7. Calypte anna


July 23, 2016

5:30. Loud cries of seagulls dominate the back yard this morning. Internal combustion engines intermittently rumble from Fort Street. Hospital hums. Leaves rustle. Intense light on the horizon, straight out from the fire escape, between waving leaves of horse chestnut, dazzles. Some pathway of response in the front of my brain opens and brightens into entranced anticipation.

The crow may not share my awe. It crosses above the garden, its wing-beats plainly efficient, its “caw” dispassionately functional. Sense of the sacred in fiery sunrise may be a capacity of humans more than crows.

By 5:45 the round sun sits blazing across the valley. It illuminates the upper half of the poplars and the top of the thicket. A tiny bird hovers above the poplars, then zooms down to perch on an elderberry twig. Its head and throat shine like dancers’ sequins, radiant magenta: an Anna’s hummingbird.

Calypte anna is our common year-round resident hummingbird in Victoria. Gorgeous head and throat clearly identify the adult male, but I haven’t been seeing it. I learn today as I find out more about Anna’s hummingbirds that he doesn’t always exhibit his brilliance. Commonly his head shows more blackish, green or yellowy tones. He flashes the magenta as a territorial display. In fact the high dive I saw is part of his display. The dive makes a J shape as he pulls out of it. When he spreads his tail feathers to put on the brakes, they vibrate in a loud chirp.

He ruffs-up his head feathers to flaunt eye-catching iridescence. The feathers themselves are not colourful. Their vibrancy results from translucence and hollowness. Some light bounces off the outside of the feather, but some passes through it, through the inner air pocket, reflects back from its inner surface and shines out through the feather. Two streams of light, one bounced from the outside and one from inside, merge. Their wave-forms harmonize to amazing effect.

Around 6:00 I was listening to faintly-audible clicking sounds from the thicket when two hummingbirds shot overhead in a chase, out of sight above the roof. Sources describe the Anna’s main sound as a “chip”, “chick” or “tzip”. I heard it as a remembered electrical “snick” of overhead wires on a country road, walking, in terror of the dark, between Johnny Baines’ house where I could watch Walt Disney on TV and the lighted home porch where Mom was waiting. In that decade of my childhood, the 1950s, unknown to most of us, the first few Anna’s were crossing the border as summer visitors to southern coastal British Columbia.

Anna’s is a California bird. It accompanied West Coast suburban culture to BC, along with two-toned cars and ranch-style houses. The species, of course, vastly predates suburbia. Its native habitat is chaparral, dry manzanita scrublands of California and the Baja.

Some bushes in California chaparral may have evolved specifically for pollination by Calypte anna. A gooseberry, for example, Ribes speciosum, flowers like a fuchsia. Its blossom, long, scarlet, narrow, fleshy, pendulous, discourages landing or entry by a bee, and favours needle bill and extended tongue of a hummingbird hovering beneath it. Anthers and stamens extend out long from the flower, to rub pollen onto feathers of the bird’s face. Scientists assert that the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry evolved as a hummingbird-adapted species around 1.5 million years ago. The bird, they believe, is a million years older than the bush.

In Earth’s long story, Calypte anna and its chaparral habitat appear as a recent sparkle. Chaparral blooms in the months of winter, the rainy season, breeding time for the Anna’s. Males claim their territories in November and December around another gooseberry species, Ribes malvaceum, known as pink chaparral or chaparral currant. Flowers of ribes and manzanitas supply nesting birds with nectar and with small insects the blossoms attract. Most northerly-wintering of hummingbirds, Anna’s requires much insect protein. Fledglings are leaving the nest by early spring when fuchsia-flowered gooseberry is blooming for them.

Through summer’s long drought, chaparral of California lowlands quits flowering. Gooseberry shrubs stand brown as dead sticks. Anna’s hummingbird heads for cooler climes, the mountains, where flowers bloom later.

From chaparral, its ancient home, Anna’s hummingbird has adopted new habitat in the past century. Eucalyptus trees first invited it out. Australians brought them to California in the 1850s gold rush. By the early 1900s Eucalyptus globulus, the blue gum, served as the common windbreak tree for southern California farms and highways. It bloomed from November to April, Calypte anna’s breeding season. The tree naturalized, and the hummingbird tapped into a vast new source of nectar and bugs in blue gum’s fuzzy, pale-yellow flowers. A single tree could provide territories for several Anna’s males.

Californians planted the blue gum also in cities for shade. The eucalyptus established as the common grand tree of civic park and college campus. I often walked in eucalyptus woodlands around San Francisco when I attended university there. By the 1920s and ‘30s Anna’s hummingbirds were moving into town. California gardens, irrigated and vivid with exotic bloom, welcomed the hummingbird year-round.

California gardeners, captivated, made efforts to lure the birds closer. Nancy L. Newfield and Barbara Nielsen trace the US and Canadian history of gardening for hummers in their book, Hummingbird Gardens (1996). They report that Ben and Dorothy May Tucker, south of Los Angeles, were developing hummingbird feeders already in the 1920s: “Their first efforts were with shot glasses, which they filled with sugar-water and set in a row on their porch railing.” Feeders, commercially manufactured and widely advertised, appeared in many gardens in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Also, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Calypte anna was expanding its breeding range beyond California, northward, up the coastal zone of gardens that bloom in all seasons. Anna’s reached the northern extreme of that zone here around the Salish Sea. We could make a feeble claim as the northern ragged edge of natural chaparral habitat. Our single manzanita speciesdominates a few dry, rocky ridges, along with our fuschia-flowered gooseberry, Ribes lobbii. Neither, however, blooms in winter. Anna’s settled here, not for our natural habitats, but for our ever-flowering gardens.

The bird began sampling Victoria’s garden flowers during its summer wandering season, around 1958. By 1986, The Naturalist’s Guide to the Victoria Region directs us to the eastern suburbs, near the University of Victoria, where “A pair of Anna’s Hummingbirds has been a regular sight….” The Naturalist’s Guide notes, “Within the past 30 years Anna’s has colonized the Victoria area, and is now an uncommon resident wintering at feeders.”

Without hummingbird feeders, could Calypte anna cope with our winter? In Hummingbird Gardens, Newfield and Nielsen quote Seattle biologist David Hutchinson: “I think in most winters, under most conditions, the Anna’s is viable here….But in really bad winters feeders are probably crucial to their survival.” Climate has warmed in the decades since the biologist offered his opinion. The “really bad winters” persist mainly as memories of old-timers. Perhaps the bird could manage here now, without feeders. Calypte anna has other strategies for winter survival.

It passes winter nights, for example, in torpor. Body temperature drops from its hot daytime norm of around 400C to approximately 100C. Breathing reduces from more than 200 breaths per minute to less than ten. The torpid bird stands, feathers fluffed, eyes closed, slowly burning fat it has made from sugar during the day.

It sips in winter from sapsucker holes. The woodpecker taps orderly rows of shallow wells to collect tree sap. Calypte anna industriously works the sapsucker trees as it would a flowering bush. The authors of Hummingbird Gardens quote Penny Rose of Seattle: “Sap has the same sugar content as nectar, and it attracts insects too, so the Anna’s is probably feeding on the sap and the insects.” The Birds of North America website reports observations of female Anna’s feeding nectar to their nestlings early in the day, but switching to insects in the afternoon. “Insect protein,” the site comments, “lasts longer as a food reserve at night.”

Newfield and Nielsen interviewed hummingbird gardeners in Victoria. Ian McTaggart-Cowan told them, “There’s always something in bloom here. Plus there are lots of insects. You can look out at any time and see insects, little gnats and so on – and you can see the Anna’s up in the trees going after them like flycatchers.”

McTaggart–Cowan reported that Anna’s nested in his garden in February, when his forsythia and witch hazel began flowering. Lyndis Davis, another Victoria gardener commented, “In winter, the Anna’s regularly visit a Viburnum ‘Bodnantense’ that begins to flower in fall and continues until April.” The gardeners noted that Anna’s also frequented their earliest-blooming native shrubs, such as salmonberry, red-flowering currant, Oregon grape and “a local currant (ribes lobbii) that resembles a small fuchsia.”

Both of the Victoria gardeners maintained feeders. “I hang three….”, Davis said, “Since I did that I’ve had both rufous and Anna’s nesting on my property. They’ve each laid claim to a different feeding station.” “During cold spells,” reported McTaggart-Cowan, “I’ll get up when it’s black-dark to hang out a feeder. As soon as I flip on the light and step outside, a hummingbird will be waiting. I don’t now how they manage to do that, since they go into torpor at night. But the little rascal will somehow wake himself up out of torpor so he can have a drink of nice warm syrup – sort of like having a cup of hot chocolate in the morning.”

Personally, I’ve been suspicious of hummingbird feeders, and of bird feeders generally. We continue to demolish natural habitat (California chaparral, for example), while our feeders create a back yard illusion of plentiful birdlife. Perhaps I have assumed that people who hang red plastic oversized flowers on the balcony don’t care about habitat. These gardeners are helping me question my assumption.

Ian McTaggart-Cowan in particular:“Zoologist, conservationist and television presenter,” his Wikipedia biography records, “he has been called ‘the father of Canadian ecology’.” Few Canadians have strived more effectively to educate us toward harmony with our natural world. Locally, he led in founding our beloved nature sanctuary at Swan Lake. Here was the Chancellor of the University of Victoria on his freezing back deck in the dark bringing sugar water to Anna’s hummingbirds.

Feeding wild birds as a hobby motivates, I learn, one third of North American adults. Only gardening ranks more popular. People who feed Anna’s hummingbirds in winter take it seriously. Newfield and Nielsen interviewed gardeners who “…rig up an electric light bulb to keep the feeder warm. Others keep several filled feeders inside the house and rotate them as needed…. Some wrap warm woolen socks; others hang them under a heat lamp.”

A recent message from my sister Sheilagh may get me closer to the truth about feeders: “Yesterday as I stood on my porch a hummingbird hovered about 18 inches from my face for about 10 seconds, checking me out. I felt awe and total happiness.”

On the internet, descriptors I find of hummingbird moments include “awe”, “wonder”, “bliss”, “harmony”, “unity”. Maintaining a feeder brings people closer to a creature whose presence declares to us the intrinsic amazing beauty simply of being. The Anna’s hummingbird male assures me also that showing-off is cosmically valid.