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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hummers fly north on a wing and a prayer

Well before the magnolias burst into bloom, months before daylilies splash their colors across our gardens, the first harbingers of spring touch down on Long Island, miracles on the wing known as ruby-throated hummingbirds.

As part of their migration, they fly nonstop more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. They double their weight before the 22-hour journey over water, from their usual 3 grams to more than 6 grams; they arrive depleted, nearly starved and dying of thirst. Many start the grueling journey north from Central America or Panama in January or February, arriving at their northern destinations by mid-May. They do this every year of their lives, beginning the return trip south in late July or early August.

The males fly first, followed a few weeks later by the females. Each bird has its own internal map and schedule. Often a bird returns to exactly the same garden or place it hatched, even visiting the same feeders.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, members of the Trochilidae family, are the only variety that lives east of the Mississippi, according to the Audubon Society.

We on Long Island are home to the tiny birds through late spring and early summer, and we may see them dipping and diving around brightly colored red, orange and deep pink impatiens, bleeding heart and lilies. Hummingbirds drink nectar to fuel their flight but they are carnivores; their protein comes from spiders and other small insects. They fly as far north as Canada and southern Alaska. People who want to attract hummingbirds to their gardens can use a feeder filled with four parts water to one part sugar, boiled and then cooled. This easy preparation works as well as any store-bought hummingbird food.

I am fascinated by hummingbirds — by their delicate beauty, fragility and dazzling dance around the garden, flashing iridescent green and blue markings. Robins and cardinals are impressive in the flower patch, but hummingbirds are extraordinary — kaleidoscopes on the wing. They beat their wings up to 200 times per second, and can fly at speeds approaching 35 mph. Flying up, down, sideways and upside down, they do make one wonder at the diversity of nature and the preciousness of each species.

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