Hummingbirds: Avian Jewels

Booted Racket-Tail

Booted Racket-Tail

We are lucky to have a number of people in our area who are extremely knowledgeable birders. Monday night, our Bird Club featured a speaker who gave a fascinating talk and slideshow about hummingbirds. The speaker was none other than Virginia’s own birdman extraordinaire, Dr. John Spahr. He has traveled the world in hot pursuit of his avian passion.

Fiery Topaz,  Illustration by John Gould

Fiery Topaz, Illustration by John Gould

I learned that there are over 330 species of hummingbirds – all located in the Americas, from Alaska all the way down to the end of South America. There are no hummingbirds in Europe, Africa, or Asia (sorry). The largest number of hummingbird species (150+) are found in the small South American country of Ecuador.
Dr. Spahr showed us pictures of the most exotic-looking birds I never knew existed with impossible names such as Green Violetear, Long-tailed Sylph, Booted Racket-Tail, Spangled Coquette and Red Saberwing.

Empress Brilliant

Empress Brilliant

Can you imagine a punk-rock bird with a red mohawk, another one with a beak longer than its body, and one with white cotton balls around its feet? Yup, I am not making this up, I saw the pictures. And it’s always the males who are the most flamboyant, as if some painter designed them while under the influence of some hallucinatory drug.

Ecuadorian Hillstar

Ecuadorian Hillstar

Here, in Virginia, we have exactly one representative from the Trochilidae (Hummingbird) family: the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, named after the red patch on the male’s throat. The ruby throats mate and produce offspring (usually two) during the warmer months before migrating South for the winter. Every once in a while, an errant Anna’s Hummingbird or a Rufous Hummingbird might come through in late fall or even winter. These Western birds should be migrating to Mexico but sometimes find their way East instead. Here are two of “our” ruby throats: a male on the right (with red throat patch) and a female (with a whitish throat).

A male and female at the feeder

A male and female at the feeder

You often hear a hummingbird first, before you see them. They sound like a large droning insect with their wings flapping up to 200 times per second. Hummingbirds have an “elbow” joint in their wing that is a ball-and-socket joint and allows them to fly backwards and upside down as needed. In slow motion, you can see their wings perform a figure-eight pattern instead of an up and down motion.

Because of their rapid metabolism, hummers have to consume more than their body weight in nectar in one hour. So if a bird weighs 3 grams, it may have to consume close to 4 grams every hour, over 40 grams a day, or the equivalent of sipping 1000 to 2000 flowers each day.
Dr. Spahr also talked about the difference between the sugar water in the feeder and flower nectar. The birds get about 10 calories per feeding from the sugar water, but they get 30 calories per feeding from a flower. Flower nectar also provides electrolytes and small amounts of protein. He advised us not to buy the red-colored sugar solution that is commercially available. The home-made version (1 part sugar to 3 parts water, heated to dissolve the sugar, then cooled) is superior to the colored commercial product.

The hummingbirds’ attractive, iridescent colors are derived, not from pigment on the feathers, but from the feather structure itself. This is why the throat color (also called gorget) of a ruby-throated male can appear black, red, or orange. The following pictures show various levels of red and orange coloring depending on head position and light reflection. I also included an immature male with only some dots of throat coloring which will turn into the full-fledged gorget as he matures into adulthood.

I am hoping that our hummingbird feeders are helping these birds reduce their level of exertion, especially now as they are preparing for migration. They will fly South to the Gulf States. From there, and after doubling their liver size through glucose storage, they cross 500 miles of open ocean to overwinter in Mexico or another Latin American country. If they are lucky, they might rest a few moments on a cruise ship or oil rig.

The first three hummingbird pictures were taken from a Wikipedia site. All the pictures of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds are mine. You can see more pictures of exotic hummingbirds on this Wikipedia link.

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Hummingbird Ballet in Silhouette

There are few things more joyful than watching hummingbirds flying and hovering, humming the air alive with their rapid wing movements and chirping their high-pitched sounds. They surpass all other birds in their ability to maneuver with precision, to fly backwards, and even upside down.

There are 11 pictures in this slideshow starting with an empty feeder. Showing them in silhouette highlights how their body movements change, and how tail feathers are used for slowing down and hovering.

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This post was created in response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Silhouette.

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Wordless Wednesday: Queen of the Meadow

Queen of the Meadow

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Textures (II)

The Texture theme continues to intrigue me. I found a lot of photographs from last year’s beach trip that documented the imprints left on sand by wind, vehicles, animals and humans.

This sandy expanse is located in Jockey’s Ridge Park, in the Outer Banks, North Carolina.

I followed these vehicle tracks simply because it was a bit easier to walk on than in the loose sand.

vehicle tracks

vehicle tracks

Some of the dunes appeared smooth and only slightly rippled by the wind.

dune and blue sky

dune and blue sky

Others sported striking patterns, like this one that made me think of the sand worms in the “Dune” movies:

dune patterns

dune patterns

Could this be the immense expanse of the Sahara Desert as seen from a plane?

ripples in the sand

ripples in the sand

I was drawn to this particular dune, first because of the wavy texture on the flat part on top, then the bird prints on its side:

dune in evening light

dune in evening light

And this must have been quite a party, lots of greeting and mingling going on here:

bird tracks

bird tracks

I wondered what happened here – social gathering, food source, a combination of those two?

close-up of bird tracks

close-up of bird tracks

And WHAT came through here before me, a deer perhaps?

mysterious tracks

mysterious tracks

These prints seemed as interesting to me as hieroglyphic writings. I am sure someone experienced in tracking could tell who was here, how long ago, and what they did. Perhaps this is how animals “write” with their feet, in the process recording their presence and activities in the medium of sand. Unlike the more deliberate writings on papyrus that survived thousands of years, these animal “writings” only endure until the next strong breeze of wind wipes the (sand) slate clean again. The animals and the wind together will write more textured sand essays tomorrow…

The WordPress Photo Challenge this week is about “Texture:” “share a texture found in an unexpected place. It could be made of natural materials….or with man-made objects.” More info here.

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Textures

The word “texture” originally described the characteristics of a woven fabric, as influenced by the arrangement, size and quality of the threads used in weaving the fabric. I can visualize the knobby texture of tweed versus the soft, smooth feel of silk. Later, texture also described the feel of other materials such as wood, metal, or canvas (think textured paintings). Sometimes, texture is used to describe the basic structure of something more abstract, for example, the texture of a conversation, or the texture of society.

Since it’s kind of difficult to photograph the texture of an abstract concept, I’ll stick to the always fascinating textures created by the eternally interacting forces of wind, water, and sand.

Here, the retreating water has created a perfectly smooth sandy beach.

Birds at water's edge

Birds at water’s edge

On closer inspection, the perfectly smooth sand is actually a bit textured with tiny ridges, and even more so by the sea foam, little soap-like bubbles, left behind by the last wave going back out to sea.

Seashell and seafoam

Seashell and seafoam

This water’s edge is anything but smooth and pleasing. Moreover, even the surface of the water appears somewhat textured, like the tiny, pillowy segments of a quilt.

Seagull and textured water

Seagull and textured water

This stretch of water was tussled by the take-off motions of many birds:

Birds taking flight

Birds taking flight

A heron creates ripples on the water through subtle movement:

Heron making ripples

Heron making ripples

Very limited wave action creates this highly textured water surface that in turn reflects light in varied patterns:

Heron and boardwalk

Heron and boardwalk

And when the heron takes off, he leaves behind a short-lived, snake-like trail on the water’s surface:

Heron taking flight

Heron taking flight

Sand, water, and wind – constantly interacting and creating new patterns and textures – mirror back to us the grand impermanence of this world.

The WordPress Photo Challenge this week is about “Texture:” “share a texture found in an unexpected place. It could be made of natural materials….or with man-made objects.” More info here

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