February 1st! The first day of Spring on the Celtic calendar. The early spring signs are subtle but by the end of the month Spring has definitely sprung in the Pacific Northwest. If I wait until the “official” start date of March 20th to welcome the new season I’ll be missing out.
This winter achieved the dubious distinction of being the wettest winter on record in Western Washington. The thermometer hovered at a temperature that made for plenty of snow in the mountains, and enough rain in the lowlands to make me think I should be checking between my toes for early signs of webbed feet. Wet and just mild enough to set the stage for an early spring! This year on February 1st the hazelnut trees were a shower of catkins while just outside my window a male Anna’s Hummingbird performed his fanciest aerial dance moves as the love of his life perched among the buds feigning indifference. The season of romance has begun!
Phenology is the science of tracking seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year. To be a phenologist is to observe the timing of migration of birds, the emergence of insects, the opening of buds in relationship with the weather and climate. Such seasonal monitoring adds a very important piece in the puzzle of climate change. Last year I joined the USA National Phenology Network, an organization for amateur naturalists like myself to help gather data on seasonal patterns. Check out their great web-site www.usanpn.org for more information. Another wonderful way to get involved is through the Audubon society www.hummingbirdsathome.org
With my backyard registered as an observation site I now have the perfect excuse, as if I really needed one, to watch the comings and goings of the wildlife. The Anna’s Hummingbirds overwintering here cluster around the feeders on the coldest of days.
By February, their crown of feathers gleams to the point of garishness, as they declare their passion. I watch as a female sits at a feeder studiously ignoring the amorous advances of a persistent male. He hovers in front of her, moving up and down as if attached to some invisible yo-yo.
Finding no luck with this move, he flies high above the feeder until he is no more than a pinprick of feathers silhouetted against the blue, then drops so quickly my eyes can barely track his path. At the last minute he banks sharply with an explosive whistle of sound, to carve a U shape flight path in front of the seemingly indifferent female.
Researchers at UC Berkeley filmed this dive bomber display using a high speed camera to reveal that the hummingbird flares his tail feathers for a 60 millisecond blink of an eye at the lowest point of his flight path. The rush of air causes the tail feathers to vibrate, just like the reed in a clarinet, to produce an explosive burst that sounds like a short, sharp whistling chirp. Check out their amazing video.
Milder temperatures this February have coaxed the salmonberry flowers and flowering red currant to open early, vivid splashes of pink and red that signal the return of another species of hummingbird, the Rufous Hummingbird.
These tiny hummingbirds overwinter in southern California and down to Mexico, making their way northward to southern Alaska, westward to Montana in the spring. An amazing journey for a bird that is smaller than a ping pong ball & weighs fractionally more than a dime!
Yesterday as I took the dog for a walk I heard the familiar sound of a Rufous laying claim to his territory over a patch of salmonberry: a cascade of notes tumbling so quickly it sounds as if he’s blowing a kazoo as he dive bombs through a U shaped flight path.
Today one is on the feeder, his rust-orange feathers and vivid scarlet throat patch are as impressive as the flamboyant pinks of the Anna’s. The females won’t arrive for another couple of weeks, giving him plenty of time to perfect his dance moves and stake out the best real estate.