Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sit Down in Darkness

Mother Nature had a temper tantrum yesterday.

The heat and humidity that had been enveloping my part of New Jersey finally exploded, sending walls of water down the sides of the enclosed porch where we sat (after just getting back into the garage in time from our time out and about Saturday) and watched fierce winds nearly snap the dogwood tree in half.

We received three days worth of rain in 30 minutes. The globally warmed air masses that had sat over us and kept temperatures 10 or so degrees more than the norm, ran into some cooler air creating what the forecasters call "an unstable air mass." That has to be the understatement of the year.

What we saw was the kind of weather you would expect in a tropical rain forest, not suburban New Jersey. We later learned streets we had driven just a few hours earlier were closed because of downed trees, snapped power lines and flooding.

This kind of weather, we've been warned, will become more common now that ice caps are melting, waters are warming and air masses are stuck over us bringing too much cold or too much heat to what used to be called temperate zones.

Twenty minutes into watching this maelstrom in our backyard, I realized if one of our trees fell on the porch roof it would kill us. Ten minutes after the rain let up just a bit a hummingbird came to the feeder. It fed a long time and then went into the nearby apple tree to ride out the storm.

I walked inside and was not surprised to find the power out.

A power failure is not the time to discover many of your flashlights don't have working batteries. Luckily, we had quite a few that were working, and radios with batteries. It is also not the time to realize your neighbors - the ones you wave at and rarely speak to - would have no idea if you died during this storm and could care less.

Calling friends from our hot car, where I had the phone plugged in to charge, produced no results either. No one was taking my call. One friend later told me she heard my message and was surprised because she thought I was so self-sufficient.

MH and I can take care of ourselves but there are times, I've now learned, that is not enough.

And then there was the power company.

Mine is owned by a conglomerate in Ohio. The first time I called, at 3:30pm, 15 min. after the outage, I got an automated voice, gave my information and was told the power would return at 6pm. At 7pm, still in the dark, I called again. This time the automated voice shunted me to a customer center, likely in Ohio, where the woman was completely in the dark, so to speak.

Three times she told me if the problem was my fuse box, it would cost $85 for a service call. Three times I told her the entire street was out. Then she told me I was the first to report the problem. I exploded. What the hell have you been doing for 3 1/2 hours? No doubt she used my phone number to gain access to my records - I did not care to look for the last bill with the account number on it - to see I had indeed called and assure me crews would be out soon.

Would I want a call telling me the power was back? (This "service" from the utility always annoys and amuses. Why would I want you to tell me something I can see?)

Sure, I said, and then hung up.

For the next 3 hours I tried not to go insane as the den, which was the coolest room in the house (we had been out all day and had not put the AC on), slowly warmed. I tried not to worry about whether the basement would flood because the sump pump has no backup battery. I tried not to worry about the food in the refrigerator. I got out my portable WiFi and my laptop with its long battery life. I could see sites but not send messages.

I discovered that while it is nice to have that real keyboard on my old BlackBerry, not a lot of websites are set up for old BlackBerrys anymore. MH's Samsung allowed him access to the utility's site - a site put up after Hurricane Sandy kept much of the state without power for over a week - and we learned that at one point only 11 people in my town had no power. That number corresponded to the number of houses on my street! That was the nadir.

To see lights on a block away while I was reading by flashlight depressed me. That I was reading the essays of William Styron - author of "Lie Down in Darkness" and "Darkness Visible" - provided a bit of macabre humor.

It was almost nice to see those houses on the next block lose power, too.

We went upstairs to lie down, wondering how we'd sleep. I had one window open a crack for air as the rain continued to fall. We heard the utility trucks.

At 10:15 p.m., seven hours after it started, it was over. The lights and the fan went on. We waited to see if it would last. It has.

At 10:30 p.m., the utility called to say power wasn't expected to be back on until 12:30 a.m.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Adventures of Alpha and Beta

When John J. Audubon referred to the ruby-throated hummingbird as "the glittering fragment of the rainbow," he was referring to the male. The male's back and head are bright green, his throat a deep red that can look black in some lights and the breast and belly are white.

Audubon was not referring to the duller females. As with most other birds, the females are not as bright or colorful as the males so as to be inconspicuous on her nest, or getting food for her young.

Attempt at a hummingbird picture (Margo D. Beller)
In late May my New Hampshire brother-in-law hung two feeders and, as usual, two males battled over one of the feeders, leaving the other alone. Hummingbirds will do that - they don't play well with others.

However, one of the males already had a mate and every so often the shier female would come feed, also at the same feeder. She, too, is green but a duller shade and there is no ruby throat.

My brother-in-law, as well as a friend of mine who lives in a hillier part of New Jersey, draw hummingbirds almost from the moment they put a feeder out. I always know the first batch of liquid I make will likely be wasted as I watch for the bird - more insect than bird, wings moving over 50 times a second, able to back up (which no other bird can do) and take off at great speed.

Admittedly, I make it hard on myself. I have the feeder hanging in a shady part of the garden (so as to keep the liquid from going bad quickly in the sun) that I can't see unless I step out on the enclosed porch. I have flowers hummingbirds like in different parts of the garden - azaleas and rhodedendron in the front, for instance, and geraniums and columbine in the back - so the birds are not always where I can see them, unlike the winter where the seed feeders can be seen from the kitchen.

This year I saw a male on June 3, the earliest ever for my yard, and then another one 15 days later. Then nothing.

Until June 30 when the first female showed up.

For some reason, what draws the birds to the feeder are the sprays of tiny pink trumpets thrown up by the coral bells. As I sat on my porch having breakfast, I was aware of movements at the bells and saw the green back. Eventually it flew up and saw the red-topped feeder. It flew over and took a sip. It was very tentative. Its head was so dark I was sure it was a male, but getting my binoculars I saw the white breast and throat.

She came several times that day and has continued coming. This is the typical pattern. At this time of year - June into July - the male hummers have done their genetic duty and go off on their own, sometimes heading south as early as late July into August. That leaves the female with the task of creating a nest, laying eggs, brooding them and then feeding the young, all the while needing food to give her the energy for all that fast flying.

So once she found a reliable food source, she wasn't going to let it alone.

Hummingbird, Higbee Beach, Cape May, NJ (Margo D. Beller)
This is typical. What wasn't typical was when the second hummingbird showed up a couple of days later.

I didn't realize it at first. When the first one - I'll call her Alpha - would stop by, she would feed, then back up and take off to the north, toward a high hedge I keep as privacy from the neighbors. Then I noticed she would fly up to the nearby apple tree, or head east, past my yard and to the next street.

The other morning I took my folding chair outside to drink my coffee and watch the feeder. In came the hummer - and then in came a second one to chase her off. The chaser was Alpha, with the dark head. The one chased off came back about five minutes later. I noticed her head was much lighter green and when she flew off, it was to the apple tree. This one is Beta.

Several times now I have seen Alpha at the feeder and Beta feeding from the coral bells, or Beta at the feeder and Alpha chasing her off, then coming back to feed.

All of this is fun to watch but there are some serious issues under all the feeding and chasing.

These females are making the constant trip to the feeder so they have the energy to sit on their nest or catch food for their young. In my part of suburbia, homeowners leave it to the landscapers to put in their plants and they are usually dull shrubs that do not flower and are cheap to replace. If they have flowers, it is a hanging basket and the flowers are generally not the orange or red trumpets hummingbirds prefer. They don't even have scent, most of the time.

I do have flowers hummingbirds like - bee balm, butterfly bush, salvia, coral bells, columbine - but the deer eat most of them too, and these plants are behind netting as a result. That is the reason for the dull shrubs - easy to replace when eaten by deer and not so lovely as to be missed and thus easily replaced.

My feeder is hanging on that pole in the shade behind netting, too.

When overdevelopment tears up fields of wildflowers and suburban sprawl doesn't replace the lost plants, you don't give a hummingbird a lot of choices. It doesn't have unlimited time and energy to look around.

Hummer drawn by my friend's zinnias (Margo D. Beller)
A feeder, however, is another matter. You buy one at any store. It is usually red either in whole or in part. You boil one-quarter cup of sugar for every cup of water until the sugar is dissolved, wait for it to cool and put it in the feeder. Hang it outside.

There! You've just helped out a hummingbird.

I see many yards with hummingbird feeders, even those with dull shrubs. People like watching hummingbirds. They are fascinating creatures. One second there's a feeder and the next there is a tiny bird sitting and taking long drinks with her very long, thin tongue. Then she rises up and is gone.

They fly backwards. Their wings beat so fast you can hear the blur. Several times I have come face to face with a hummingbird. When it doesn't feel threatened, it wants to check you out. We look at each other, it gives me a small "chip" and takes off. Working in the garden, I've heard an angry squeak and knew I was working in an area where the hummingbird, easily annoyed, was going to check out the nearby plants.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are not considered to be endangered. More people are putting out feeders and, if global warming continues, hummers might be hanging around beyond late summer when they generally head south to Central America.

I enjoy watching the antics of Alpha and Beta, and if global warming keeps them around longer it might even be worth it. I have lots of sugar.