for late May and I am sitting on my brother-in-law’s wide, covered porch.

As it darkens, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird comes to one of the two feeders hung from a support line for the grape vines. It perches and takes a long drink of the sugar water that will help keep it alive over the expected cold night.

Suddenly, a second, slightly larger hummer arrives. Despite two feeders being out, this one chases the other away because this is what hummingbirds do, they battle each other for food and territory. These little birds are tough. The first one leaves and the second takes a long drink, then perches on the wire for a while until it gets almost too dark to see. Then it flies off to roost in a nearby sheltering willow.

The birds come back the next day and continue their jostling. They look like females but it is very likely they are first-year males with not much of the red that gives the bird its name, such as the one in this photo. Or they could be a male and a female.  Mike Anderson hummer 2

I am always taken aback when a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, looking more like a bug than bird, flits by me. They are fascinating to watch, the only bird that can fly backwards, bright green back, long bill and, if a mature male, a deep, red throat. John J. Audubon referred to the ruby-throat as the “glittering fragment of the rainbow.”

Hummingbirds are so small - they weigh the same as a penny - and so colorful. In the U.S. they have interesting names including Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, Anna’s, Allen’s, Calliope and Magnificent. But in New Jersey, the hummingbird you’ll see 99% of the time is the Ruby-throated. Go walk in the woods wearing a red hat or bandana and you might draw one to you, checking out what kind of flower you are.

People love to watch hummingbirds. They put out red feeders with sugar water (1 part sugar to 4 parts water) to feed them. They plant flowers for them – preferably those that are red and/or trumpet-shaped (yellow jewelweed is a favorite, if you happen to have a stream or river along your property). They make documentaries about them. There’s even a website to track the ruby-throat’s northbound migration.

One year I was in New Jersey’s Great Swamp, crossing a bridge over the Great Brook, when I was buzzed by a hummer. I walked to the end of the bridge to watch her. She was attending to young in a tiny nest made of lichen and spider webs at the tip of a branch over the water. Unlike other birds, once the male has done his part, he’s gone, frequently heading south as early as July, leaving the female to build the nest and raise the brood alone. 

New Jersey Audubon’s Scherman Hoffman sanctuary has a feeder attached to the bookstore window so those inside get a close view of the feeding bird. It is nice to be inside, perhaps talking to sanctuary director Mike Anderson or one of the volunteers, and suddenly have a brilliantly colored male hummer appear out of nowhere. One of my friends lives not far from the center in Bernardsville and  puts out a feeder on her deck near a pot of red bee balm. The birds come continually, even when she is sitting outside. Very little deters a hungry hummingbird, as the ones I saw in New Hampshire reminded me.

 Mike Anderson hummer When I see a hummer at a feeder, its whirring wings beating thousands of times a second, I appreciate the great lengths it has gone - and the dangers it has faced - to make it here from central and South America.

In his book “The Big Year,” Mark Obmascik gives a harrowing account of northbound migration over the Gulf of Mexico, from the point of view of a female ruby-throat. Like all birds the hummer eats and eats and eats, then takes off and flies nonstop over the water, burning fat supplies as she goes until she can get to land to eat and rest. Many don’t make it. The one in the book does. Read it and I guarantee the next time you look at a hummingbird you will be awed.

If you want to attract hummingbirds you can create a garden with the right type of flower. Trumpet vine is a hummer favorite, and so are other native plants including Beard Tongue, Wild Bergamont and Bleeding Heart. If you have a wet garden, there’s Fire Pink and Cardinal Flower and its blue cousin Lobelia.

These and other native plants will be on sale Saturday, June 1, from 9am to 4pm at Scherman Hoffman. The nice thing about these flowers is that besides hummers you will also draw butterflies – another long-distance migrant that is tougher than it appears. These plants evolved along with native birds, insects and wildlife. Putting these in your garden is like buying heirloom tomatoes with their strange colors and textures and juicy taste instead of the bland orange tomatoes used for fast-food sandwiches. Natives are just more interesting, and so are the birds and insects they attract.

Here is Audubon again, on hummingbirds and the native flowers:

No sooner has the returning sun again introduced the vernal season, and caused millions of plants to expand their leaves and blossoms to his genial beams, than the little Humming-bird is seen advancing on fairy wings, carefully visiting every opening flower-cup, and, like a curious florist, removing from each the injurious insects that otherwise would ere long cause their beauteous petals to droop and decay... Its long delicate bill enters the cup of the flower, and the protruded double-tubed tongue, delicately sensible, and imbued with a glutinous saliva, touches each insect in succession, and draws it from its lurking place, to be instantly swallowed. All this is done in a moment, and the bird, as it leaves the flower, sips so small a portion of its liquid honey, that the theft, we may suppose, is looked upon with a grateful feeling by the flower, which is thus kindly relieved from the attacks of her destroyers.

Makes you want to go native and buy a few White Turtleheads, doesn’t it?

I get a grateful feeling about hummingbirds, too.