Magical Moments and Tiny Nests

May 16, 2018

Credit ricmcarthur / flickr /

This past weekend was Mass Audubon’s annual Bird-a-thon fundraiser, which meant that hordes of birders were scouring every corner of the state in search of birds that would put their team over the top. In hopes of winning the vaunted Brewster Cup, I sent forth birders from the Berkshires to Provincetown.

While this 24-hour birding blitz is a blast, and I would love nothing more than to go on and on about every obscure species we tallied, the thing that I’d like to talk about this week is a seemingly small event that I witnessed in my own backyard.

I spend a lot of my morning getting-ready time staring out my kitchen window. I’m, of course, looking for birds and bugs, but also willing both the garden and wild plants to leaf out and bloom faster and dreaming of what else I’d like to plant. This morning, before I had even managed to start the coffee, I noticed a female hummingbird hovering a few inches off the ground in the narrow strip of woods at the back of my house. Even when she was obscured by a branch, I could tell where she was by the movement of the plants under her whirring wings, like a tiny helicopter was coming in for a landing. What was she up to? 


I had a good guess, and soon enough I confirmed my suspicions – she was gathering spider webs for her nest. Hummingbirds weave their tiny nests from a combination of soft plant fibers and spider webs, then decorate them with bits of lichen. At two inches across, the finished product is exquisitely camouflaged as a lichen-covered knob on the branch and, as you would expect, not easy to find. They are often hidden in plain sight, like the long-since abandoned one I found overhanging the road at Hemenway Landing in Eastham last fall. How many thousands of people had passed unaware beneath that nest last summer?


I could see that my bird was zipping over to a large oak in my neighbor’s yard after each small harvest of spider silk, but I always lost her before I saw exactly where the nest was. I know from experience that hummingbirds like to nest on a downward sloping lower branch, so I’m hopeful that by employing my super birder vision I can find it when I have some time.


It will take her up to a week or more to finish her nest. The males don’t help with any part of nest-building, incubation, or chick rearing – they resume displaying to other females right after mating. She will lay two tiny eggs, and two short weeks later there will be chicks. Another two weeks later, fed on a regurgitated mix of insects and flower nectar, they will already be adult sized, bursting out of their thimble of a nest. At this point they are learning to eat whole, unprocessed insects. The female feeds them for up to a week after fledging, after which they often lose weight while they figure out how to feed themselves.


Like so many things occupying your local wildlife this spring, the nesting of this hummingbird is simultaneously small but profound, totally ordinary but magical. Well, a least I find it magical – I suspect the now-homeless spider that unwittingly provided her building materials sees things differently. And, while hummingbirds have proven resilient, and even thrived under the various environmental insults that suburbanization has wrought upon the landscape, I like to think that by keeping my modest woodland strip, with its three kinds of oaks, huckleberry and blueberry, viburnums and shadbush, and it’s insect-laden leaf litter that feeds the birds year round, that I played a part in this hummingbird choosing to nest here. And I suppose the two feeders full of high-octane sugar water probably didn’t hurt.