My hummer summer, part 2 — beauty in flight, beauty at rest

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8438-maria-de-bruynIn my previous blog, I mentioned that the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilocus colubris) had a greater variety of flowering plants to visit in my yard this year and that increased the size and diversity of their nectar buffet. The availability of multiple food sources also meant that they spent a bit more time visiting – they didn’t just dash to a feeder, perch or hover for a drink and then take off. They visited feeders, different blooms and took little rests between meals, giving me numerous chances to watch them and practice my hummingbird photography – a win-win for both us!



One of their favorite flowers were the lantanas (Lantana), which are also a favorite of mine as they attract many smaller pollinators such as bees and butterflies and are still profusely blooming in the latter half of October.







This year, several types of sage brightened my gardens. Some deep blue Brazilian sage plants (Salvia guaranitica), kindly donated to me by Gail, a fellow birder, added color and provided the hummers with deep blooms into which they could insert their long bills.



ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7519-maria-de-bruyn-resA small-leaf sage (also known as Festival or little-leaf sage, Salvia microphylla “San Carlos Festival”) provided an ongoing splash of deep red blooms that attracted the hummers over and over again. This plant not only graced the garden in the summer but is still blooming profusely now, making it another one of my favorites. A couple other different red sages and a red beebalm (Monarda didyma) were good nectar choices but they didn’t bloom as long or in such abundance. Perhaps next year, they will have gained strength.


ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1160-maria-de-bruyn-resThe two stonecrop plants (Hylotelephium Autumn joy), in my front garden, with their rounded bunches of little pink flowers, had hummer visitors on a few occasions, but these are not one of their preferred blooms. The milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca) also only had a few visits as far as I could tell.




And it was the same story for the blue balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), which does get its fair share of bees.




ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a2198-maria-de-bruyn-resI had planted cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), which unfortunately didn’t get any flowers. I did see a bird visiting this plant species near Bolin Creek, however. The same happened with a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), but at a vine cluster near the Haw River I saw how they inserted their heads entirely into the tubular blooms.




In between feedings, the hummingbirds will perch to watch for intruders into “their space”. But they also will take sun-baths, pointing their faces upward and puffing themselves up.



They will then change shape, stretching their necks and spreading their wings and tail feathers to expose as much of their bodies as possible to the sunlight.

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They may relieve themselves while they are in flight and then later take a little power nap of a few seconds.

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Grooming is also a frequent activity – these little avians make sure that they stay just as beautiful as the sweet flowers that they frequent!

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When the males turn their heads so that the light hits them in different ways, they do a nice job of demonstrating that their bright gorget colors are not in the feathers themselves but the result of prism cells in their feathers that change how the light is reflected depending on the angle we see.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a6366-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen they’re done sun bathing, grooming and resting, the hummingbirds need to take off again. However, their feet are so tiny that they can’t walk and, when they lift off, they also don’t have the foot strength to push.  So they rise into the air using the power of their wings, quickly flapping as they set off and rapidly reaching their usual rate of about 50-53 beats per second.



ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7167-maria-de-bruyn-resMy last summer hummingbird residents appear to have left for their Central American wintering grounds on 7 October, just before Hurricane Matthew arrived in North Carolina. I really hope that they were able to get through the windy environment without problems as they began their long migratory journeys and I am already looking forward to seeing them arrive next spring. In the meantime, I’m keeping a couple feeders up in case another hummer species decides to over-winter here – and the Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) and tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) can continue to use the ant guards over the feeders as their preferred watering holes.


The dance of the sandhill cranes

sandhill crane I77A7926© Maria de Bruyn resDuring my trip to Yellowstone National Park, I had the privilege of seeing what birders call “lifers” – bird species that one sees for the first time. One spectacular sighting – for me – was of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). I didn’t spot them first; I was traveling with two photographers from Michigan who were used to seeing these beautiful birds in their backyards. We had already passed but they kindly returned so I could take a few photos – and then to our delight, the pair of birds performed their mating dance for us!

These birds mate for life and may live to a considerable age. The oldest known sandhill crane was 36.5 years old.

sandhill crane I77A7910© Maria de Bruyn resWhile many of these birds are grayish in color, some have rusty orange coloring, attributable to iron-rich mud in their environment. In Yellowstone, the birds use their long bills to spread the reddish mud over their feathers when they preen and this helps to camouflage them when nesting. Cranes that are not yet mature also have reddish upper parts. Their heads are topped by a red patch.


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These birds have very long legs and necks as you can see. Their windpipes curl up in the sternum and give their sounds a lower pitch. Mated pairs will sing in unison, with the female calling twice for every call that her mate makes.



The males dance when they display to one another. Courtship dances can involve bowing followed by leaps into the air. They may stretch their wings and pump their heads as well.

SANDHILL CRANE I77A7932© Maria de Bruyn RES

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The pair would dance and stop, dance and stop. A real pas de deux (in French and ballet terms)!

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Perhaps some ballet terminology was inspired (unconsciously) by the graceful cranes.

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Grand jeté (jump from one foot to the other)

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Sur les pointes (on tiptoes)

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Demi-plié (Half-bend of the knees)

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Fondu (sinking down)

Dancers have tried to mimic cranes and while they created a beautiful dance, the sandhill cranes had more varied moves.

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The courtship dance was a tour de force and a highlight of my first day at this national park. In hindsight, I wish I had taped it but I was so enthralled, I forgot. 🙂


Delight in small packages

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Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_6085©Maria de BruynOne bird that seems to almost universally delight people and bring smiles to their days are the hummingbirds. These wonderful little fliers now only live in the Western hemisphere of our earth, but two 30-million-year-old hummingbird fossils were discovered in Germany so they did live elsewhere.

There are more than 300 species – some very, very colorful and some with gorgeous long tails or long curved beaks. Central and South America have spectacular species and one of the Nazca line drawings in Peru depicts a hummingbird. Only eight species breed in the United States.

Here in Chapel Hill, I’ve had the pleasure to see two species – the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) and the rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus). The ruby-throated (named for the male’s brilliant neck feathers) are here in spring, summer and fall and then they migrate further south, crossing the 500 miles (800 km) of the Gulf of Mexico in one non-stop flight!

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_8991©Maria de Bruyn resRuby-throated hummingbird IMG_4837©Maria de Bruyn

The rufous species migrates here from further up north in the wintertime; they will go as far as Alaska to spend the winter and can tolerate below freezing temperatures.rufous hummingbird IMG_1789 M de Bruynrufous hummingbird IMG_2022 MdB

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_7541©Maria de BruynRESThe smallest bird species is the Bee hummingbird, which weighs less than a cent coin. On average, the ruby-throated hummingbird weighs less than a US five-cent coin.

They flap their little wings about 50 times per second but increase this to as much as 200 wing beats per second. This rapid motion makes a humming sound, which varies according to the species. Their quick flight allows them to hover as well as fly backwards and upside down.


ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_3498Ruby-throated hummingbird male IMG_5433©Maria de Bruyn res


ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_3293 MdBTheir little feet help them perch but they cannot hop or walk on them.

These little birds need to eat about half their weight in sugar every day, which is why you see them returning to feeders quite often. When there is not enough food, they can go into a hibernation-like state, slowing their metabolism to 1/15th of its normal rate.

Their hearts can beat as quickly as 1260 beats per minute and they take 250 breaths per minute, even when they are sitting still!

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Hummingbirds do not suck up nectar but quickly lap it up with tIMG_5526©Maria de Bruynheir tongues, which have tubes running down their lengths.

To ensure they have enough food, they can sometimes defend their feeding areas vigorously against other hummers that they consider intruders. This happens a lot at my feeders but they are so fast that it’s very difficult to get good shots of it.


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They eventually will tolerate others in their vicinity (sometimes). They live 3-12 years and perhaps the ones they don’t mind having around are related.

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It is better not to put food dyes into nectar and brown or raw sugar should not be used to prepare it as these types of sugar contain iron, which can kill hummingbirds if they get too much over a certain period of time. They like sugar water with 25% sugar, although apparently nectar with 35% sugar is even more to their liking.

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_7711©Maria de Bruyn resRuby-throated hummingbird IMG_5921©Maria de Bruyn res2

I have yet to find a hummingbird nest made with spider silk and lichens in my yard but hope to see one in the future so that I can say I’ve not only seen the biggest bird egg (ostrich) but also the smallest!

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Blue jewels of the insect world

dogbane beetle IMG_4382©Maria de Bruyn resMy original interest in wildlife often centered around mammals; as a child, I was especially fascinated by the larger ones I saw at the zoo like lions, giraffes and bears. Eventually, in my later adult life, I became a birder and then Project Noah led me to begin paying much closer attention to the insect world. Nowadays, I find almost any type of wildlife of interest and look forward to learning more about diverse species.

Investigating insects has taught me that not only are some moths incredibly beautiful – so are some beetles and dragonflies, like the two brilliant blue species described here. I first encountered the dogbane beetle (Chrysochus auratus) on the plant for which it’s named, the white-flowering dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). This plant is also known as rheumatism root since herbalists have used it to treat that disease, as well as conditions such as syphilis, fever, asthma and dysentery. It is also known as the hemp plant and has been used to make rope.

dogbane IMG_9002©Maria de Bruyn res     dogbane beetle IMG_4298©Maria de Bruyn res

dogbane beetle IMG_4351©Maria de Bruyn resThe iridescent beetle, which measures less than a half inch and lives 6-8 weeks in summer, feeds on the dogbane as well as milkweed plants. The insects’ wings are blue-green in color and have a gorgeous shimmery shine that looks like metallic copper; depending on the light, the highlights can also look golden or crimson in color.

They have widely spaced antennae with 11-12 segments and their legs look a bit as if they end in heart-shaped pads. Their left mandible is longer than the right one and it fits into a groove in the right (why, I don’t know!).

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They mate once a day during the summer and the male will stay on top of the female afterwards for some time to ensure that his sperm can fertilize eggs. After mating, the female lays her eggs on the underside of host plant leaves or on the ground. The larvae feed on roots and pupate underground. After 6-8 weeks, the adults die and we have to wait until next summer to see these little beauties.

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A larger metallic blue insect is the ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), which can grow to about 2 inches. It is the black-winged males who exhibit the deep blue color on their bodies. The females are a smoky brown-gray in color and display white spots near the tips of their wings.

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These damselflies have been studied extensively, so that we know they shelter among a wide variety of plants, including water plants (pickerel weed, duckweed, lilies, cattails) and land plants such as orange jewelweed, button bush, Joe pye weed and poison ivy. The adults frequently rest on low shrubs in sunlit patches.

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These damselflies have a large variety of prey that include tiger mosquitoes, gnats, flies, beetles and even dragonflies. If they see you observing them, they will watch you in return, turning their heads to follow your movements

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Ebony jewelwing damselfly female IMG_1085© Maria de BruynThese damselflies are not strong fliers, often fluttering – even when resting on a leaf. Females will also rapidly open and close their wings if they are receptive to a courting male. If they reject the male, they will keep their wings open.

(If you click on the photo, you can see it enlarged.)





Ebony jewelwing IMG_7812©Maria de Bruyn res1The male will raise his abdomen as part of his courting display.Ebony jewelwing IMG_7738©Maria de Bruyn res

Females lay their eggs in the soft stems of water plants. And then, after about two weeks of flight, the adults pass away and we await new generations to admire. I’m looking forward to finding out if I discover any more blue jewels in the future!