On this week’s Earth and Beyond program, host and producer Robin Song tells of a very infrequent sighting in the northern Susitna Valley. Text follows photos of some of the flowers at Birch Creek Ranch.
It’s not everyday you get to check your number one item off your Bucket List, but it happened for me on August 17th. For those who know me, it will come as no surprise that that item was a bird. A very special bird, for Alaska. A bird common to where I grew up in Northern California, but rare for Talkeetna, Alaska.
It was a day of big gray clouds and occasional bursts of blue sky and sun. Out at the ranch, the berries were reaching their peak. Alan was out picking raspberries. I could just see the top of his cap above the head-high raspberry bushes as he worked along the rows. I needed to ask him something, so I headed out of the cabin and over to the fence. When I called to him, his response was enthusiastic and what he told me next startled me. He had been picking berries a few minutes before and had heard a sound he knew but couldn’t believe he was hearing. He looked around, and sure enough- there was a hummingbird hovering in front of bright red raspberries a couple of rows over from where Alan stood staring in amazement. The tiny bird flew off toward the Serviceberry trees, where she landed on a limb. Alan walked towards her, wanting to get a closer look. He noted that juvenile white-crowned sparrows were working over the berries and leaves, picking off caterpillars and other insects. Apparently they saw the hummingbird as an intruder for they soon chased her away.
Alan returned to the raspberry patch. When I heard his story, my heart skipped a beat. I have never seen a hummingbird since moving to Alaska in 1980, though I have often heard stories of other people’s sightings, and read about them in newspapers and magazines. When I lived in Flat, 80 miles west of McGrath, in 1984, I found a hummingbird nest while out skiing one early spring day. After I moved to Talkeetna in 1987, I got an occasional call about a hummingbird sighting. But, alas, I never got to see the actual bird for myself. As Alan relayed his sighting to me, while excited that he got to see the bird, I was wondering if I was to be disappointed yet again-to hear about the bird and yet not get to see it. It was the first sighting here on the ranch.
I asked Alan to come over to the May Day tree in front of the cabin, as there were several juvenile birds in the tree, hunting insects. I had been watching white-crowned sparrows, blackpoll warblers, Lincoln sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, and juncos in amongst the branches that morning. As we stood watching the birds and talking, a sound caught my ear and I looked to my right in time to see the hummingbird flying towards the May Day tree! She hovered in front of a couple of branches before landing on the only bare branch on the crown of the tree. I dashed into the cabin and grabbed the camera, mentally asking the bird not to leave. She was still there as I got the camera set and began taking photos. To my amazement, the clouds parted, a patch of blue sky appeared behind the bird and the sun lit up her green head and back feathers. I noticed that her crown feathers were up and whenever one of the other birds in the tree came near, she leaned towards them, raising her crown even more. Alan quipped that maybe she was getting back at the birds for being chased off the Serviceberry tree. I walked around the tree, wanting to get as many angles as I could. I noted that she didn’t have any colored gorget feathers on her throat, which denoted a female. For a few precious minutes she stayed on her perch, then she took to the air, lifting gracefully off her perch like a tiny helicopter. She flew over to the solar panel and hovered there, as if contemplating herself in the giant mirror-like panels. Curiosity satisfied she flew away over the nursery, leaving us humans staring after her in wonder.
Leilani arrived home a little while later and I took my camera and bird books over to the Kingsbury’s cabin. I showed them my photos, confirming that the bird was a Rufous juvenile female, as she had no rufous-colored feathers on her, and even the juvenile males have some rufous feathers. The adult males are primarily rufous, with a little greenish-gold on their wings and deep red gorget feathers above a white breast.
These amazing birds migrate from Central America up the coast to Alaska. They time their arrival to the blooming of blueberry and other wildflower blossoms, stopping along their long route to refuel on blossoms, also eating insects. The northern edge of their range is listed as Anchorage and Eagle River, with occasional sightings farther north. Alaska has a second hummingbird species- the Anna’s. This bird spends its nesting season in Southeast, and has been seen occasionally on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Anchorage Bowl.
The Rufous is also listed as the most aggressive of all the hummingbird species. I could believe that, watching the little juvenile female defending her perch on the May Day tree.
I thought that was the last I would see of this wonderful bird, for the rains returned the next day. I knew the bird was “bulking up”, putting on weight and getting ready for her long migration. She was feeding primarily on insects, needing the protein. The ranch was a good stopover for her, for there are lots of insects to be had in the large variety of trees, berries and vegetables.
On August 21st, returning from barn chores, I heard a noise that could only belong to one thing- the hummingbird! I stopped and stood still and spotted her working amongst my hanging baskets on the cabin porch. I carefully made my way up the steps to go into the cabin to fetch my camera. To my surprise, she only glanced at me and continued to dart and hover amongst the blossoms, sometimes only a couple of feet away from me. Unfortunately, my camera wanted to focus on flowers instead of the moving bird and I missed a lot of lovely shots as she hovered in front of fuchsias, fireweed, painted tongue, nasturtiums and tickseed. She only remained for a few minutes then lifted into the air and disappeared over the cabin roof. I went to my library and looked up hummingbird feeders in my birding magazines. I found the formula for the sugar water mix and made a makeshift feeder out of a red jar lid and red ribbon. I had called all the gift shops in Talkeetna and none had hummingbird feeders for sale. I put out a call for one over the radio and still had hopes to get one, but for now, this jar lid would have to do. I attached faux roses, purple and yellow flowers to the rope holding the feeder to the porch beam, hoping to entice the hummingbird. I watched for her all day, and will continue to watch for her, though I know the chances for her return diminish with each passing day. She will need to continue heading south before the nights get any colder. She will hit a bonanza of flowers in Eagle River and Anchorage and may well encounter other hummingbirds preparing for their upcoming migration.
In the Native American Animal Medicine cards the Hummingbird represents Joy. Hummingbird sings a vibration of pure joy. Follow Hummingbird and you will soon be filled with joy and experience a renewal of the magic of living.
I believe in perfect timing. Why it has taken so many years for me to finally see my first hummingbird in Alaska, I cannot say. It is not from lack of trying, for several times I have planted my garden with flowers attractive to hummingbirds, with high hopes for a jeweled visitor. I even hung up a feeder for several years, but finally gave up and gave the feeder away. Maybe because they are so rare in our area makes them all the more special. Indeed, I smile each time I recall the sight of that beautiful little rufous hummingbird, bringing joy wherever she goes.
KTNA, August 22,2012
Gift of the Hummingbird, by Robin Song