Humble Hummingbirds : Miniature perfection

PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG The only species of hummingbird for the eastern one-half of North America is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Observing them at a feeding station is to watch poetry in motion as they hover so effortlessly at just the right place in space. The ability to make in-flight changes to fly forward, backward and hover appears instantaneous to the eyes. It could be because the wings beat can exceed 50 times per second. The reddish iridescent throat feathers of a male can be adjusted by the bird at its will, going from almost white to dark or into a flashy red. Light rays striking the throat feathers at just the correct angle allow a prism-like effect to make a red glow.

RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS are a very common bird. At feeding stations or wildflower gardens with nectar bearing blossoms, this bird hardly bigger than a butterfly goes about its business of living to support a new generation of hummers to hatch later this summer. Flowers with a tube-like base such as trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, honeysuckle, jewelweed, bee-balm, red buckeye and red morning glory will suffice. Tree sap is also on the menu. Insects can be captured in mid air or the bird will extract insects from spider webs. Insect menu is extensive with mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, small bees and even spiders. Aphids and small caterpillars may get plucked from leaves.

Backyard hummingbird feeder containers should be filled about every other day with fresh sugar water. Use one-fourth cup of sugar dissolved in one cup of water. As really hot weather this summer descends upon us, change the water daily. Wash the feeder apparatus frequently, in part to avoid ants and to prevent any unwanted germ development.

Partners in Flight surveys all breeding birds. They estimate ruby-throat numbers to be about 20 million. This isn’t too bad for a little bird that hatches from an egg only one-half inch long that weighs only about half a gram, or less than one-fiftieth of one ounce. Once hatched, the young birds will learn feeding techniques from the parents so that by fall season, they can make a journey of a life time across the Gulf of Mexico to winter in Central America.

In today’s image of the bird hovering at the feeder, camera shutter speed captured a stationary bird while its wings were in a total blur of action. What is amazing is how those super tiny muscles of the wing structure can manipulate, contract and expand in perfect order to rotate the wing shoulder mechanism with precision. The bird does not have to think about it. Flying is as natural to this bird as breathing. Hurray for Mother Nature’s awesome example of miniature perfection.

Another miniature super flyer, not a bird this time, but an insect with four wings. DRAGONFLIES can be observed along pond and lake edges, gardens, road ditches or wetland marsh habitats. Dragonflies, like hummingbirds, can hover, move side-to-side or backwards at an instant. Catching them in a butterfly net is possible but easier said than done. Sometimes the dragonflies and the cousin — damselflies — are equated to little helicopters because of the ability to hover.

Huge compound eyes allow dragonflies to observe the world in a range of 360 degrees. Not much will escape their view. Birds may try to capture them in flight, a big trick in itself because of the tremendous ability to move quickly. This dodge and weave flight pattern keeps predators and prey on guard. Flying upside down is also possible.

To photograph dragonflies, a trick of the trade is to carefully inspect wetland habitat edge vegetation during early mornings before sunrise while cool air is still present and heavy dew has made everything wet. Dragonflies have not yet warmed with the sun and may be found perched on vegetation. Obtaining great dragonfly images means the photographer is likely to get very wet themselves while ensuring the camera stays dry at all times. A lot of effort is needed to be successful on such a photo journey.

Dragonflies have been around for a long long time. Fossilized molds of ancient dragonflies with wingspans up to 30 inches have been found in rock strata dating back to 290 million years. A rock from Oklahoma was discovered in 1940 by a collector who knew they had something special. A time capsule of history in hand.

While those giant dragonflies were roaming the airwaves along with other land and air creatures of the time, insect prey to feed these giant dragonflies must also have been proportionally quite large. Over eons of time, dragonfly species have adapted to almost every climate except Antarctica. The earth may have about 3,000 species of dragonflies in all continents going about their business of ecological insect population control.

WILD TURKEYS taken this spring by hunters in Iowa came in with a high number this spring. Over 14,600 birds were reported by mandatory harvest reporting from hunters. This is a big increase from the previous record of 2016 with 12,173 tom turkeys. Iowa’s spring gobbler season ended May 17. Right now new nests in secluded places chosen by hen turkeys will have little poults popping out of eggs next month, replacing the population back to normal carrying capacity. Marshall County turkey hunters reported 113. The highest county count was from Clayton with 5,343. The low count turkey county was Osceola with just one tom turkey.

IOWA RIVER water levels are not too high and not too low. Depending upon new rainfall events this weekend, it appears that boat and canoe launching sites at local county parks will be ready for three day weekend campers and paddlers who want to get outside over Memorial Day weekend. The Iowa River did respond to last weeks rains with an increase of about 2.5 feet. That level is now slowly dropping. Paddlers of canoes and/or kayaks need to always play it safe by wearing life jackets. And do plan ahead for the length of time you want to be on the water. If you are not a seasoned paddler, make the first outing short enough to not overdo your allotted time. Always let family or friends know of put in locations and time and estimated take out times downstream.

HUNTER SAFETY CLASSES have, out of necessity, temporarily gone to on-line classes. Until further notice, due to concerns about Wuhan virus infections, large gatherings of people in traditional classroom settings is on hold. Therefore the normal May traditional classroom setting held at the Izaak Walton League had to be put off. The August class remains in the plans…but time will tell if it will be held. Stay tuned.

During 2019, 9,767 students were certified through hunter education courses. Fifteen percent (1,462) chose the online/field day option, 40 percent ( 3,895) completed the Adult (over age 18) online course, and 45 percent (4,410) completed a traditional classroom based course.

“The world, unfortunately, rarely matches our hopes and consistently refuses to behave in a reasonable manner.”

— Stephan Jay Gould, biologist and writer

Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. He is a gradute of Iowa State University with a BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology.

Contact him at:

P.O. Box 96

Albion, IA 50005


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