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Birdwatching – A Lot Like Fishing

September 19, 2011

 

Our seven-year-old grandson Michael enjoyed an amazing summer. He landed his first fish with his other grandfather, Papa B.  They caught a bucket full of Lake Murray bream. Michael helped to clean and cook the fish for supper the very day he caught them.

At Pawleys Island in August, Michael caught several nice blue crabs with his dad. Again, his catch became part of the evening meal.

Last Friday night after he had downed a double helping of spaghetti, we sat together on our back porch. A bright red cardinal visited a seed feeder hanging from the eave of our barn.

“Look, Papa Kirk! A cardinal!”

I turned just in time to see the bird fly away.

Surprised, my grandson said, “He flew away.”

“Wait a few minutes, and he might come back,” I counseled.

A Carolina chickadee came first, followed by a purple finch. The boy jumped up to take a closer look. Both birds flew away.

“They’re gone!” he said in dismay.

“Do you remember when you went fishing?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“What did you learn about fishing?”

“I learned to hold still and be quiet.”

“Do you think that might work with the birds?” I asked.

The seven-year-old did something that is very difficult for him, especially after two plates of spaghetti.  He became settled and silent. The cardinal and the chickadee returned and lingered over their black oil sunflower seeds.

When I take a few minutes to sit quietly, I invariably notice sights and sounds that I might otherwise miss. My grandfather and I used to fish in silence for hours. At his farm pond we heard crickets and bullfrogs at the water’s edge, squirrels chattering in the trees, and wood thrush rustling in the dry leaves.

On this particular summer evening, my grandson and I enjoyed similar moments.

We had a ringside seat at a very special performance.  Hummingbirds provided the entertainment. At the end of the day, as the sun was setting and my grandson and I sat on our porch, we were treated to an amazing air show. We witnessed an incredible display of aerobatics.  Agile flying machines were buzzing in our yard, staging mid-air combat maneuvers that would impress even Air Force top guns. The tiny, feathered creatures put on quite a display as they competed for the sweet nectar of the flowers and the sugar water in our hummingbird feeders.

Late summer is prime time for hummers.  The tiny birds become frantic in their feeding habits and combative toward all competitors as they prepare for their long migration to Central and South America.

Their excited pace and perpetual motion is at once fascinating and wearying to the observer.  Earlier in the spring and summer, two or three hummingbirds might share the same feeder.  In early autumn, however, they become territorial, attacking any intruder, even fellow hummers. Like feisty siblings quarreling over dessert, the petite birds quarrel with each other over which one will have the next turn at their sugar water treat.

A hummingbird in flight can be easily mistaken for a large stinging insect. The hummingbird’s tiny wings move so rapidly they make a buzzing sound. This flight pattern, filmed in slow motion, reveals their remarkable ability to speed forward, to pause, and to reverse directions. Hovering, darting, and diving in their heightened frenzy, the aerial gymnastics performed by the humming creatures with tiny wings provide a constant show.

Their antics can also be disarming. Accounts of close encounters between humans and hummers abound.

A friend welcomes hummingbirds to her yard with feeders and flowers. She wanted to use fresh flowers in an arrangement for a dinner party at her home.  As she cut several late blooming red gladioli from her cottage garden, what she thought was a large buzzing insect began to bother her.  The pest attacked from the rear, moving up her neck underneath her tresses.  The woman ran, clutching gladioli tightly in one hand, swatting wildly with the other.

She stopped when the buzzing nuisance confronted her at eye level.  It was a hummingbird, clearly annoyed that the lady had cut the flowers from which it had been feeding.  The well-mannered lady held the red gladioli at arm’s length, as if making a peace offering.  The hummer moved from one blossom to the next in the handheld bouquet, drinking its fill, before flying off without further conflict.

Hummingbirds are attracted to a variety of blooms.  The lantana and trumpet vines in our yard provide nourishment to these tiny creatures that are constantly in search of a meal.  Their frenetic activity demands a continual supply of sugary food.  They are attracted to feeders filled with fresh sugar water.  A mixture of one part sugar and four parts of water meets their dietary requirements.

Occasionally their frenzy causes them to run amok. A red toolbox or a red fire extinguisher can lure a hummingbird into an open garage.  One was even seen attempting to extract nectar from a red plastic bicycle horn. Recently one of the tiny birds was trapped on our screened porch.  I caught the frightened bird in a butterfly net and released it safely outdoors.

Last Friday night, when Michael’s parents came to pick up Michael, his dad asked, “What did you do today?”

“I watched birds with Papa Kirk, and you know what, Daddy? Watching birds is a lot like fishing.”

Kirk H. Neely
© September 2011
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