Bringing Up Baby

hummingbird10Photos by Richard Ground

This Spring a hummingbird mother chose to build her nest in a frangipani tree outside our screen porch. By cutting a small hole in the screen I was able to share her ups and downs over the next three weeks as she raised her little family — and what a roller-coaster ride it was!

Her first problem was that the tree was in a pot. It was a big pot, and seemed stable enough, but then a monstrous and unseasonal cold front, five miles high and a thousand long, came roaring down on the tiny family. It brought fierce, gale force winds howling out of the north. The pot did what pots do in such cases. It blew over. This was the day after the young had hatched, which I suppose was lucky, because the eggs would have just rolled out. As it was, the tiny chicks clung on like grim death. They were too young for their eyes to be open, so could not see the peril they were in — their home swaying precariously on its side, a foot above the storm-tossed swimming pool.

That is how I found them when I came home at lunch. I tried to right the pot, but it blew over immediately. Struck by a flash of genius, I watered it to make it heavier. It still blew over. In the end the only thing to do was to take it round to the sheltered side of the house. It was then I regretted watering the pot to make it heavier. However, desperately struggling to hold it upright, I dragged it out of the wind and tied it to a real tree. If you have ever tried tying a knot with your teeth while clinging to a wayward frangipani in a gale, you will understand the difficulty.

But it worked. The mother soon found her relocated young. The new location was much better photographically — a pure coincidence, but an added bonus. Although the nest was only a few feet from the porch, the birds did not seem able to see through the mosquito screening, so I could sit quietly behind it without disturbing them. I was only caught out when the mother flew in through the open door of the porch to have a look. Once in, she could not find her way out, trying desperately to escape through the screen and declining all attempts to usher her politely through the door. In the end, I had to catch her and throw her out, but even that did not seem to give the game away or disturb her calm on the nest.

And so I settled in to supervise the family upbringing. I did have criticisms of the way she tended her brood — she was altogether too skittish, and stayed away too long. My wife said I was like an interfering mother-in-law. But despite the mother’s inadequacies, she brought them a feed of nectar every 15 minutes or so throughout the day and the two chicks grew astonishingly fast, feathers sprouting almost before my eyes. Two weeks after the storm, the tiny cup-shaped nest was too small for both of them and they continually fussed and battled each other for space. They also bullied their mother for food, gaping at her to display the bright yellow lining of their mouths, in the hope of stimulating her feeding instincts.

hummingbird18At this critical stage we had three days of torrential rain, again wholly unseasonal. Rain is always welcome in Grand Turk, which is really a desert island, but my poor babies! Of course I expected the mother to shelter them with her own body, bravely sitting over them in the worst of the downpour, but she would have none of it. She went and sat in the shelter of a nearby tree. They were going to have to learn the hard way that the world is a cold and unforgiving place. But the truth was that they were by now just too big for the nest, and she could not fit on top of them if she tried. Indeed, she often tried, and they would buck her off, as they exercised their pathetic little wings.

Then the sun came out, the rain had gone, and it was a bright day. All was well until the larger of the two, while exercising those pathetic little wings, unexpectedly rose into the air like a large bumble bee, and was gone. Panic! The mother was on its tail, twittering furiously, but whether she was saying “Get back into bed this instant!” or “Go for it!” I could not tell, but she had no business letting it blunder around the garden at its age. Eventually the baby bird settled on one of the ropes holding up the tree, and everything calmed down. A little later, it moved into the dense shade of a nearby tree, crying out plaintively to be fed and the mother responded, hovering in front of it and squirting nectar into its gaping mouth.

hummingbird19So all was well. The mother continued to feed the prodigal son, while its stay-at-home sibling seemed to enjoy having more space in the nest, and remained there on its own for a further two days. It obviously lacked the adventurous instincts of its sibling, and I thought it would never go. “Must be a girl,” I said to my wife. (Not wise, although she is now speaking to me again.) And one sunny morning, three weeks after it had hatched, the little bird too was gone. I am afraid I was relieved as it had been very inconvenient not being able to go out the back door for fear of startling it into the air before its time. We had guests coming for lunch, and they would have thought it weird if they had to eat in the kitchen, and talk in whispers.

I never saw the little family again. They moved out of the tree and off into the bush. There the mother would continue to feed them until they could fend for themselves, but that would be beyond the reach of my prying lens.

The hummingbird featured in this piece is the Bahama Woodstar (Calliphlox evelynae). It is the only hummingbird which occurs in the Turks & Caicos Islands and is endemic — in other words unique — to the Bahamas chain. The female is a bit drab, but the male sports an iridescent purple throat.

The male is a philanderer — he will guard a patch of nectar-rich flowers, only allowing females to feed from them if they will mate with him. He then shows no further interest in them, leaving them to build the nest and rear the young entirely on their own.

The female builds her cup-shaped nest out of plant fragments and spider’s silk, cementing it all together with her own saliva. In it she lays two white eggs. These hatch after about two weeks, and it takes a further three weeks to raise the young to a size where they can leave the nest.

When not serving as Chief Justice of the Turks & Caicos Islands, Richard Ground enjoys photographing the country’s natural wonders. His most recent book, The Birds of the Turks & Caicos Islands, is a spectacular 96 page, full-colour compilation of his work, the photos accompanied by fascinating natural history facts. For ordering information, contact the Turks & Caicos National Trust at Tel: (649) 941-5710; Fax: (649) 941-4258; or E-mail: tcnattrust@tciway.tc.

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