Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 18, 2008

A Priceless Little Gem

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:05 pm

  It took a friend to point it out to me and it took a little bird to let him in on the secret location. I’m talking about a Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest situated high up in the branches of a Sycamore tree. Although the birds themselves are a relatively common summer sight, their nests are not. These structures are near impossible to find because they are cryptically camouflaged and, like their makers, very very small. It takes a bit of serendipity to be at the right place at the right time to see a bird fly up and settle into its nest – that’s about the only way to find one. Fortunately, I was made privy to just such a serendipitous situation.

  It has been over 25 years since I last spotted a Hummingbird nest. That first one was well out on a Beech Tree limb and about 20 feet above the ground.  Save for the tree choice, this current nest is similar in all regards. Since Hummers habitually place their nests on the downward sloping portion of a branch and pick locations that are approachable from beneath, the similarities should come as no surprise. I have to admit, however, that even when this new nest was pointed out to me I had to wait until the resident birdlet returned before I could really see it.

  I was finally able to get a half-decent shot of the female sitting on the tiny cup (see above) and later managed another view (see here).  Unlike the resplendent ruby-throated male, the female of the species has an unadorned white throat. Both sexes have glossy green upper parts, a black face mask, and an overall length of about 3 inches. She was nervous about my presence. I had to limit my photo ops so that I didn’t spook her. After all, this is very late in the season for this bird and she will need every precious moment to get her eggs hatched and fledged before autumn. It takes 16-some days to incubate and another 20-some to rear the fledglings. Everybody will need to migrate south by mid-October at the latest, so time’s a flitt’n.  I should also mention that the males do not participate in the nesting or rearing procedure what-so-ever. If she looks a bit harried, then, it is no wonder.

  The nest of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is as precise and marvelous as the bird that makes it. Sure, the Bird’s Nest Stadium at the Beijing Olympics may trump this little natural structure in scale, but in terms of precision the two are equal. Take a look here at some detail shots of another Hummingbird nest (see here and here) and you’ll see why they are hard to see and why they should be seen.

  First of all, consider the components. Bud scales and lichens are tied together with spider silk with a fine layer of plant down lining the interior. The thing literally blends into the branch and has the appearance of a glorified knot (not even all that glorified, come to think of it). Structurally, it forms a soft pillow-like platform that is only about ½ inch deep. The top edge actually folds in with a 3/8th inch lip around the perimeter. As the two young nestlings grow up, the nest is made to expand along with them like a stretch sock (let’s see the Bejing stadium do that!)

  At only 1½ inches in diameter, the size is pretty close to that of a Kennedy Half Dollar.  In fact, it would take about $8.50 worth of “two bits” to stack up to the 1 ¼ inch height.  Further considering that it would take about a penny and a half to equal the average body weight of female ruby throat, it is best to conclude that both the nest and the bird are a truly priceless sight.

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