the hummingbirds left this week

hummingbird in hydrangeas (C) CJS (Courtesy of J.E.Schoppee)

I’ve enjoyed their show all summer. And I will miss them.

It doesn’t seem like much, in a year of extremes, but the hummingbirds are the most exciting avians in our little subtropical microcosm. They are nature’s flying aces. I have cultivated their company. I’d even like to believe a couple of them buzz me on purpose. They eat well in our yard, but they’re worth it.

You would think that we would be warm enough for them for the winter. We’re two hours north of the Florida border, on the coast. We don’t get very cold, and rarely for very long.

But evidently hummingbirds are hardwired to fly to their Central American and Yucatan vacation spots for the winter. More flowers there in January.

The pint-sized buzzing machines who barely land to eat, eat mostly liquid, and can’t weigh more than an ounce or two – fly to Central America.

It’s hard to even imagine.

I knew they were getting ready. There were more of them. And different ones from our usual crew. I upped the ante on the vitamin-enriched food, because the angle of the light told me the time was coming. There are still plenty of red flowers in our yard. And the days are still in the low to mid 80s. But the angle of the light says “fall.”

Evidently, the little dynamos need 25% to 40% extra body weight to make their 500 mile trip across the Gulf of Mexico…..think about that. 500 miles. That’s a long day’s drive, in a car….they are flying, with those little wings beating so fast you can’t see them, the whole time.

It seems they do occasionally stop to rest on the oil platforms in the Gulf. Take that tree huggers! Oil platforms are saving hummingbirds! Oh, and according to the experts, they do not fly in flocks. They are loners. Imagine. Just a single bird flying 500 miles for the flowers. Even when I crisscrossed the country in my Econoline, I was sitting down and listening to books. Alone and flapping your wings….500 miles…hummingbirds.

22 million years ago, they made it to South America from Asia, and have been working their way north ever since. But the winters (except for some really robust birds on the Outer Banks) are generally too cold for them to find natural food sources. So, the migration.

Twice a year. One article I read said they pretty much eat all winter, getting fat enough to return in the spring.

On my end, it’s a little sad to see them gone. They’re amazing to watch, exciting to see up close, astonishing in their level of activity. (Though my husband and I both like to see them in the live oak, at rest – you get extra points if you can spot one without seeing it fly to the branch.

Last week I stepped out the door in my red hoodie and one of them inspected me at close range. He hovered off my left shoulder for a few long seconds — and I still couldn’t see his wings. Just a blur.

But, no more exciting hummingbird encounters for a few months. If they think red hoodies are food, it’s time for them to fly south. They know the pattern of their lives in their genetic memory.

But, it means that winter is up ahead.

With a year like this one has been, we’ll probably have a roaring blizzard in the Lowcountry. Nothing would surprise me. An El Nino is in play,though, so the blizzard, at least, is unlikely. El Nino is a wind and wave pattern. There is a La Nina too. Many weather patterns were only identified in the 20th century, when we could look at the earth “from away.” But the patterns existed before we saw them, or named them. For millenia. Though, patterns can be changed by weather, too.

We were talking about hurricane cycles this week, because it seems like the Gulf states are getting more than they deserve this year. But other years, all the storms run up the east coast of Florida into the Carolinas. Sometimes all the storms swing in off Cuba and go up the west coast of Florida. This year was Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and the FL panhandle’s turn.


Nature always has patterns. The angle of the earth as it turns throughout the year is a pattern. The resulting cool or heat. We respond to patterns instinctively, too. And we’re no more aware of it than the birds. We turn towards the light.

The sun is the source of most natural earth patterns. It’s no wonder it was considered “god.” Everything revolves around it. Imagine what would it would have felt like to live in the year of the Tambora volcanic eruption, and imagine there was no internet to find out what was happening. There wasn’t. 1816 became “the year with no summer,” and many people at the time never knew why.

Tambora, we now know, threw ash up into the stratosphere. You can read a fascinating article about it here.

That year, it was too cold to grow crops in northern hemispheres in the summer. John Irving wrote about it in “Cider House Rules.” It also affected the climate. Scientists believe it raised the global temperature a degree or two for the next several years.

how sunshine works (C) Carol Joy Shannon 2019

Then, a little later in the 19th century, another Indonesian volcano erupted which affected the global weather. Though not as large as Tambora, Krakatoa changed the light in London.

According to an article on the History Channel, “Writing from England, poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described skies of green, blue, gold and purple, “… more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets … the glow is intense; that is what strikes everyone; it has prolonged the daylight, and optically changed the season; it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire.” That was written in November, when the ash from the eruption in August made it to the northern climes.

An interesting sidebar to Krakatoa is that evidently it affected the writings of the poets Shelley and Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron, all of whom were forced inside by the relentless rain in Italy — and so gave us Frankenstein, and other dark musings. So Krakatoa is still affecting us.

Patterns are much more evident the longer you live. In fact, the repetitive aspect of life on earth is probably the source of “mid-life crises.” LOL. At mid-life, you realize how little weight you bear in those patterns. But you can also more easily understand how they work, and use them to your benefit. Like the birds. See the angle, make the move.

Birds and plants all recognize the pattern in the angle of the sun. One year in Tuscany we planted part of an acre of sunflowers very late. They didn’t bother to grow as tall as the others. They put out the same size flower on a half size stem. Heliotrops. Sunflowers actually turn toward the sun, but in that case the plant sensed the angle of the sun and did the short version. Vegetables in Alaska grow huge in a short span of time containing very long days. Same thing.

Over the last 22 million years, hummingbirds have been developing their patterns. I am delighted to be their neighborhood food source during the summer, and equally delighted to be on the flight pattern south. I’ll take their departure as the notice to begin for the winter pattern. I’ll move the tropicals under the porch roof soon. Then inside. We’ll have 4 months of the sun giving us the side-eye, and then the reverse pattern will begin.

In 2020, the hummingbirds returned to my yard on March 28. I’ll keep you posted.

About Carol Joy Shannon

A former sailor of the seven seas, living in my beloved Lowcountry, between the blackwater swamps and the saltmarshes, surrounded by pre-revolutionary history.....thinking about current events....painting dinosaurs and other whimsical animals for children, with the occasional abstract or new cityscape for my delightful collectors. The best thing about being a seasoned old salt is sitting down not running around, so...
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