Tag Archive: Annas hummingbird

I look like one of those people, but I’m not.  No, I don’t watch television.  There is too much else to do. But that “else” isn’t pursuit of the spiritual, the religious, the social. I do things with my beat up hands, with my land, with my horses. In my spare time, I either stay home or pack bags and go:  near or far, with a pass or a passport; drive, take the bus or train, or fly; stay in a tent or a motel or a hut.

I’m not a total luddite:  I will indulge in crazy animated movies once in awhile. I obviously use electronics, digital cameras, a computer, a smartphone, a tablet.


But a bald eagle tumbling through the air grabbing at the talons of a territory-invading hawk is a commercial free distraction. The dark eyes of a harbor seal that has followed my kayak home and hovers in the pool by the beach is a soulful farewell. A hummingbird that weighs less than a nickel defending a stand of bee balm from butterflies, bees, and birds entertains.  These moments are far more arresting than a conversation over chai tea in a carefully designed faux salvage cafe decor.

HummerBranchThis region’s legendary traffic is my excuse for not indulging in urban cultural events and going to dinner with friends.  My friends live three dozen miles away, south on a perpetually crowded freeway, or a thousand miles away.  My family, like many, is spread across the country. But travel isn’t really the barrier, because I do that a lot.  I just like wandering around by my lonesome, in the moment, in as natural an environment as I can find. dragonfly1

I paid my dues retrieving my mother’s blood spattered, broken glasses from the wreckage of her truck 30 years ago. Already supremely independent and restless, I’ve never again been that easy close to people after that little tragedy.  I wander afar, road trip, hike, and camp on my own, or stay home to do artwork and landscaping in the company of animals, most of them wild. In practice, I’m an absent, unrelaible friend, checking in sporadically with pictures and stories about travel and home. RedSnake

So I don’t watch television, attend retreats to become mindful and soulful, seek cultural events and stimulating conversation over gourmet meals. I sound awful.  But I’m not a hermit: I work with the public and give volunteer presentations and workshops whenever I’m asked. I’m friendly to every friendly person I meet. I care about the friends I don’t keep up with. I’m interested in other people’s stories. It’s just that when the day is done, I take my stories home, disconnect from humanity, and go where the wild things are.

And that’s okay.  The world has enough people- it doesn’t need me out there.

VultureOnSlashPileThe animal company I keep does need people, though.  They need us to plant more trees and shrubs, build more rock piles and slash piles, hoist up more nests until there is enough nature to build their own.  They need cleaner, cooler water and skies without flight hazards and light pollution. At my little sanctuary, they reward my efforts by mulitplying and bringing their offspring back each year. My visitors are a study in simplicity, with simple wants:  food, family, turf, home. This, I understand.



In a year where I’m grabbing for the steering wheel and brake pedal as the driverless car careens down a ravine, the patterns of nature go on as usual.  For the second year, a Bewicks wren has built a nest in a compartment under the gooseneck of the horse trailer.  I can see little bits of grass inside the entry, and hear the hatchlings fruitlessly singing at me to bring them a spider, a moth, anything.

The horse trailer may as well be a home for birds.  This year I know why Tigger has been breaking the top rail of his fence, piling up bedding against a wall, lagging behind me on the way to the barn once in awhile.  The vet ultrasounds his fetlocks and lo, he has an old suspensory ligament injury, or perhaps chronic degradation of the ligament, she can’t tell which.  He’s been perching on fencing and piling up material to perch his butt and get weight off his back feet.

I get the answer to catastrophic versus chronic a month later, when I come home from a three-day conference and find a swelling below his hock that signals trouble.  A new ultrasound shows torn ligament and a fragment of bone pulled away. It is the end of his riding life, and signals time to make a decision.  Not a decision to do surgery or stem cell injections, which are options, but excessive: he’s 17, abnormally tall and broad for his breed.  The most humane decision is to let him go gentle into that good night.  It is for people to rage against the dying light, foolishly perhaps, but not for me to kill my horse on the ground after he embarks on one last hurrah and rips the ligaments to shreds.

But this isn’t coming easily, because there is work to do and a companion to find for my other horse. I work on insurance to board a horse, start to repair that top rail and consider the trouble an average horse might find in my barn.  My horses are ridiculously polite about fencing and wood and the occasional rough edge, but I know that a new horse may test those fences and find those edges.  Finding a companion proves to be a saga, too, reminding me of a friend’s one-time journey through the deceit of Match.com. She’s calm, I’m told, and then the mare slams the door of her stall with a foot as I pass by.  There goes my kneecap, I think.  He has no bad habits, I hear, but then I find his stall chewed to splinters.

The vet suggests a companion animal. An article about Pharoah, first winner of the Triple Crown in 37 years, talks about his companion gelding.  For racehorses too dominant for another horse, there are goats and donkeys and even a pig, Charlie. But what if I get the goat or the donkey, neither of which I want, and Lark doesn’t like it?

And I leave for the Arctic on some wayward crazy journey (read: rage against the dying light or something to that effect), so changing up is a challenge before I leave. With the vet’s blessing, we labor on, with Tigger in a makeshift miniature paddock so Lark can live normally.  Larkey gets exercised under saddle, Tigger gets daily walks and hand grazing and I panic when he does anything sudden.  It’s summer, so I’ve taken to hand-grazing while I sit in a lawn chair with a camera and watch the world go by.

This is a rare treat for me, after years of planting and building and remodeling, and I see things that likely happen daily witnessed only by Tigger and Lark.  I hear the distinct sound of an Anna’s hummingbird and finally spy a female on a dead elderberry twig.  AnnasFemale1She begins tilting her head and then suddenly, a male lands on the branch and assumes a sort of begging posture.  This gets the “heck no” response from her, and she flies up and dive bombs him.  He leaves. There are many hummers this year, on every plant put in the ground for them, and draining the feeders.PrettyPlease



Both bald eagles appear today to sit on the raptor-friendly power pole by the river to fish.  I haven’t been able to see the nest since leaves erupted on the huge cottonwood, but at one point my neighbor spied a white head in the nest.  Maybe there are young and they are both out hunting.  They fly in low over the horses as they graze, then lift up to the top of the pole.  I don’t have a camera then, and to get one, I have to tuck Tigger in Lark’s pen so he doesn’t run.  As I return, the visibly smaller eagle is heading back toward the nest, right over my head.

The remaining eagle sits watchful under bluebird skies, then suddenly starts calling.  He tilts his head, then out of nowhere comes a hawk of some kind (I think).  The hawk sails toward him, talons extended, and he throws his wings up like a powerful magic cape, screaming as he does.  The hawk lifts away, and the eagle arches in tense anger before relaxing again into his watchful pose.

EaglePowerPole EagleHawk1EagleHawk2There are always different filters to see with, and gifts to find along every path. I feel indecisive and uncertain about the choice to keep Tigger alive until I come home, but I am at peace with his situation. Two days after he was diagnosed, the Nepal earthquake hit, killing and rendering homeless many people who have never experienced a fraction of the health care my horse has received.  There are children starving in refugee camps, people trembling at every rumble, disease spreading through crowded camps.  There are people buried under the rubble of homes never meant to withstand shaking.

Yes, I raised this horse from a weanling.  Yes, he is sensible and calm, precious and dog-like.  But he has enjoyed more sustenance, attention, and care than many people, and it is good enough.  He will teach me to sit peacefully and see little things until he goes gentle into the good night.  And the trailer will sit singing until it’s time for his last journey.

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MaleAnnasThe hummingbird was not going to wait for me to hang the feeder. On a cold morning in Western Washington, with uncommon snow on the ground, the male Anna’s wanted his sugar water, and now. As I walked toward the post, feeder dangling from a cord, he darted straight for the yellow plastic flower and buried his bill as I stood there feeling like I was being mugged by a creature weighing less than an ounce. I am an uneasy host: Anna’s hummingbirds are more frequent winter residents here due to warming temperatures and late-blooming non-native flowers. Aside from insects, there is no high energy food to support their intense metabolism during the winter. That’s why I got busted red-handed with a nectar feeder by a hungry hummer.

These interactions make some people feel special, selected from a crowd of ungainly, insensitive primates by an alien and delicate living thing. We transform the experience by subtracting the feeder and attributing the encounter to our inherent goodness, to some juju magic the animal must see in us. If we hunt, we pride ourselves on our power and grace as we harvest an animal from the plot of rich forage we planted to attract it; it wasn’t the food, but the fine shot that made the day. Artists are no more saintly than hunters; we lift the image of an animal from a feeder and carefully place it in habitat we viewed somewhere else.

But for the animal, it is all about food.

Here in America, the majority of people are at the pinnacle of the food pyramid, so well-fed we are dying of it and clinging to one fad diet after another. I am as guilty as any of indulging in “comfort foods” and mood-enhancing drinks. We can waste 30% of the food we buy, and feed pet animals and wildlife to boot. Many of us can fill bird feeders with fatty, protein-rich seed hearts and pour clean water boiled with sugar into a nectar container.

Black-headed grosbeak at a seed feeder

Black-headed grosbeak at a seed feeder

Far away, there are places where people would make a meal of that same seed and sugar water. For the malnourished person, feeding an animal involves a calculation: if I feed this animal, it will become my food, and it will provide me with more nutrition than what I feed it. There is no mystique, no ego, no pride, only practicality.

A Hoffman's woodpecker feasts on a banana at a wildlife photography resort in Costa Rica

A Hoffman’s woodpecker feasts on a banana at a wildlife photography resort in Costa Rica

Food is a powerful tool of wildlife habituation. This tool is used by backyard wildlife enthusiasts, hunters, government wildlife managers, and even resorts specializing in wildlife photography. Concentrated sources of food- feeders, salt blocks, hay bales and rich stands of corn and clover- bring the most animals at once. Feeding may be an alternative to certain death: the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife feeds elk at set locations in the winter to keep them from straying into orchards where bullets will soon follow. Feeders may support backyard wildlife that would starve among sprawling housing developments with manicured yards. Animals tricked into overwintering by climate change may benefit from off-season feed.

However, wildlife habituation to food does not equate to magical bonding, and its costs can’t be subtracted from the human-wildlife equation. Competition for a rich food source can cause injury. Disease can be passed at a feeder like influenza on a crowded train full of coughing people. If there is no shelter from storms or a safe place to den or nest, animals and birds may die or sacrifice the next generation for easy meals. Predation increases: hawks have a distracted crowd of birds to pick from and crows may visit a feeder and then a nearby nest to eat another bird’s eggs.

A flowering lobelia attracts hummingbirds even in a pot

A flowering lobelia attracts hummingbirds even in a pot

The Anna’s hummingbird that does not migrate may die if I stop feeding it, or if the weather returns to historic norms.

Habituating wildlife to a food source can be a problem for people, too. Garbage-conditioned bears in Yellowstone National Park were killed when bear-human conflicts rose after the Park Service suddenly changed policy and closed dumps. Hand-fed ground squirrels and chipmunks at Mt. Rainier steal food and bite people to get a bit of sandwich. Mountain goats charge people because some have let them lick the salty sweat off their arms, or fed them. Backyard feeders attract unintended visitors like rats, raccoons, and opossums: animals we view as pests that view our houses as their homes.

A "bad bear" lives the best life it can inside a fence at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. He will never return to the wild after habituation to human food, but at least he is alive!

A “bad bear” lives the best life it can inside a fence at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. He will never return to the wild after habituation to human food, but at least he is alive!

Animals, though they feel more than we can bear to admit, are not human. Maybe the food bank, the food drop, the mission, or the refugee camp is more appropriate for people. We are too many to live in the wild and we don’t really want to live there anymore. Critters, even domesticated, will return to the wild if there is enough food, water, and shelter available. They will eat plants, bugs, slugs and each other happily, with room to avoid each other when necessary and to join together when there is benefit.

We can continue misinterpreting an abundance of animals or birds at a feeding area as a sign of plenty and health. We can pride ourselves on being a backyard St. Francis, a clever artist, an expert shutterbug or a premier hunter when we are just exploiting the tendency of resource-limited creatures to migrate to an easy meal. We can allow wild lands to be developed or fragmented to the point that they become empty and lifeless.

This young mule deer and its sibling stayed for a week, eating grass and wild shrubs that are adapted to browsing.

This young mule deer and its sibling stayed for a week, eating grass and wild shrubs that are adapted to browsing.

Alternatively, maybe we should stop destroying habitat. Maybe we should prize great tracking skills, the glimpse of an animal in nature, the patience to wait for a great picture or clean shot. If we want to capture wildlife in artwork and photographs, perhaps we should develop the skills and persistence to find them in the wild. If we want to hunt, maybe we should abandon the bait block, the crop stand and critter cam and learn to identify habitat, to track and to aim well. If we just want to enjoy wildlife around our homes, maybe we need to plant gardens, woodlands, hedgerows and wetlands for local and migratory wildlife.

A butterfly sitting on my pack as I ate lunch wasn't a supernatural message.  The insect was warming up on heat absorbing dark fabric on a chilly day, and likely taking up mineral from sweat.

A butterfly sitting on my pack as I ate lunch wasn’t a supernatural message. The insect was warming up on heat absorbing dark fabric on a chilly day, and likely taking up mineral from sweat.

For now, I will continue hanging nectar feeders for the Anna’s hummingbird that should have departed to Mexico for the winter, but perhaps hung on because the non-native bee balm flowered until the frosts arrived. I may have been his downfall, his fall deceit, so I will feed him this winter. But I will not pretend that his charming insistence on stopping me in my tracks means anything more than a demand for the debt of calories I now owe.

A snowy owl unwilling to become habituated during a rare wintertime visit to Boundary Bay, Delta, B.C.

A snowy owl unwilling to become habituated during a rare wintertime visit to Boundary Bay, Delta, B.C.