Letter from the Lake. It’s another Summer of Love up at Wrighter Lake, a small body of water in the middle of nowhere in the Endless Mountains between Scranton, PA, and Binghamton, NY.
Last time it was the robins, who early in the season built a nest on top of an exterior light fixture in a sheltered alcove next to our main entrance. Mother and father robin ruled that roost as they sat on three or four eggs and soon enough an equal number of chicks. Having once caused a nest of fledgling swallows to panic and leap out of the nest and end up defenseless creatures in the great outdoors of northeastern Pennsylvania, I was resolved not to let that horrific event ever happen again. So we avoided the front door for several weeks, until finally the birds flew off. It was inconvenient for us, but we figured the birds, having gotten this far, had an inarguable right to life.
Once the birds were gone, I scraped the nest from the top of the light, and placed a pyramid-shaped stone, weighing at least a pound, squarely on the top of the light fixture. A little family planning for the robin family. We came back to the cottage a few weeks later. The rock had somehow been nudged to the side; the nest had been rebuilt. Another three or four eggs — robin’s egg blue — were cradled in the nest. These biological urges can move mountains, or at least fist-sized rocks. Yet again we gave up use of the front door. Mom and dad robins need all the support we can give them when they are raising a new brood.
This time when the robins finally flew we covered over the light with a piece of wood siding attached to the side of the house at a 45-degree angle to the light — a slippery slope for any creature.
This year we returned to the lake and soon spotted another robin’s nest. But this time it was high up in a tree, far from any possible unnatural human intervention.
A few weeks later, with the robins still busy high above, I took a stroll down to the dock after a summer rain. The water had weighted down the leaves and the limbs, causing the leaves of one low-lying branch to scrape my head as I walked out onto the dock. Time to play arborist. I grabbed the lowest limb, not much more than a twig, really, in its heft, and pulled it down from its juncture with the larger limb above it. By clipping off the branch at that point, the main limb would have a lighter load and rise up a few inches, enough to let me pass comfortably underneath as I walked out onto the dock.
But as I pulled the branch down, I noticed a little growth three or four feet out on the limb that I was about to cut off. The growth was about the size of a golf ball, speckled green in color, with a lichen-like character to it. Some kind of fungus, I thought, was attacking the tree, which provided a welcome amount of shade to the dock on the hottest days of summer. All the more reason to remove this limb.
I yanked it lower yet and finally was able to get a bird’s eye view of the growth. Oh s – – -. There in the concave inside of the “growth” was a single solitary pearl white, jelly-bean sized egg. Over the course of the next few hours we kept our distance from the dock and eventually observed a flitting creature hovering in the vicinity. Could that be a dragon fly?
No. Welcome to Parenting 101, the hummingbird chapter.
While we have seen hummingbirds often in this area, nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, the fact is that I can’t recall ever seeing a hummingbird at rest. I can say with greater certainty that I have never before seen a nest — or if I did I didn’t realize it.
So I had to learn about the birds and the bees — specifically hummingbirds and their reproduction biology. The hummingbirds are practically perpetual motion machines, flapping their wings at 70 beats per second or so. When they sleep they essentially hibernate.
I wondered how these whirling dervishes ever sit still long enough to, well, do what birds and bees are supposed to do. The Internet has videos, of course, of the male wildly gyrating in front of a seemingly very unimpressed female. Following that little dance there’s some rolling in the hay — literally, in one video I saw — and then a frantic amount of thrusting by the male. Frantic and fast — it’s all over in four or five seconds. And literally all over. With that grand gesture the male flies off, never to return. All further nest building and parenting are the sole responsibility of the mother. We all preach family values, but in some cases there is no family to hear the sermon. At this point at the cottage, the hummingbird family is the mom and — so far — one egg.
Our nest, I realized from my Internet research, is a classic hummingbird model built out of material like moss, lichen, plant down, feathers, and even spider silk. But it doesn’t fit the classic mold in one important way. It’s right at head level for anyone walking out onto our dock. Fooled by our absence from the cottage for a more than a week, our hummingbird — lacking any better information — made a bad choice. Only my second look at that low-lying branch kept me from snipping it off, dashing any hope for our hummingbird’s current brood.
But even that moment of intrusion could be a pivotal moment for this mother hummingbird’s reproductive cycle. The sight of a monstrous human figure man-handling her nest might lead her to conclude that her chosen location is inherently insecure. Having no reason to believe otherwise, our mother hummingbird could simply abandon the nest, hoping to preserve her own life so that she can start the process all over again, from a better and more secure place.
The next day we checked the tiny nest again, this time using binoculars so that we didn’t get closer than 30 feet or so from the nest. For a few minutes at a time we saw the tiny mother at rest on the nest. A little later I walked back to the edge of the dock, determined that mom hummingbird was not there, and reached above the nest to take a quick photo. There was no longer one small jelly bean-sized egg in there. Now there were two.
Good news for the hummingbird family — and for those of us hoping to see some baby hummingbirds to keep the hummingbird family active around the lake.
Once again we broke camp at the lake and headed back to the urbanity of central New Jersey. We will be headed back up in a few days. Our hope is that the hummingbird now feels confident enough about her nest and its surroundings that she will not desert her two unhatched eggs in that tiny nest. But we know that our idyllic hope carries with it a practical obligation: If that’s her choice it means that we will have to provide some support. The two chicks will need to occupy that nest barely six feet above our dock for 40 days or so. The casual walk out on the dock will have to be considered carefully, lest we frighten mom away from the nest, or — worse yet — spook the chicks and send them into a panic that causes them to flop out of the nest. We will try to warn visitors arriving by kayak or canoe from across the lake to tread carefully across our dock. My plan to seal the wooden deck with preservative will have to wait a month or so. It will be a long summer.
But if that’s how the life cycle plays out, we will not complain. We will know that the mother hummingbird will do not what any one of us forces her to do or thinks she ought to do. Rather she will do what she believes is the best course of action for her and her family. It will be her choice.