Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Birds and Bees

One of the bonuses of having lots of wildflowers in the yards is that we also see a lot of wildlife here in the middle of the suburbs. Birds and bees especially love the flow of nectar and pollen.

Last night we became host to a swarm of honeybees who decided to set up camp in the mesquite tree in our front yard. This morning they have been bulking up on pollen and nectar from the well-stocked pantry of our garden, as well as sweet acacia and orange trees that are in full bloom all over the neighborhood. Now it is noon, and they are still balled up on the branch, bustling and humming and probably freaking anyone out who might notice. I have assured one neighbor that there is no need to call an exterminator ("Please don't!") because the bees will eventually move on to establish a hive in a more protected location.

In the back yard, we've been keeping tabs on a Costa's hummingbird nest that was built in our hop bush by the pool. Hummingbird mamas are the ultimate single parents, building the nest, brooding the eggs, and feeding the young all by herself, while dad galavants around mating with multiple partners.

Male Costa's Hummingbird, Photo by Richard Halliburton

A month ago, we found two white, jellybean sized eggs safely tucked away in the teeny nest. Mama bird spent hours sitting through rain, wind, hail to protect them. After about two weeks the eggs hatched and two gray featherless nestlings lay helpless but warm in the insulated cup of down, leaves and spider webbing. One resource says that combined with the warmth of the roosting mama, the temperatures inside a hummingbird nest can be up to 40 degrees F higher than the ambient temperature! That's a good thing, because many nights cooled down into the 30's over the past month.

Every morning after a storm, I would search anxiously for the mom, hoping she had survived the night, because if she didn't, there is no way those chicks would make it another day. And every day, she would buzz over to her regular perch on top on an acacia, survey the area and swoop in to feed the kids. Her nest site selection instincts are amazing. Even when the wind is howling and rains drenching, that little nest hardly moves and stays dry from leaves overhead.

Now the two chicks are bright eyed and feathered, keeping each other company day and night, since mom only visits to regurgitate a little food now and then. She very likely has a second nest brewing babies elsewhere, as hummingbirds are known to maintain two broods at a time when there is an ample food supply. She seems to have marked my garden as her territory, which is overflowing with penstemons, phacelias, fairy duster, acacia and a potted aloe as a bonus. Lots of little bugs too. I've noticed a male visiting frequently as well, presumably her mate.

Any day now, I expect that some synapse in the chick's little nervous systems will pop, signaling them to perch on the edge of the nest and fly. For now, they wait patiently for another meal from mom, stretching their pin-feathered wings now and then, and depositing fecal sacs all around the rim of the nest. When the urge to fly and sip nectar on their own emerges, I'll have to worry about the other local wildlife: feral cats. Not to mention my own two pet kitties. I'm just hoping that natural selection has somehow worked its magical ways so that the instinct to avoid felines is as deeply embedded as excellent nest site selection!