Flashes of Red

I want to create red in a world that often appears black and white.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Another gray day here in the woods, but the plants I put in the ground yesterday are appreciating it. Looking out the window, I can see spots of color in the yard – the blooms of Coreopsis, some scattered Phlox that had covered much of the front yard for weeks, the cheery Green and Gold, and a Blue Flag Iris in one of the wildlife pools. Popping up here and there around the yard are a few bright spots of red of the remnant Wild Columbines (most have already gone to seed). The color red is an interesting one in nature. It’s not all that common, but when it is, you notice it. Red is considered by many to be the most powerful color in the spectrum. It is a color associated with love, with fire, and aggression. It is also a color that may warn of danger (our Stop signs and red traffic stoplights for instance). Many species that are distasteful or poisonous are marked with bright red or orange to warn would-be predators to leave them alone (or else).

This week, I encountered two of the brightest red flashes in our part of the natural world. One was the return of one of my favorite birds – the Scarlet Tanager. Our waterfall pond worked its magic again by luring in a newly arrived male Scarlet Tanager. I saw it splashing on one of the wet rocks near the small waterfall as I walked by the window. I managed a couple of quick photos before it flew off. Ironically, shorty afterward, I saw a male Summer Tanager in the same spot (no photos as it saw me and flew). What an amazing difference on the brightness scale of color between those two related birds. And though our state bird, the Northern Cardinal, is bright red, it still somehow appears pale in comparison to the vibrant red of a Scarlet Tanager.

-A male Scarlet Tanager (the first of the season for me) takes a quick bath at the waterfall on one of our wildlife pools (click photos to enlarge)

The other flashy red this week has been that of the throat feathers of a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird that has decided it likes to perch on the wire rim of a tomato cage a few feet outside our kitchen door.. These specialized feathers are called a gorget (pronounced gor-jit). They are named after the protective metallic throat collar worn in days of yore by a knight-in-armor. Unlike the brilliant red feathers of the tanager which are colored by a pigment in the feathers, the male hummingbird’s red feathers are the result of iridescence. The platelet-like structure of the feathers causes light to reflect and refract off of them creating color like what you see on an oily film on water – the color changes depending on the angle you view it. In some angles, the throat looks dark, even black. But a slight turn of the head and you see a fiery red (or sometimes orange) flash. Male hummingbirds use this flashiness to attract females (love) and to warn off potential rival males (aggression).

-When viewed from one angle, the male’s gorget appears dark…

-A slightly different angle shows the brilliant red flash of color

Here’s a quick video clip showing how quickly the color changes. The focus is a bit soft as it was shot through the glass of the kitchen door.

— Even on a gray day, the male’s gorget produces a bright flash as he turns his head

So, if this gray day finds you feeling a little low, try looking at something red to brighten your spirits.

Squeaky Bird

There is an unreasonable joy to be had from the observation of small birds going about their bright, oblivious business.

~Grant Hutchison

I was out pulling some weeds in our yard jungle one day this week when I suddenly realized there was a high-pitched peeping sound coming from the stand of Common Milkweed a few feet away. It didn’t sound like any insect or frog I recognized, so I eased around the milkweed stems and was surprised to see what I assume was a young Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched on a plant support. It was incessantly squeaking (or peeping, not sure which best describes the noise it was making). I stepped a little closer, wondering if the bird was okay, and it just turned its head, looked at me, and continued squeaking. So, I went inside, grabbed my camera and phone, and came back out. Yup, still squeaking.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird (possibly a young one) sitting on a metal plant support in my yard (click photo to enlarge)

I took a few pictures with my DSLR and a macro lens and then decided to do a quick iPhone video to share.

–I heard the squeaking and walked over to find this hummingbird peeping (iPhone video from about 3 feet away)

A few seconds after I finished the video clip, the bird lifted off and flew to a nearby tree branch, at least confirming that it could fly. I went about my yard work and encountered this little hummingbird a few more times, usually down low near or, on one occasion, sitting on one of the hummingbird feeders. It was perched a bit awkwardly, up on top of the feeding port instead of on the foothold in front of the hole. I watched it feed for a minute or more (a long time for a hummingbird to feed). I was standing only a couple of feet away and I guess I was too close for the other hummingbirds to swoop in and chase the little guy off. I’m not sure if this was a young fledgling bird begging for food or what it was doing sitting there squeaking so much. We have four feeders out and a bunch of summer blooms right now and the yard has at least 6 or 7 hummingbirds that are constantly doing battle for supremacy at the feeders. I wonder if this little guy has just been intimidated to the point that it is difficult for it to feed. If anyone has any experience with this type of behavior in hummingbirds or any other thoughts, please post them in the comments.

Humming Along

One minute poised in midair, apparently motionless before a flower while draining the nectar from its deep cup—though the humming of its wings tells that it is suspended there by no magic—the next instant it has flashed out of sight as if a fairy’s wand had made it suddenly invisible.

~Neltje Blanchan, 1923

hummingbird at feeder

Hummingbird on a feeder (click photos to enlarge)

It seems the hummingbirds have been zipping about the yard with added intensity these past couple of weeks. Maybe they are like me and it is the heat that is making them grumpy. Or maybe they know the season is about to change, and that they will soon need to move on, so they had better stock up for the long flight. Whatever the reason, it has been quite a show at the feeders and flowers scattered around the yard. I typically see 4 or 5 of the tiny jet fighters at once, meaning there are probably 4 or 5 times that many around the yard. Our place is so shaded that it is hard to find a good sunny spot to photograph them other than in the morning, when the sun highlights the pathway to one of the feeders on the front porch. The past few days have found me standing out in the yard, watching their comings and goings, and trying to capture a few moments of their hectic lives.

Hummingbird silhouette

Hummingbird surveying his domain

Hummingbirds tend to perch near their favorite feeders/flowers, guarding them against interlopers that might get some of “their” nectar. One bird likes a particular dead branch hanging out over the front walkway.

Hummingbird releasing liquid waste

Hummingbird in mid-air (note – it is excreting as it hovers)

While things at the feeder can be frenetic, I spent a lot of time standing and waiting. Studies have shown that hummingbirds feed, on average, 5-8 times per hour, but only for 30 – 60 seconds at each feeding.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male 4

This one has kicked it in to overdrive as it approaches a feeder

But when they do move in, they do it with gusto. There is nothing subtle about their flight. They are pure aerial acrobats, and a joy to watch. Here are some incredible facts about hummingbirds from two sources: The Hummingbird Book, by Donald and Lillian Stokes; and Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male

A hummingbird hovering

Hummingbirds have the amazing ability to fly forward at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, can hover, fly backward, and even upside down briefly. The number of wing beats is also impressive – 60 times per second in normal flight; up to 200 times per second in courtship flight dives.

Ruby-throated hummingbird in flight

Hummingbirds hover better than other birds

Their unusual wing structure allows hummingbirds to hover better than most other species. Unlike other birds, the bones in the wing of a hummingbird are fixed, except at the shoulder joint, which can move in all directions.


Wing motion of a hovering hummingbird

While hovering, a hummingbird’s wing moves forward and then the leading edge rotates almost 180 degrees, and moves back. As this motion is repeated, the tips of the wings trace a horizontal figure eight in the air.

female ruby-throated hummingbird in flight

Female ruby-throats generally have white bellies and throats, and are slightly larger than males

Female ruby-throats are  often more aggressive at feeders than males, since they are usually slightly larger. The average male weighs about 3 grams, or about the same as a penny. The average female is slightly larger, weighing in at about 3.5 grams. But both sexes can put on considerable weight this time of year in preparation for the migration south (often almost doubling their mass prior to flying south).

Ruby-throated hummingbird back view

White-tipped, rounded tail feathers, belong to female or immature male ruby-throated hummingbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbird male with pointed tail feathers

Adult males have pointed, dark-tipped tail feathers

Male ruby-throated hummingbirds are the first to arrive on the breeding grounds in spring, and the first to leave to return to their winter homes in late summer. Many of the adult males have already headed south, so, at first glance, it may look like a bunch of females in your yard. But, a closer look may give you some insights. While the tail feathers of adult males are dark-tipped and pointed, those of young males resemble the female, being rounded and white-tipped.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male showing one red feather

Young males often have streaked throats and just a few feathers showing red color

A better way to distinguish the sexes is to look at their throats. First-year males often have streaked throats (some females can as well), and frequently will have a few red feathers in their throat patch (or gorget) by this time of year.

Ruby-throated hummingbird adult male

Adult male ruby-throats have a brilliant red gorget, that can vary in intensity according to the light

Adult male ruby-throats have about 200 specialized feathers on their throat patch, which is called the gorget. The outer third of these feathers are iridescent. They have microscopic grooves and air bubbles that scatter and refract incoming light to make the feathers appear red. But, the iridescent part of the gorget feathers are flat, and only reflect light in one direction.

Hummingbird male with dark throat

Adult males have dark throats (color varies according to how the light hits the feathers)

You have to be looking at the feathers from the right direction in order to see the flash of iridescent red. From other viewing angles, the feathers appear dark, or even black.

Hummingbird blinking close up

Hummingbirds have “eyelashes”

In looking at my images, I found several where the hummingbird was blinking. It almost looked like they had eyelashes. Well, in a way, they do. They have short bristle-like feathers along the edge of their eyelids. They probably function similar to our own by helping keep objects out of the bird’s eyes.

Ruby-throated hummingbird at jewelweed 2

Hummingbirds in my yard feed from a variety of wildflowers, in addition to the sugar water feeders

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are believed to ingest at least half their weight in sugars each day. If you watch them closely, you can see they also feed on small insects and spiders, often snatching tiny flying insects out of the air.

Ruby-throated hummingbird at jewelweed 3

Young male hummingbird hovering and feeding below a jewelweed flower

Dining on the wing as they do, hummingbirds have significant flight muscles, which account for about 25% of their body weight. Compare that to the analogous pectoral muscles of a human which make up a mere 5% of most humans.

Hummingbird sticking out tongue

Even at rest, they are humming along at a fast pace

A hummingbird is fast-paced even at rest – their heart rate is about 1250 beats per minutes and they breathe about 250 times per minute while perched. And what about that tongue! They can extend it a distance about equal to the length of their bill. And when lapping up nectar or sugar water at your feeder, their tongue flicks in and out about 13 times per second. They are truly remarkable birds, the flying jewels of our gardens. Enjoy them while they are still here, humming along at the flowers and feeders wherever you live.

They’re Back

Always be on the Lookout for the Presence of Wonder

~E.B. White

I saw my first one yesterday. I glanced out the window and a streak went by the flowers I had just bought for the window box. I went to the door and I saw it hovering, checking out the red taillight on my car, then it zipped away. I went out to the garden and I heard the unmistakable hum of its wings as it checked out the feeder I had put up last week in anticipation of its return.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird-11

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The male’s are first to arrive, to find a territory, to feed and defend. It won’t be long now before a half dozen or more are buzzing over the garden, zipping by my head, squabbling with each other at the Coral Honeysuckle blooms. Even though there are still Juncos at the feeding stations, the signs are irrefutable – the Eastern Bluebirds are on eggs, the Redbud is blooming, and the first hummingbird is back….spring is here.



Hummingbird Habits

hummingbird threat display with another bird in view

Hummingbirds challenging one another (click photos to enlarge)

The past few weeks have been amazing in the garden – a daily display of aerial acrobatics from the remaining group of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. There are four birds feeding on various wildflowers and the three feeders I have out in the garden. Every time I am out there I see and hear the squabbles as these winged bullets streak over and around me chasing one another in a seemingly endless game of tag. It just seems so energy inefficient to spend this much time and effort zooming around as they prepare for their upcoming migration. But, hummingbirds may almost double their weight prior to migration, so they must be getting enough in spite of all the ruckus. Each morning for the past few days I have spent some time sitting and attempting to photograph the goings-on. These tiny bundles of energy have some fascinating habits.

Hummingbird immature male

Ruby-throated Hummingbird immature male

There are at least two immature males in the bunch and they seem to be the most active. The adult males are the first to leave for their wintering grounds (and the first to arrive back in the spring). I have not seen an adult male for at least three weeks. The immature males mimic females in their plumage (including the white patches on the tail, which mature males lack). But they are beginning to have a few red feathers that will comprise the adult male’s stunning red throat (called a gorget) at maturity. Males develop their full colors on the wintering grounds and will return next spring with their flashy attire.

hummingbird threat display

Hummingbird threat display

Much of their daily routine involves either active chasing or threat displays. The young male above contorted himself as another flew overhead and then gave chase.

hummingbird threat display 1

Hummingbird threat display

This one was puffing up and leaning toward another bird that dared to land less than a foot away on the garden fence. These threat displays often end with a burst of speed that I am currently unable to capture with my camera. I have had them buzz me and almost fly into my car window which is what I am using as a “blind” for these photographs. They will often fly straight up for 30 or 40 feet in an aerial standoff before jetting off into the tree tops.

Hummingbird scratching

Hummingbird preening

When not fighting, they often settle on a favorite perch (this can change daily) and tend to self-maintenance issues.

Hummingbird scratching 1

Hummingbird scratching

Hummingbird scratching

Hummingbird scratching

They preen and ruffle their feathers and they spend a lot of time scratching with those tiny feet.

Hummingbird rubbing bill

Hummingbird rubbing bill

They often rub their bill against the wire fence, a twig, or anything handy. One bird often sits near a morning glory vine and seems to probe the various parts of the plant with its bill as if checking for something.

hummingbird tongue

A Hummingbird’s long tongue moves in and out rapidly

Following a short bout of preening they often flick their tongue in and out a few times before moving on. You can certainly see how they can reach deep into tubular flowers for a meal.

Hummingbird approaching flower

Hummingbird approaching flower

Their hovering ability is one thing that makes hummingbirds so magical. Their wings beat and incredible 60 to 80 times per second in normal flight, faster in courtship dives. The thing most of us see them do is hover and feed, either at a feeder or a flower. Over the summer they have fed at a variety of plants in the garden including Crossvine, Larkspur, Bee Balm, Cardinal Flower, Coral Honeysuckle, and Morning Glory, the latter two being their primary source of nectar this week.

Hummingbird nectaring at small morning glory

Hummingbird nectaring at small morning glory

While they usually prefer take-out at the drive-thru, they will sit and eat in if there is a convenient perch near a nectar source. This young male visited this flower several times yesterday morning, always feeding at it while perched.

Hummingbird landing

Hummingbird landing

My garden guests will be checking out soon and headed for their winter homes. Most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds spend the winter in Mexico and Central America. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is North Carolina’s only breeding hummingbird species but recent research has documented several species (eleven the last I heard) that occasionally occur in our state, especially in winter. But most likely, once these few are gone, I won’t be seeing another hummingbird in my garden until the adult male’s arrive next March or early April. The garden won’t be the same without them.