Incredible — yet there he was! I eased the front door open and stealthily made my way to take a seat at the iron table on the front porch. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched on the nectar feeder taking in long swills of the sugar water. The rest of his kind had long since departed, back in early October. How so that this little guy was still here after great and hoary frosts had settled on the pastures? My mind began to conjure up reasons. Had he been injured and unable to depart with the others? Had he been trapped in a Walmart or Lowe’s and finally found an opening to escape?
He seemed a bit thin compared to the recently departed, but with no other tiny bodies to compare, perhaps not. Certainly his red throat patch was as scarlet and his emerald shoulders as iridescent as the others. He drank mightily, draught after draught; surely he must be full, yet still remained there on the feeder.
It was the 10th day of November. I had been meaning to take my feeders down, drain and store them for the winter. Thank goodness I hadn’t gotten around to it, because it was a huge energy boost for the tardy bird. I was now sure that an epic moment was at hand. In all my years of feeding hummingbirds, their numbers gradually thinned as the weather cooled, and then one day, there were none. Never before had I been sure that I was, indeed, looking at the last Ruby-throat, the lone harbinger of frosty morns, icy windshields, and shaggy winter coats on my horses. His departure would strike a chord upon the harp of time that reverberated across the hill and pasture below, a single instant that signaled that another summer of my life was gone forever.
I wished I could have coaxed him to stay, let him come in out of the chill, fixed him a feeder by the fireplace where he could drink to his heart’s content without having to soldier up in the daily Hummingbird Wars at every feeder. He could roost atop a lamp or maybe up in a corner of my closet, his tiny droppings so minuscule as to be negligible, especially in my closet, which resembles an Armenian sheep-herder camp. How silly and childlike a thought to come from one as old as I, and yet it came, so maybe I wasn’t yet an insensate ogre, incapable of such emotions. I was grateful for that.
Still, he prolonged his passage, and still, I sat mesmerized.
Now, as if premonitory, his tiny head lifted slowly to the heavens, and again I was left to wonder, was he gathering his strength and envisioning the mighty journey he must undertake? I winged a prayer to the patron saint of migration. (Surely we have one of those. We have them for everything else.) Please protect and preserve this little guy from all that beset such tiny feathered aircraft. Still the ritual: He lowered his head, fluffed his feathers, and shook himself, not unlike a cleanup hitter in a tight baseball game before he steps to the plate with ducks on the pond. Again, he was still. No need for my cellphone to ring. I could not waiver from my rapture.
Want to learn more about birds? Subscribe today to BirdWatching magazine!
Now, the epic moment. He lifted off slowly, vertically, several inches, now a foot, now 2 and 3 feet. He hovered there for another couple of seconds, then peeled off in a blur of tiny wings, across the yard, picket fence, and pasture beyond. My eyes strained not to lose him, even as he became just a dot, zipping over the blue water of the lake below and then disappearing. Yet in my mind’s eye, I followed him across the pasture on the far side of the lake and ascending just high enough to clear the young and fragrant pines a quarter-mile distant.
I wondered what altitude he chose for his journey. The young pines were perhaps only 25 feet high, but at the far side of the 40 piney acres lay Catalpa Creek, with massive cottonwoods lining both banks. I have read that hummers fly as high as 500 feet during migration. It is a question I could never answer, but I chose to picture him zigzagging through the taller timber and then beelining over the meadows and wood lots beyond, fuel tank full, navigation activated, throttle full forward, as the Mississippi countryside spewed out behind his tiny but powerful and tireless propellers.
I sat for a long moment in a quiet reverie. A deep melancholy and lonely feeling consumed me. I looked back to the feeders that I’m somehow sure were now abandoned by all of his kind for the year. Just a tiny bundle of glistening red and green feathers hurtling away, yet taking with him the warm summer breeze, the fragrance of flowers, the coo of the Mourning Dove, the smell of clover blooming in the pasture, and closing the book on another chapter of my life.
Godspeed little friend, and please, please may one of the scores of scarlet- throated, emerald-shouldered, ravenous, and tiny darts that arrive at these feeders next April be you.
This article was first published in the November/December 2019 issue of BirdWatching with the headline “The Last Ruby-throat.”