Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Feeder Location, Location, Location

Backyard hummingbird from years ago. (Margo D. Beller)
One afternoon at dusk, after a long day trying to stay alive, the little bird perched on the edge of the red feeder, dipped her long, delicate bill into the liquid and had a long drink. She might have a nest nearby and young to feed, or she could be a juvenile, in which case she could be a he.

Suddenly, another little bird appeared. Despite the many portals allowing access to the sweet liquid within, the bird - an adult male - came at the female, who flew backwards and took off. The male then sat where she had been sitting, took his own long drink and then sat there, shaded, until he took off for the night.

The whole episode took a few minutes and I witnessed it by chance through my kitchen window.

The birds were ruby-throated hummingbirds, the ones you are 99% likely to see in the eastern U.S. (The rufous hummingbird, a western species, has been known to fly along the east coast as it heads south for the winter from its breeding ground in the far north. And there are always "accidentals" that get caught up in the wrong air current.)

John J. Audubon referred to ruby-throated hummingbirds as the "glittering fragment of a rainbow" because of the male's deep red throat, white belly and green head and back (the female lacks the red). These little birds weighing less than an ounce - more like a large insect than a bird - seem to just appear out of nowhere, making my encounters with them quite special.
First attempt to evade ants. (Margo D. Beller)
My feeder was in a shady place in my backyard (see above), an area surrounded by the pink flowers of perennial geranium, astilbe, hosta, columbine and joe-pye weed. The male bird I mentioned above had been coming to the feeder every day for months, although because of the feeder's location I would only be able to see it if I walked onto my enclosed porch.

Then we had a heat wave.

No rain for a very long time, and then weeks of rain in a single day. The lawn went brown, the water dishes I have out were empty each night. I looked at the hummer feeder - filled with one-quarter cup sugar per one cup water - one afternoon and saw something crawling on it. It turned out to be a large ant. I came out the next day and saw ants all over it and inside.

This was the first time my feeder had been so afflicted. Bees, yes, but not a thick cloud of ants. And it has continued hot and dry.

I wrote recently about the feeder pole I bought to replace one destroyed by a bear. I moved the hummingbird feeder there in the afternoon. The good news was I could see the feeder from my kitchen. The bad news was for most of the day it would be hanging in the sun, where the liquid would quickly go bad.

I left it there a day and then moved it back to its usual place in the evening. It was covered with ants the next morning.

So I cleaned it out, refilled it and moved it back to the sunny area. Then I thought of a way to mitigate the problem - an old umbrella stashed in my closet from a Thai restaurant, whose unfortunate logo showed what can only be described as a highly aroused mermaid that was unavoidable when the umbrella was open.

But duct-taped to the pole with the naughty bits covered, it worked just fine for the feeder. My only concern was whether a hummingbird would find it. That concern was answered within 10 minutes when the male showed up to investigate. Later that day, a female did the same.

This was the pair that had their encounter that night.
Back in the shade, with moat. (Margo D. Beller)

Male and female hummingbirds only get along for the short time when the male displays (in extravagant aerial loops), the female accepts and they mate. Once done, the male isn't involved in the building of nests or raising of young. In fact, males are usually gone by July, making the continuation of this male into August rather extraordinary. Hummingbirds will spend more time and energy chasing each other away, even with a surfeit of food, than actually feeding.
I could've let things be with my makeshift cover but I hadn't accounted for wind pulling the umbrella, in turn pulling the feeder pole and shaking the feeder. So I went to my closest New Jersey Audubon store to see if there was some way to either shade the feeder or block the ants. Turned out there was both.

So now, the feeder is back in its original location in the shade, the ants blocked by a moat, and the male has been coming to feed.

Sadly, the female came to the sunny feeder pole, found nothing and flew off. I can only hope she will find the feeder in the shade and manage to take another long drink before being chased off yet again.

What do we learn from all this? We learn that necessity is the mother of invention, and if there is a problem there are always ways to solve it (including finding a product at an affordable price).

Most important, you learn that when you put out food for birds, even tiny birds like hummingbirds, you will get a large thrill when they come to feed, and you will do whatever it takes to help them do so.

Postscript: The morning after writing the above I went out to get the feeder. It had seemed the hummingbird was struggling to get enough liquid that evening and I wanted to top off the water level. I looked at the feeder and the moat - no ants. I took a small leaf out of the water (many leaves are falling in this heat), unhooked the feeder and brought it in.

I took off the lid and found an ant flailing about in the water! How could this have happened?

I fished the ant out, threw it back outside, topped the water level and was putting the lid back on when two things occurred to me.

First, the ant was probably on the underside of the lid, above the water (since, according to the makers of the moat, ants can't swim) and I had dislodged it either when I took the feeder in or took off the lid.

Second, and most important, the ant had crawled down to the leaf, used it as a bridge to the edge of the moat, crawled up over the side and resumed its quest for nirvana.

Once again proving that necessity is the mother of invention, even for an ant.