These Delicate Warriors by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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In ornithological circles (picture a hovering flock of ladies and gents in hiking boots and funny hats with binoculars dangling from their necks), they’re known as Trochilidae. To the good folk down in Costa Rica (my wife and I have just returned from that beautiful country), they’re called colibri. But here in the cold, cold north, we refer to them by that most wonderful of onomatopoeic names: hummingbirds.

Every morning down in Costa Rica, I would rise early, take my coffee out on to the balcony, and quietly settle in. I didn’t have to wait long: there were two feeders suspended in front of me and they were busier than The Freeze on a warm Saturday night in June. First one bird would flit in, then another: different species but always the same routine—circle, hover, sip, disappear, and repeat. I’m a very novice birdwatcher, but even I could see that there were important lessons to be learned here…

Hummingbirds are tropical, but over the eons, they’ve expanded their feeding range and are now migratory—just like some of us. Believe it or not, hummingbirds are carnivores: they only take on nectar from flowers or feeders so they have plenty of fuel to catch what they really want to devour: insects! (They head to Central America in winter not because they like warm weather, but because that’s where the insects are.) There’s good evidence to suggest that hummingbirds are solitary creatures—they are very territorial and don’t travel in flocks, each tiny bird instinctively following its own well-worn path on the north-south flyway and on a specific schedule to boot, returning to its northern-most feeding location at about the same time every year, sometimes on the exact same day. (Maybe some of our air carriers could learn a thing or two from hummingbirds!)

Hummingbird migration is spread over a three-month period which lessens the potential impact of an any catastrophic weather event. Males leave the southern climes first, females follow about 10 days later. Hummingbirds travel at night—up to 500 miles between dusk and dawn. Heading north from Central America, they don’t cross the Gulf of Mexico, but follow the coastline up through the Yucatan and across the US border in Texas, usually around the first week in March. (Insert ‘wall joke’ here.) Before departure, each bird will have doubled its weight from just over 3 grams to more than 6 grams, but by the time they reach the US mainland, they’re back down to a slim/trim 2.5 grams. That’s the result of a lot of good cardio work: hummingbirds have a heart rate as high as 1,200 beats/minute and a breath rate of 250 breaths/minute. Their wings beat at more than 50 times per second!

Once in North America, the migration slows to no more than 20 miles a day and follows the blooming of the flowers the little critters most prefer. If you’re on the lookout for first arrivals now, you’ll have to wait until the very end of March or the first week of April before the vanguard begins to move up the Delmarva.

This ornithological science is all well and good, but there’s ample metaphorical value to these tiny and beautiful creatures as well. A friend of mine recently opined about the hummingbird’s unique ability to appear perfectly still even though they are in constant motion. Moreover, despite all they may lack in size, these not-so-fragile creatures—these delicate warriors—undertake an inspiring life journey that makes our own human journeys pale in comparison. That’s good nectar for thought.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

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