One of my favorite summer places begins right at our back door. I step out of the house and into what feels to me like an outdoor room. First is our raised deck, where tables and chairs invite us to linger and observe. Beyond the deck is an oval-shaped stone patio rimmed by azaleas, hostas, mountain laurel, and several whimsical sculptures. We often pick a spot and settle into chairs to take in the view as our backyard opens up before us—a stage that provides entertainment if we sit quietly and observe. It reminds me of a box at the orchestra with its clear sightline.
Much can happen on one acre of land. We’ve helped raise many generations of bluebirds who nest in the backyard birdhouses. We’ve admired the brilliant blue male as he perches nearby, standing guard over the nest and dropping to the ground to grab a bug to take to the female as she sits on the eggs. We’ve watched the young bluebirds fledge, and we’ve even grabbed brooms to chase away marauding sparrows.
We’ve seen deer and their spotted fawns, who make us laugh as they tear through the backyards with energy to burn, playing tag with each other. Several times, we saw a coyote move quietly through, and once or twice we caught a glimpse of a red fox. We’ve had nests of hawks—Red-Shouldered and Cooper’s hawks–and watched them pluck moles from our garden and grab an occasional squirrel.
But in June, the star of the show is the hummingbird feeder.
We’ve provided nectar for hummingbirds for many years, and they have been the source of wonder, surprise, and education. We learned that hummingbirds travel thousands of miles—solo, not in flocks—to their winter home that ranges from southern Mexico to Costa Rica to Panama, flying perhaps 2,000 miles. The next spring, they fly the 2,000 miles again to their northern breeding grounds, which includes our backyard. They are said to have fantastic memories, remembering the locations of plants. We saw this in action. For several years, we had hung a hummingbird feeder from our old maple tree by the patio. Without any special thought, as breeding season approached, we placed the feeder on a shepherd’s hook about 20 feet away. That spring, we watched, amazed, as a hummingbird came up to the maple tree and hovered, looking for nectar at the old location.
We’ve witnessed hummingbird rituals too. Once a male hummingbird flew near the feeder, swooping up and down in a giant U shape. We thought he was marking off his territory, claiming the feeder as his, because those little birds are surprisingly aggressive, chasing away other hummers who also want to feed. However, we learned that we saw a mating ritual, and he was showing off for a female.
The previous fall, when breeding season was over, we were lucky to finding an intact hummingbird nest on the patio. It was a marvel of construction—tiny and delicate, constructed of spider webs and pale green shingles of lichen.
The following summer, I sat on the deck in the late afternoon, gazing at the giant maple tree to the left of the patio. About 60 feet up, an odd green lump caught my eye as the late afternoon sun spotlighted it. I brought my binoculars out to get a better look. It took a few minutes to locate it and focus on it because it was so small, but I realized as I studied it that it was a Ruby-throated hummingbird’s nest! In the birding world, this is a rare find—most people go through life without ever seeing one. Jim and I joked about putting the word out and selling tickets. We very likely would have caused a traffic jam on our street. Instead, I called a birding friend, who immediately came over with her tripod and a spotting scope and we all set up to observe.
I desperately wanted a photo, so I got my tripod and camera with a long lens. The nest was very hard to find again, and even with the tripod, hard to steady, but finally, I was successful. I sat enthralled as the female continued building her nest, bringing spider webs and lichen to make a nest that stretches, allowing room for her young to grow.
We watched as the female completed her nest and settled into it, her long, slender beak peeking out over the edge. I was thrilled with the possibility of seeing (and photographing) a nest of baby hummingbirds being fed by their mother. We kept the camera in position on the tripod, marking the deck with painter’s tape to show where the legs had to be placed as we brought the setup in and out of the house.
Several days later, a storm blew through, bringing with it heavy rain and wind. I worried about the nest. The next morning, I quickly grabbed my binoculars to check on her and found, much to my relief, that the nest had held. A day later, another storm produced straight-line winds. Again, I worried about the hummingbird. I stepped out on the deck with my binoculars and saw that the nest was hanging at a crazy angle. My heart sank. I brought out the tripod and camera for a better look, and as I brought the nest into focus, my fears were confirmed. The nest hung by a couple of threads, it was upside down, and there was no sign of the mother. I walked to an area under the nest’s location and saw a jagged chunk of white, jellybean sized egg on the garage roof and another on the ground. They were broken and empty.
I peeled the painter’s tape off the deck, disappointed we wouldn’t be able to watch the mother take care of her hatchlings. I was also sad for her and wondered how she felt. Do hummingbirds grieve? She may have built another nest nearby to try again—they often have several broods. We continued to watch as the hummingbirds hovered at our feeders, and we tried to follow their path as they flew to their nests. But they are so tiny and so fast in flight, it’s impossible to track them. We’ll continue to put out nectar for them and hope we’ll get lucky again. But I’ll always be grateful for that little peek into the hummingbird world.