Essay : Other seasonal visitors
Our backyard hummingbird feeder, a center of frantic activity in the summer months, is stowed for the winter now. For weeks it stood idle visited only by a few languid wasps. Still I left it up in case a late leaving hummer needed one final burst of energy for its long trip south. According to the first edition of "Vineyard Birds" by Susan Whiting and Barbara Pesch a ruby-throated hummingbird was sighted on the Island as late as October 12 in 1965. Finally this weekend I brought the feeder inside, washed it in soapy water, wrapped each glass piece carefully in newspaper, and packed it away.
Vineyard summers are framed for me by the arrival and departure of the ruby-throated hummingbird. These tiny birds first appear in late April, like many of our seasonal homeowners. Often cold and exhausted from their difficult migration, these generally hyperactive birds sit on the feeder dazed and quiet for long minutes, recovering their strength, before they finally drink. Throughout the spring, ruby-throats pour onto the Island, initiating a frenzy of activity as nesting and mating take place and new young are born.
The only birds that can fly backwards, hummers are extraordinary aerialists and acrobats. Their behavior runs to extremes - ranging from delicately sipping sugar water or nectar with long tongues to fiercely defending their turf, my feeder, with vicious lunges, body thrusts and loud squeaks. Their intensity is a good fit with the energy and activity that many summer visitors bring here with them when they come to vacation, and want to recharge and relax and party, party, party.
As the summer wanes and the days cool and shorten, male ruby-throats head back south followed a few weeks later by the females and last-hatch juveniles. Almost all depart in September, not long after summer residents have packed away their beach towels and picnic supplies and returned to their real life elsewhere. The feeder is quiet and another season has come and gone.
Summer visitors often ask, "What do you do here in the winter?" I try not to crow, but the end of the tourist season makes me buoyant. Finally we Islanders can breathe once again. Friends have time to connect, take walks or swims and share a meal. Once again our rhythm can be our own.
Even though their departure coincides with the Island becoming more peaceful, I miss the hummingbirds when they leave. I lie awake at night and imagine their migration south, picturing them over a map of the eastern United States. What kinds of late blooming flowers are they finding for nectar, and what tiny insects are giving them the energy they need for their long trip? Are they in Georgia now, or have they already reached the great expanse of the Gulf of Mexico that they have to cross to reach their wintering grounds?
How a hummingbird, the smallest bird in North America, can fly 500 miles over open sea non-stop for 18 to 20 hours is a mystery to me. Somehow they manage it and settle down for the winter in the dry forests, citrus groves, or scrub hedgerows of Central America. Come spring, the journey will reverse itself and the ruby-throats will gradually return north to mate and build nests as far north as southern Canada - some of them, thankfully, in my yard.
I used to believe that the same hummingbirds returned to my yard each season because they always perch on one particular oak branch. I've learned this is unlikely. Not unlike our human visitors, there is a July group and an August group. In "Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds" (Stackpole Books, 1999), Robert Sargent describes hummingbirds as constantly on the move. New birds are continually coming and going. To determine how many birds you are feeding, Sargent writes, estimate the largest number at your feeder and multiply by five. I have seen as many as six at one time using my feeder. Could it be that 30 hummingbirds are making their homes nearby? How thrilling! I wish I felt as generous about the many guests that circulate through our beds during the summer months, but I don't.
It has been six weeks since I last watched the females and juveniles crowding the hummingbird feeder. These birds seemed to study me as intently as I studied them. In the final days before their departure, wherever I sat outside they would find me. They flew in so close to my face I could feel the air from their wings against my skin. Maybe this was a farewell or just a pause before we all soared into this new season.
Laura Wainwright, a freelance writer, lives in West Tisbury.