A Charm of Hummingbirds

Last year, at a bird banding at our friends’ home, I had the experience of hearing a hummingbird heartbeat against my ear. It was (probably) a once-in-a-lifetime experience and so awe-inspiring that I haven’t found the perfect words to convey all my feelings about it yet.

What I can say is that that moment sparked a great interest in hummingbirds…in learning more about them, in feeding them, and in photographing them.

This last bit is the hardest. It’s not just that they’re incredibly fast, it’s also that they’re small, and iridescent…and so fairy-like that they cast a spell of reverie on me; it’s hard to switch from eye to camera as fast as I need to because I’m just…so…entranced.

We had one hummingbird visit the garden occasionally from the end of May on, but recently, we’ve had two visiting regularly. They sip nectar from the feeder and the flowers (especially the butterfly bush and the lilies), and they call and chirp to each other while they flit and dive and whirl through the air.

I hunch beside our above-ground pool and wait, eyes on the feeder, listening for the buzz of their wings. And when one shows up, I count. So far, the time they hover at the feeder is between 15 and 35 seconds. Long minutes pass between appearances.

It’s worth being patient though.

I keep saying I just want to take one “great” hummingbird photo this summer, and so I show up and shoot a hundred outtakes. With another subject, all these little failures might be discouraging; with the hummingbird, they’re addictive. Every little failure feels like I’m closer to really capturing their magic.

And what do I expect then? To be bestowed iridescence? Flight? A charm (their plural) of guardian hummingbirds? I don’t know…but something of great delight, certainly.

Summer Light Seeking

It’s the first week of July and it feels like summer has finally hit. After days and days of cool weather and rain, we went directly into oppressively hot days without hardly any transition. Everything is green and swollen with humidity.

We harvested the spring peas and carrots from the kitchen garden. The lilies, daisies, balloon flowers, and butterfly bushes are blooming. After only occasional sightings last month, the hummingbirds are regulars throughout the day now (also: two of them might be an item, stay tuned).

Every morning, in addition to setting out seeds and nuts in the feeders, my older daughter and I fill various bird baths and dishes with ice water, so the garden birds and animals have something to drink when the heat’s at its worst. We humans hydrate and eat ice cream and swim…but sometimes the only thing to do is retreat into the man-made shade and air conditioning. The least we can do for those who can’t is offer some water.

I’ve been taking photos and thinking about writing, but haven’t been doing much editing or blogging. I want to get things done (shot/edited/written/published), but there is something so restorative about just lying in the sunshine. And there are so many cloudy days the rest of the year…so I’ve been sun-seeking and sunbathing as much as possible.

My kids joke that, being named after a flower, I can’t help but require sun like this. But it does feel like an essential need to me, physically and psychologically…it has for as long as I can remember.

I think that’s one of the things that attracts me to photography: the way its magic hinges on the light; it’s ability to illuminate something, save and separate it from the shadows. Every frame’s purpose: light.

It lights me up even away from the summer sunshine.

Scenes from a Burrow Building

Our resident mother chipmunk looks like she’s getting ready for a second litter soon. From what we can tell, she’s eating about the same amount, but looking a little rounder, and more significantly, she’s getting her little paws dirty and undertaking a big renovation on her burrow.

She has filled in the previous main entrance (where the first litter of the season emerged from)…

…and made a few new holes further away, but in the same general area (which, luckily, we can see from the kitchen window and so not disturb her as we watch her work).

One of the holes is interesting because it’s between two of our patio paving stones; she dug out a little bit of the grout between them, then the sand underneath, then some rocks, then dirt. The hole isn’t very deep and it turns sharply into a tunnel, so it’s probably an entrance rather than a plunge hole.

It’s one thing to read that chipmunks are amazing diggers, but it’s much more impressive to see them action. This isn’t cavalier digging; it’s a meticulous feat of engineering and strength. She tests potential hole sites before she excavates them; she transports dirt and gravel and rocks offsite via her multi-purpose (Mary Poppins magic bag) cheek pouches; she brings back grass and softer dirt, presumably to line some of the tunnels. And that’s just what we can see above ground!

Our mother chipmunk has also been rolling some rocks back and forth in front of her new burrow entrance. Are they a door? A warning? A decoration? She moves them a few times a day, into different configurations, both from inside the hole and outside. (When she’s inside the hole, the rocks look like they’re moving themselves).

I hope she’s proud of her hard work, but more importantly, I hope her new burrow keeps her (and her forthcoming babies) safe. Another small marvel among us, we’re looking forward to watching over it– what we can see of it– in the weeks to come.

Desire Paths

Reader, here is where I confess that perfectly manicured lawns (and gardens) make me anxious. You will never (ever) find me using pesticide sprays; I will never be accused of over-mowing (on the contrary, sometimes when my husband or son plan to mow the grass, I distract or persuade them out of it).

I love the sight of clover, of grass that’s just tall enough to ripple in the wind like waves (or like fields in Studio Ghibli movies). Even in a tended garden, when I’m outside, I prefer my reminders of humanity to be subtle. And nature, though it has definite elements of symmetry and order, also leans into a fecund sort of untidiness.

And so, the grass over here is often longer (and greener!) than it might be elsewhere in the neighborhood. And recently, I’ve noticed that this has a new practical consequence: in a lawn a bit in need of mowing, the garden wildlife’s desire paths become easier to spot.

I first learned of “desire paths” years ago, when I read Dominique Browning’s book Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener. Also called “desire lines” (or “free-will ways,” or “pirate paths,” or “social trails”), desire paths form out of the erosion of use and convenience, rather than out of design. Mostly, they have to do with the comings and goings of people.

But in the case of the most likely makers of desire paths in our garden (chipmunks and rabbits and squirrels), they lead between food source and cover. Hungry, then satisfied, their lightweight bodies are just heavy enough to part the sea of grass through innumerable round trips of gathering.

I love seeing these little open-air channels through the lawn. And, in trying to create a better environment to track the garden wildlife in, I love having an excuse not to mow too often.

Plus, existentially, these desire paths give me hope that all the little mundane movements all of us creatures make daily leave a mark in some way.

Graduating Squirrels

It’s graduation season, and over the past few days, we’ve had four young squirrels graduate from their drey to our garden. Their mother (a beautiful, chunky, slightly beleaguered-looking female– as many a good mother is) has been a regular at our feeders for a while and, last week, she introduced her children to our yard.

I haven’t knowingly observed juvenile squirrels before. The first thing that set them apart was that there was a group of them and it was mixed– some males and some females; I’ve seen groups of squirrels (apparently called “scurries”) before, but not mixed. Also, these four were talkative– making lots of chattering, buzzing sounds amongst themselves.

Individually, the young squirrels were bright-eyed and bold, climbing unnecessarily high and practicing branch jumping. Near the feeder though, they were tentative, not quite sure how to stretch so they could reach without slipping. I watched them for hours. Literally, hours (wildlife watching doesn’t seem all that engrossing til you try it).

And I took photos of them, of course. They didn’t mind my being nearby, or my camera; I wonder if their mother taught them I’m a safe human.

It felt like a privilege to get to watch them.

And like perfect timing. I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who is graduating (and another dear friend, her mother, who is graduating her). I’ve been trying to think of the right words to gift them, to show them how proud I am to know both of them.

But maybe the best thing I can give them is the testimony that I saw them? That I watched them. In the same awed-quiet, delighted way I watch the squirrel family, glimpsing a bit of their inner workings from the outside.

I saw A be scrappy and vulnerable; incisive and funny; kind-hearted. I saw C be constant and unconditional; patient; inspiring and thoughtful. Though different in temperaments, both of them are remarkable. They are two of my favorite humans and their characters are shaped in relationship to each other.

Maybe witness isn’t much as gifts go, but it’s not nothing, noticing. Attention is affection, after all…and our eyes betray our preoccupations and our hearts.

I gave a commencement speech once before, a long time ago, but every year since, I’ve asked myself, if I could, would I add a coda?

It’s a wondrous and woeful world out there. We are all always new in it, through one phase or another. May we all see and watch out for each other.

People-Watching Animals

Recently, I’ve started collecting photos of backyard animals watching me watch them. I don’t mean our eyes meet across the yard as I’m photographing them going about their foraging/nesting/mating/romping activities; I mean I’m catching them chilling somewhere (usually on a branch or on the fence) expressly checking me out.

I spend a fair amount of time outside, sitting with my camera, trying to be quiet and emanate good energy and be aware of my surroundings. Animal watching is something I do for the purpose of education and enjoyment. It’s something I do daily, but as a choice, a hobby.

But if I were an animal, people watching would be a matter of survival. I’d have to be aware of where the humans were and what they were doing; if they were dangerous; if they had anything to eat… As humans encroach on animal habitats, and human-animal interactions become more frequent and common, people-watching becomes even more crucial for animals.

But let’s say an animal feels relatively safe in a backyard, and he has enough to eat and enough experience with the resident humans that he isn’t actively terrified of them…can people watching ever become fun for him? Is there a point at which a particular human can become better than benign?

In other words: am I imagining things or might any of these creatures find watching me entertaining?

And what do I look like to them?

A short list of what I have going for me as a potential people-watching target: my hair is drey-like; my skin coverings (also known as clothes) are often the colors of wildflowers; I sometimes smell like lavender; I emit a great variety of calls; I seem to have an additional arm (my camera) that I point and click at animals, but that’s otherwise harmless; I share food in the form of seeds and nuts (even better, sometimes I massively spill seeds and nuts while filling our feeders); I seem to have an alliance with a passel of dogs; I’m easy to spot; my burrow is large and above ground but I’m often just sitting outside it.

On the list of cons: I’m a person and maybe inherently suspicious.

And it’s because I’m a person that I think it’s important to remind myself that I can be watcher and watched one, that my time outdoors is a dialogue, that so much more than what I’m aware of is out there…that every day, I should open my eyes wider.

A Little Death

Today I held one of the chipmunks while it took its last breath, cradled in my hands, my fingertip against its slowing heartbeat.

Having so much life in the garden means there’s also at least a little death. Sometimes that looks like a shattered eggshell, or a mess of feathers, or a ransacked burrow…and sometimes that looks like a body. Sometimes, the life is already gone…and sometimes, there are a few minutes left.

I don’t know what animals feel at their hour of death or at any other time (for that matter, I don’t know what my fellow humans feel at any given moment either), but I have felt enough loneliness and fear in my life (haven’t we all?) to know that company and love matter in anyone’s darkest hours. All animals included.

This morning, I held the chipmunk and prayed; at other deaths, I’ve whispered words of comfort to the dying as I wept. I don’t think there is one right way.

Some might say these are just little lives, little deaths, but I believe they are occasions for compassion; occasions to love and to console a fellow living creature however we can; to be a small imperfect peace for another until they rest in Peace.

Amen.