A Tale of Two Hummingbird Nests

Tragedy and triumph in a San Francisco garden
37 Comments

David and I live in the city. We think of our lives as urban. But at night the great horned owl’s resonant call or the howl of coyotes often pierces through the fog. By day, daring ravens chase predator hawks, taunting the larger birds with angry squawks to protect their nests.

On a more gentle note, during the spring we are a grateful audience when the local Anna’s hummingbirds put on a lunchtime display, diving deeply from the top of the redwood next door to our blooming fuchsia. The impressive show is meant to attract a mate. It seems to work. This year I glimpsed two hummingbirds hooking up on a branch of the apple tree just before the buds burst open.

One morning a few weeks later David called me to the living room window. “I think a hummingbird is building a nest.” Sure enough, a hummingbird had laid down a circle of bright green moss about two inches wide. Even at that beginning stage it looked cozy.

Hummingbird with green back and wings outstretched hovering over nest with egg inside_

Before we could get the camera out, she had built up the sides with tiny twigs, lichen, more moss and strands of spider web to glue it all together with strength and elasticity. Elasticity? I had to think about it for a minute. But the nest needs to shelter the jelly-bean size eggs as well as almost full-size baby birds. It’s one of nature’s miracles of construction.

White hummingbird egg in the middle of a tiny nest of moss, lichen and strands of spider webs surrounded by bright green leaves

We were excited, but nervous. It had been nine years since we were treated to a front-row seat as a mama hummingbird tended her tiny flock. The first time didn’t turn out well.

2013 hummingbird meditations

A mama hummingbird was nesting right in front of my living room window. If I reached out the window I could almost touch her. Well, not quite. But it’s the closest I’ve ever come to a mama bird and her brood. For more than a week I sat and watched. Breathing quietly and watching. Waiting and watching.

My nest, my living room sofa, gave me a front row view of her nest. Barely bigger than Thumbelina’s walnut-shell cradle, the twig, lichen and moss nest sat on the wide spot of a branch of my ornamental pear tree. Mom sat right in front of me, so close the iridescent green markings on her head and back shimmered in the dappled light. She was the first thing I looked at in the morning and the last thing I noticed before evening light gave way to darkness. As addictions go, watching a hummingbird is a mild one, but make no mistake, watching her was addictive.

Mama hummingbird sitting on nest of moss and lichen with wings stretched back around her tail _

I synchronized my breathing to the rise and fall of her chest – slower than I expected from a hummingbird. I noticed the patterns of wind in the bright shiny leaves that sheltered her. I felt a calm I attributed to her as she sat quietly, bravely facing March-like winds on blustery April days. As her buffeted branch pitched in the wind, she rode her bouncing nest as if it were a bucking bronco and she was a rodeo star.

When I tried to get a look into the nest, at first all I could see was a ball of fluff – really two balls of fluff – barely the size and integrity of small dust bunnies. It looked like they could float away like dandelion puffs on the gentlest breeze.

Baby-hummingbirds-as-balls-of-fluff-no-bigger-than-a-dust-bunny-inside-their-nest-while-mama-bird-is-away.

When mama was there, she sat and sat as if on a Zen retreat. Then she started to feed her chicks, directing her long beak toward two bright orange targets poking up from the nest. Easy to find, the babies’ mouths looked like mini megaphones, though they made no sounds, no peeps.

Baby hummingbirds just beginning to have feathers, orange beaks pointing up from nest

Over days the babies’ fluffy gray down darkened and morphed into feathers in a real-life time lapse. Their tiny heads poked out, beaks upraised so mom could find them. One day a tiny wing unfolded itself and stretched beyond the confines of the nest. Suddenly the diminutive nest looked awfully crowded.

As the babies grew, mom spent more and more time away. The quiet days of sitting gave way to scouting the neighborhood for food. Sitting away from the nest on nearby phone wires or tree branches, she watched, scanning for danger. She warned away the dark-headed chickadee and redheaded house finch that dared to land in her tree.

Mama feeding baby hummingbirds, orange beaks pointing up from nest ready to eat

It didn’t take long for the babies to sit up and look around, beaks up and ready when mama came back. Before arriving at the nest, she hovered, surveying the scene. She seemed more jumpy, more restless, more alert. Leaving the nest she would lift straight up like a helicopter, then zig and zag until she cleared the tree as she headed out for food.

Watching, I often felt like a voyeur, stalking my neighbor’s apartment like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. My tool of choice, like his, was my telephoto lens.

Or was I more like Jane Goodall or Diane Fossey? My field notes were casual at best, my understanding of hummingbird behavior confined to one sample over a few days. I was, however, able to try “wildlife” photography from the comfort of my living room. The challenge: to catch mama landing or feeding the chicks. I became attuned to her coming and going. I noticed her shadow on the driveway as she approached. When I was lucky, I started the video in time to catch her sticking her landing like an Olympic gymnast.

I was mesmerized. I couldn’t leave. I wanted to see the chicks take the bird equivalent of a baby’s first steps. I was primed to see them fledge and start to fly.

Tragedy

But it was not to be. My private hummingbird show took a dark turn just as the babies were getting crowded and restless in the nest. I could see their feathers become more distinct. Mama stayed away for longer and longer periods. I didn’t see her that morning nine years ago until it was too late. Taking a casual glance out the window as I walked by, a flash of blue caught my attention. Brazenly the scrub jay swooped between the house and the tree. He landed first on one branch, then hopped to another. I didn’t know whether to bang on the window or grab the camera. I didn’t know whether to be a journalist, researcher or great aunt. It didn’t matter. It was over before I could react. The once teeming nest was as empty as could be, and I felt as sad and empty as the nest.

Empty hummingbird nest with lichen and spider web threads on a branch surrounded by leaves

I wondered what mama would do. Would she know what happened and never come back? Had she abandoned them with her long absences? I didn’t want to look out the window, but couldn’t help myself.

Mama came back later in the morning, zigging in from wire to branch like she always did. She perched on the edge of the nest. Then, as if she didn’t see that the chicks were missing, she aimed her head down, poking the nest over and over again.

Mama hummingbird poking at her empty nest after her babies were snatched by a jay

I tried to imagine what she felt, if anything. Then she settled herself in the bottom of the nest the way she did when they were tiny and began rocking back and forth. Was it the wind, keening, a sense of loss, a way to comfort herself? We’ll never know.

2022 Triumph

It’s been nine long years since we watched our first hummingbird mama. Ever since, I’ve looked at jays as if they were Vladimir Putin.

This year we wanted to be prepared. We set up the tripod so we could stop by and grab a photo whenever there was action in the nest. We noticed that mama’s rhythms and ours were different. The hummingbird show competed with worry about Covid and disastrous news from around the world. We worried as we watched the babies grow. This time we knew that our lives as well as theirs were fragile.

Two young hummingbird siblings shortly before leaving the nest

But the chicks grew strong on their windy perch. Mama #2 seemed to stay away longer than Mama #1. We watched the chicks grow quickly, their down giving way to feathers. The second set of sibs seemed a bit more rambunctious, spreading their wings and nudging each other for space. After playtime they compressed themselves into their tiny abode and napped.

One day we saw one of the babies perch on the ledge of the nest. “They are getting ready to go,” I told David. I had no idea whether they would just fly away to their adult lives or come and go like modern human twenty-somethings.

That night we came home to just one baby bird in the nest. We knew our 2022 hummingbird show was almost over. The next morning we resumed our vigil after dawn, opening the window early to get a good shot. It was like watching a human baby, waiting for that very first step. Would we miss it?

Juvenille hummingbird on the rim, preparing to leave the nest

Luck was with us and our fledging hummingbird. Before breakfast, the tiny ball of fluff we had watched grow into a bird hopped onto the rim of the nest and flew away. Just like that. Mama was nowhere to be seen.

Juvenille hummingbird seconds before it flies off to adulthood

We cheered as we closed the window and put the screen back on. The second act of our bird-watching show ended well.

Empty hummingbird nest after the babies fly off to adult life

Now, when we have lunch in the backyard and a hummingbird flashes by, we wonder if we’re seeing either of the birds that grew up before our eyes. Or maybe the bird in the apple tree is mama. This Mother’s Day we wonder if she remembers the children she brought to life.

We do.

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37 Comments

  1. Beautiful photos and a touching story!

    Reply
    • Thanks Ben. So glad you successfully fledged!

      Reply
    • Ellen,Thank you for your beautiful hummingbird watch. We were also lucky enough to watch a mother bird building her nest and than the little heads peeking out of the eggshell. We also waited anxiously to see them fly away. Unfortunately we missed their flight to freedom. You write so beautifully and your photos could really be in a published book. I think of you often with love.
      Best regards to David and Ben

      Reply
  2. Great article and photos. Perfect for Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day Ellen!

    Reply
    • Thanks Sandy! A little travel without TSA or Covid tests.

      Reply
  3. Even though your foreign stories have been great and beautiful to look at, I think this is my favorite Ellen Newman Hidden In-Site post. I was mesmerized and was cheering those babies on from my “nest” here in Kew Gardens, New York. Brava! So well done.

    Reply
    • Judy, I don’t know whether spring has sprung in NY, but the hummingbirds are delightful companions wherever we are. Thanks for dropping by.

      Reply
      • What a heartwarming tale, and so well told. Great reading!

        Reply
  4. Lovely meditation. The balsnce of life, however, can sometimes be sad at times

    Beautiful images and video.

    Appreciate you sharing this

    Reply
    • Thank you Jim. So glad you enjoyed it.

      Reply
  5. Happy Happy Mother’s Day! Twice we were also lucky enough to watch this same spring rite of passage unfold on a branch in front of our LA home. Same outcome as you. One successful and one the babies disappeared too soon. Lovely description of our shared experience.

    Reply
    • I love how many people have hummingbird stories. They bring a flash of joy to our lives, which we definitely need right now.

      Reply
  6. A remarkably beautiful noting
    of motherhood in action! The deaths and dyings encountered by the earlier Mother and her acceptance of it with equanimity was as great as the second mother accepting the offsprings fly out to be on their own. Life is what happens, when you may have had other plans!

    Reply
    • Yes indeed. Life is what happens when we make other plans, as we have learned so thoroughly these past two years.

      Reply
      • Or as they say in Yiddish, “Man plans, and God laughs.”

        Reply
  7. We watched a large hummingbird bathe in a tiny forest spring pool on a nature walk in Santa Fe a few years ago. It was pure magic. Your tale was just as special. And the tiny video is amazing. Happy Mother’s Day.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your comment Carolyn. Watching animals do their life is so amazing. A chance for a real time-out.

      Reply
  8. What a wonderful story ! Such an experience of sadness and relief…. And what gorgeous nests they make .

    Reply
    • Thanks Susan. We really did feel relief when we saw this year’s bird fly away. And when we see a hummingbird in the garden there’s no way to know if it was the mom or either of the two babies.

      Reply
  9. Ellen- what a wonderful piece of writing! I agree that though the foreign stories are interesting, there is something so close and yet fascinating in redounding the hummingbirds nesting experiences. Also, I had to read through all the way to the end, rooting for mama #2 and her baby birds! A heartwarming tale with happy ending- my favorite especially these days. I appreciated your reference to Vladimir Putin also. Congratulations!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much Minette. We too were rooting for mama #2 and her young. And yes, today we definitely need happy-ending stories.

      Reply
  10. What a fabulous post and amazing images, thank you!

    Reply
    • Glad you enjoyed the story Andy!

      Reply
  11. What a wonderful story for Mother’s Day! I LOVED the photos. It was such a treat seeing them so up close in the nest. I’ve always wondered what their nests look like.

    Many times it’s heartbreaking to watch nature in play (the Vladimir Putin Jay) but I’m thankful these new little ones made it.

    Reply
    • Watching nature can be a mixed bag of good and sad. The hardest part was watching mama #1 come back expecting to see babies and then poking around, trying to figure it out. Of course, we have no idea what, if anything, they remember. That’s why watching nature is both familiar and mysterious to us.

      Reply
  12. Such vivid writing and great photos. I felt the loss and the joy.
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much Radha … and thanks for subscribing!

      Reply
  13. Happy Mother’s Day, Ellen! Thanks for sharing these touching, book-ended hummingbird stories and the glorious photos! Jays as Vladimir Putin, indeed!

    Reply
    • Thank you Elizabeth. I wrote the middle part of the story…the Hummingbird Meditations…at your wonderful Friday Writers workshops. I’m so happy to have had “the rest of the story” to add this year.

      Reply
  14. Loved this. I felt like I was there, too. Beautiful writing and photos. Something sweet to think about as we try to figure out our world. From the micro to the macro, it’s pretty bleak.

    Reply
    • Thank you Roz. We need to relish the moments of peace and of joy that we find amongst all the bleak parts. It’s necessary for our mental health!

      Reply
  15. Oh, Ellen. I enjoyed this immensely! The photography, story, and your words were pure delight. Thank you for sharing this with us. Isn’t it wonderful what we can see from our windows if we only take the time and patience to look closely? How lucky we your readers are that you do take notice and share so eloquently with us!

    Reply
    • Thank you so much Laurie. It’s a gift to have readers like you and everyone else who commented so generously!

      Reply
  16. Fantastic photos and such evocative writing! There’s an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo called 100 Robin Eggs. They photographed 100 eggs in various nests and kept track of them. According to the plaques and photos of each one, 74 hatched (some nests toppled in wind, some nests were abandoned, some were infertile). Of the hatchlings, 52 became “fledglings” (avoiding early deaths in one ugly form or another) and roughly 10(!) grew to be adults who made more eggs. You have seen some of that range with your own watchful eyes. Wonderful post.

    Reply
    • Robert, thanks so much for your comment. I’d love to see that exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. It sounds delightful, not to mention that they were able to account for what happened to the hatchlings. The two nests were in front of the house, very close to the window, but we see more hummingbirds in the back of the house. But get one to sit still long enough for a picture. Not on your life! We have many blurred tries on the hard drive.

      Reply
  17. Beautifully told and more do with stunning photos. I think you wrote about the hummingbirds in Elizabeth’s group. Remarkable you could witness so much in a hummingbird’s life—they’re always on the move!

    Reply
    • Francie, yes, I wrote about the first nest in Elizabeth’s class. But I hated that the story had an unhappy ending. It was true, but it was kind of discouraging. So I was really happy when we discovered the second nest in the same place. And being around to watch the second bird fly off was a huge bonus!

      Reply

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