What appeared to look like a very mild Winter, quickly deceived us with frigid temperatures. Nothing could have prepared us for the last 2 weeks, with lows reaching -30 Celsius and colder. But things are about to break. Temperatures much closer to the freezing mark will be extremely welcome over the next week.
The ground remains frozen 2 ft below the surface up here in the North, but the hummingbirds have begun to get that itch in their feathers down south. Absolutely nothing can curb their desire to travel hundreds of miles for one sole purpose, breeding. While they do what they do, I spend hours downstairs in the plant room preparing for the upcoming season and improving on the last.
In the previous hummingbird season, we added one fantastic addition to our hummingbird garden. We managed to find a stockpile of "farina blue salvias" at a local plant store. They stood an impressive 2 ft tall and provided a striking appearance in each one of our raised pots. The previous year we sampled one of them, or should I say the hummingbirds did, and they found it to be one of the best flowers in the garden. Because there was only one of them, the nectar supply ran short quickly. So last year we placed one in each pot, and it did wonders. Not only did the Young birds appreciate each and every one of them, but the dominant male, Gunner, also appreciated the additions. These salvia flowers looked so good at the end of the season, I found it far too difficult to let them go down with the frost, so I chose to propagate them from cuttings. It was a relatively simple process, however a bit time-consuming, but all I had was time over the next 6 months. 1. I took a couple candy tub containers with lids, and drilled out some large holes in the lids. 2. Then I cut about 50 Sylvia cuttings, leaving only two large leaves, and in some cases only one. If there was a flower pushing out between those leaves, I snipped it off. 3. I simply placed all of those cuttings through the holes in the lid, and filled up the plastic tub with water. I set these plastic tubs just out of direct light in the house, but with plenty of indirect light. 3. It didn't take long before many of them developed roots. I would say the success rate was about 60%. 4. As the individual cuttings would develop a good set of roots, I placed them into a 3" pot with 75% peat moss and 25% perlite. 5. I simply kept them under fluorescent lights over the winter, watered them daily, and fed them a bit of 20-20-20 fertilizer every other week. Right now they are doing very well. With two and a half months to go, I'm sure they will have several flower heads by the time they get placed out in Spring.
I will continue to nurture these newly developed plants along with many other seedlings that I started about 6 weeks ago, and I will wait and wonder about the new season to come.
Our hummingbird season is incredibly short in the northern reaches of their territory, but within that short period of time there are so many stories to tell. There were numerous hummingbirds battling for flowers and feeders around our garden, but one feeder near us, with clusters of flowers all around, provided many smiles and giggles for the remaining two weeks of the season. Gunner, our dominant male hummingbird, was the last adult male to leave. He covered an area with two feeders until Miles solved the feeder. He was an aggressive young boy. Soon he left, and then Junior took over. He also provided much amusement. Finally, there was one who stood out in many ways from all the rest. I never like to have a hummingbird leave our place without learning the feeders first, so one really gave us a challenge. One young male was so fixated on the Salvia that he wouldn't even look at any other flower, let alone the feeders. I tried placing training feeders right near the flowers, but with no luck. He was focused on just the Salvia alone. It took time, and much of it, before he started sampling the Vermillionaire and the vining Nasturtiums. My homemade nasturtium flower just wasn't close enough for him to test out on the feeder. So I grabbed a nasturtium flower, plucked the tail end off, and inserted it into the feeder. It took a few passes, but suddenly that lone nasturtium got his attention. He stuck his bill in, tasted it, and moved to the rest. It was on his third round through the flowers that he finally realized there was something very unique about that one flower. He inserted his bill, drank, and realized this flower had more nectar than all the rest. Suddenly he was annoyed with the flower. He tried in many ways to move it out of his way so that he could reach the source in behind. He fought with that flower, and then moved on. I quickly removed the real flower from the feeder and waited for his return 15 minutes later. He poked a few of the other flowers, but quickly remembered that special one. He flew to it, notice the flower missing, but inserted his bill into the fake feeder flower. Success! He learned it and made it top priority. What gave him a special name was the fact that he didn't like bumblebees that much. It wasn't honey bees or wasps that he had issues with, it was bumblebees. Anytime and every time he would spot a bumblebee in his cluster of flowers, he made it his mission to chase that bumblebee around the yard. We knew every time a bumble bee would show up, that shortly after, the Little Bee Slayer would show him the business and escort him out. This little guy would honestly slap those bumble bees like a pinata. One bumblebee had his world rearranged when he got slapped out of the air and knocked into the plants below. He buzzed a little, gathered his bearings, and left like a missile, with no intentions of returning. But sadly, within a few days, the Bee Slayer too had moved on. Overall, it was an incredibly successful season. The number of locals, casuals and migrants filled the yard for about 5 weeks, and left me with many stories to tell. The second image, he's poking through the real Nasturtium to get to the feeder behind.
August 28, 2020. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Some people may not understand the attachment that us "hummingbirders" have to these tiny little creatures. When they first start to show up in our garden, they have an innocence about them. They are naive to danger, and they flit and flutter almost clumsily through the flowers. They are baby like in much of their behavior and actions. They make us smile, and it doesn't take long before we claim them as our own. They become recognizable by certain traits and behaviors that are different from all the others. We name them as we do our pets. But they quickly mature, and within days they can leave with little warning. There is a void created in us when they don't return to our garden, but it's far worse when you see them rise up into the sky, watch them gradually disappear, and head to a place they've never known. We raise them like our own, care for them with special treatment, and then they leave, many of which will never return. It's extremely rewarding to watch a successful year come to fruition, but deeply sorrowful to watch them leave, only knowing this is what they're meant to do.
This youngster would show up multiple times throughout the day to feed from this Vermillionaire, and then go to the training feeder which he learned quickly. Juvenile male Ruby-throat hummingbird. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Life away from the nest was new and exciting. Flowers and color were everywhere, and temptation of food forced independence from his mother very quickly. He didn't want to sit around and wait for food to come to him, but rather explore the fields of food just waiting to be sampled. He spent much time in the flowers while squeaks and battles pursued all around him. He was intrigued with all the activity going on, but was soon initiated into the fast paced world of hummingbirds as the swift attacks from all directions soon involved him. It didn't take long before he too would witness a speedy hummingbird overhead and felt the need to chase it. Then the shiny red object hanging overhead intrigued him enough to give it a sample. This thing had flowers filled with nectar like he'd never seen in his short existence. The nectar went half way up the bill and didn't seem to run out like all the other flowers. He drank for a minute straight, and still the flower remained full. Then another hummingbird showed up at the feeder. Instant anger boiled over, and his "mine" attitude forced him to chase the other around the yard. He belted out an undeveloped squeak, performed his uncoordinated little intimidation arc, and let the other know that the feeder belonged to only him. He seemed quite impressed with himself has he showed off every little skill built into his DNA. He showed off to the point that he forgot about the task at hand. "My feeder"! He quickly flew back across the large garden, but on his way the anger began to boil over once again. From a distance he saw two other birds on his feeder. It was at this point that he earned his name. "Miles" was appropriate, as he came in like a wrecking ball. He bashed one off one side of the feeder, immediately turned, and smacked the other, and set the record straight to all that the feeder belonged to only him. Even Gunner retreated to a single feeder until his time to move on to a warmer climate. Since Gunner left, Miles now believes he's in charge. His little stature sure makes him cute, but his large attitude makes him fierce and one not to be messed with.
First image is Miles cleaning off the nectar after diving deep into the feeder, while the second image is him protecting his treasure right past sunset.
Juvenile male Ruby-throat hummingbird, N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. August 13, 2020.
Every year the question arises about whether to keep your feeders up, or pull them down to encourage birds to go south.
This year has been more unusual for me that any other year in the past. Spring was almost nonexistent, while we went from Winter right into Summer. Many of our perennials had a really late start and only flowered 2 to 3 weeks later than normal, although it worked out perfectly with having many perennials bloom at exactly the time the young hummingbirds were leaving the nest. Let me tell you, it's incredibly difficult trying to keep an eye on every island of flowers spread out over 1 1/2 acres. At no point in the day could you walk through the garden, or around the yard, without scaring several hummingbirds out of the clusters of flowers that are growing everywhere. I'm saying this because normally at this time, many of the perennials are finishing, and the annuals are the only things left in full bloom. I have 10 hummingbird feeders also spread across the yard. So right now things are more colorful than you can imagine, and the hummingbird food is so great, that it's only something hummingbirds dream of. So the question becomes, why aren't the hummingbirds staying in our garden. Well, the answer is both simple and complex. Simple answer, they do what they're instructed to do. The more complex answer simplified is that hummingbirds have a drive and desire and purpose so much greater than their love of nectar. They were fighting in our garden like their lives depended on it, for days, but by 7:00 AM the next morning half the hummingbirds had cleared out. That pull is so powerful, the desire is so great, and their purpose is so much bigger than the food they leave behind. Their lives and the species are 100% dependent on the obedience of their calling.
I believe the worst thing you could do is pull down feeders while they are in their peak feeding time to fatten up for the long journey south. Some females have late broods, and some are forced to start over after their nest has been robbed, and this produces young that are oftentimes lagging behind many of the others that have already gone. So let them feed until their heart's content, and until they get the call to move on. Otherwise, you're stripping them of a valuable source of food just at the time they they need it most.
Neither one of these birds owned the feeder, but were content to share until the owner got back from chasing another hummingbird. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. August 6th, 2020.
After all the hard work planting flowers, everything has been starting to look really good around the garden, but lately something fishy has been goin' on. Each morning one or two more large leaves of the nasturtium plants have been found lying beside the spindly stock, now having to regenerate more leaves. Nothing eaten, simply chewed off. Those mice are at it again!
Meanwhile, Gunner, our dominant little Top Gun hummingbird has been on fierce patrol. He watches from morning until night, ready to spring into action. Occasionally his anger will be provoked by any other bird that merely moves or chirps in the wrong fashion.
So after noticing our hard work being chewed off and discarded for no reason, action needed to be taken. I pulled out the mouse traps! No one messes with my plants, and no one messes with a hummingbird flower. For those that are unaware of my specialty skills, they include catching mice like nobody's business, and making hot dog buns fresh from scratch. How are these two things related, you might ask? I was forced to sacrifice a small piece of hot dog bun for the mousetraps, and that doesn't make me very happy! So, I lined up three snapping mousetraps, side by side. I broke that scrumptious hot dog bun morsel into three even pieces, and forced each moist little morsel into the little claw on the trigger of the mousetrap. For those that have a mouse problem, NOTHING works better for catching mice than fresh or stale bread that's been moistened with a few drops of water. Don't mess around with cheese or peanut butter, or anything else, JUST BREAD! It works like nothing else! Anyways, back to my anger issues. I had three traps lined up and loaded with fresh bread, and I began the delicate process of setting the triggers, kinda like doing open heart surgery. My anger for those mice was high level, as were my nerves, as I performed the procedure of setting hair trigger traps. One trap complete! Two traps complete, and only one to go. My hands began to shake, and the sweat ran down my brow. " Hold it together man, you only have one remaining"! With my hands shaking and my nerves twitchy, I loaded up the spring on the final trap, ready to set the trigger. It was then that an intruding hummingbird entered into Gunner's airspace. Now, if you've ever heard two hummingbirds at high speed change direction really quickly, it's like a powerful whistle or screech of a jet at mach speed. So as I was setting the trigger on the trap, with ultra sensitive nerves, Gunner and the intruder performed the high tech maneuver within inches of my head! That whistle from their quivering feathers screeched pass me so fast, and with such a piercing whistle, that I tensed up with the loaded trap in my hand, and two loaded right next to it. It's not like my life passed before my eyes, but it was like a vision of missing digits did. My wife laughed, while I needed some serious time to wind down. I'm happy to say that all my fingers remain intact, and Gunner has been warned of his fancy air maneuvers.
Image is of Gunner, our adult male Ruby-throat hummingbird keeping guard over his garden and territory.
N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. June 20, 2020.
It was a morning following a night time rain. Fragrance filled the air, and song filled the garden. Although I've had countless mornings in the garden that were beyond wonderful, this one was indescribable, but I'll try. There were about 25 species of birds, some in multiple pairs, that packed the garden, each one trying to outdo the other, that all together created chorus of magnificence. My senses of smell, sight and sound were in overload. The winds were calm, so every chirp, squeak and melody echoed throughout the garden, while every blooming lilac flower filled the air. Every blade of grass held glistening little diamonds of raindrops, and every living thing in our garden was glad to be alive. I sat there with the biggest smile, knowing that if this was the very last morning I'd encounter, it would be worth it. Not to be outdone by the others, little Gunner put on the show that would top it off with greatness. After a quick splash in the fountain, he bounced from leaf to leaf among the Delphiniums, to soak up and splash about in every cupped Delphinium leaf that held some puddled rain. Although I sat a distance from him, I managed to see it all play out.
June 12th, 2020. Northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Image - adult male Ruby throat hummingbird
For those of you who take a lot of pictures, you can understand just how difficult it is to get the perfect capture. The location, background, the way your subject is standing, how the light reflects off the subject, are all important. But to get every piece right at the same time, can take thousands of attempts before you get it right, or until that opportunity presents itself. With the last several years of Ziggy, I tried endlessly to get the perfect capture, and although he gave me so many opportunities, there were very few that were perfect. This new male, "Top Gun", named by a friend, was shortened to "Gunner", also named by a friend, is one awesome little bird. His personality, quirks, and character closely resemble Ziggy, but with a few differences. He sits in various locations around the garden, oftentimes very close to us. We can be working below him while he watches guard from 15 feet overhead. We have learned his perches, and preferences, and he rarely leaves the yard. He's become the new owner that guards from intruders. He sits, stretches, and poses, and gives me unlimited photo opportunities, and even though the possibilities are endless, it's still difficult to get the perfect capture. This is one where he's not only sitting, but with the body sideways while his head facing me, with a perfect light reflection, while his wings are twisted to the side during a stretch, and his tail is fanned out. It's one of the better captures that I've managed to get over the years. I could have hundreds of thousands of pictures of him sitting in the trees looking great, but this one is for the wall.
Male Ruby-throat hummingbird, north east of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. June 5th, 2020.
For years he entertained us, and populated many parts of the country with his feisty little offspring. He gave me photo captures that filled my memory and digital album. He gave us reason to plant thousands of flowers around our garden. He inspired myself and many others to appreciate those things in life that are invaluable. He fought for our garden because he knew his family of the North would thoroughly provide for him. He gave it his all for several years, but his time had to end, but not without leaving a legacy that is unforgettable. He was a trooper, a fighter, and a little friend that I miss in the garden. He would sit close by and show up at watering time, sometimes sitting on a branch or flower pot just feet away. I would turn the hose on him and provide is daily shower. He never hid away, but made his presence known. Now his time has ended with a legacy that will live on, and perhaps one of his offspring to carry on the tradition. This little guy is "Top Gun". He's a little spitfire already making a presence. After becoming familiar with the garden, the fountain was just a little too much temptation. He firmly grabbed the edge, did a bottoms up, and took the plunge.
Male Ruby-throat hummingbird. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. May 25, 2020.
**The second capture is of Ziggy from 2019.
Ziggy's arrival was Swift and unexpected. I knew at some point he would show up within a few days, but he flew past me, close enough to hear the wings, and then perched a short distance in front of me. It was like he remembered me and was excited to say hello. I stood and watched him while he sat and watch me. After our brief hello, he flew to the fountain, took a well-needed bath after the long flight, and then prepared for his three month stay. I know many of you have heard this story last year, but to me it seems like it was just yesterday.
This was one of many visits to the fountain of his dreams. Sometimes he would visit it several times a day. This year some changes have been made to his fountain, with improvements that I'm sure he'll enjoy.
N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Spring 2019.