By Margo D. Beller (@MargoDBeller)
At this time of year, people go on vacation. If you have a family, you travel in summer before the kids have to go back to school and the daylight ends early. Whether it is by car, plane or train, travel can be exciting, a change in the routine, a way of clearing the cobwebs from your mind and giving your camera a workout.
The rubythroated hummingbird I see at the feeder just beyond the window from the store at Scherman Hoffman takes a long drink of the sugar water. The bird weighs less than an ounce.
It is fun to watch a hummingbird, which looks more like an insect than a bird. But this little creature is getting ready for a long trip, too, and it is certainly no vacation.
Although it is August, the birds (and the butterflies, for that matter) already know that it is getting time to go south again. Despite the heat, the days are getting shorter and the decrease in light is a cue that soon it will be cold and there will be no more insects. What young there were this year should have fledged and will be able to fend for themselves.
At my home feeder, the hummingbirds that visit at this time of year are usually adult females. By now the males, whose only role is to battle for territory and then mate with a chosen female, have already left. The females build the nest, brood the eggs and then feed the young. Once the young can get their own food, Mom will be going south.
Think about it: Something about the weight of a penny will be traveling hundreds of thousands of miles, battling bad weather, the Gulf of Mexico (where, if it’s lucky, it will find an oil rig for rest -- if it hasn’t been blown into it) and predators, all under its own power. No four-wheel drive here. Its instinct tells it it must go.
I can’t help but look at a visiting hummingbird with respect tinged with sadness at what it must face. Many will not survive.
These little birds are not alone, of course. The various sparrows, thrushes, tanagers, warblers and other passerines that birders will follow as they pass through southbound will be joined by shorebirds, ducks and raptors. Some will end their journey in New Jersey. Most will head to the southern U.S.. or beyond the gulf to central and South America.
The raptor flight is particularly impressive, whether you see what can be a parade of birds (if the north wind is strong) from the uppermost porch at Scherman Hoffman’s education center or the uppermost North Outlook at Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain.
I’ve seen raptors from both areas, surrounded by large crowds impressed by the vultures, the buteos (like the red-tailed hawk pictured) and accipiters and especially the bald eagles. There’s something about a soaring, mature bald eagle -- symbol of the U.S. and easily identified by the white head and tail -- that causes a stir and gets the cameras clicking.
But there was a time, decades ago, when my husband was told (as a Boy Scout) that he’d never see a bald eagle in the wild in his lifetime because of its near-destruction by, among other things, chemicals (DDT) and shooting (Hawk Mountain was once a favorite shooting spot for sportsmen in the fall).
Every time you see a bird at your feeder, it is not there to entertain you but is trying to survive. Every visit to a water dish, or flight into a tree to escape a cat, or chase after a much bigger bird to protect its young is all about survival. The long, dangerous trip south is a real-life “Survival” you won’t see on TV.
If the bird gets to its winter spot and can stay alive for the next few months - no mean feat in areas where the forests are being destroyed - and then make its way north to our area next spring, its reward will be creating another generation of young to perpetuate the species.
So we who care about birds put out our feeders and water and try to keep the cats out of the yard to keep the birds alive. But when it’s time for them to go, they are on their own.
Travel can be exciting, a way to break up a routine. But that’s for people. For birds, travel is a matter of life and death.