Wednesday, June 27, 2012

So Very Sexual, Wholesome and Fulfilling

A shocking magical moment in the woods. Today, June 26, 2012. 

Linda, the Steward of Somme Woods, had enlisted me to help broadcast seeds of wood rush (Luzula multiflora) and to bag seeds of the evil and exotic reed canary grass before they fall.

It started when we paused in awe by a scene neither of us had ever witnessed – a stand of more than thirty Michigan lilies blooming in this open woods. While we admired the plant jewels, an animal gem swept in. The female humming bird paused at each lily to slurp nectar and catch a bug or two before shooting almost faster than the eye could follow to the next flower – to hover below, then above, then try another angle, then move in to drink and eat.

Our first hummer in Somme Woods. But then the whole scene went up for grabs as a male hummingbird joined the nectar party, then launched a spectacular courtship dance. He swooped back and forth – like a feathered roller coaster. His U-shaped flight path took his tiny self from the tree tops, down through the lilies, and back up to the tops again. 

Over and over he careened, back and forth, up and down, filling the entire opening, making this bit of woods a work of art, a happening. He owned it. During the swoop he’d turn his brilliant ruby throat into the sun for iridescent explosions. And sing a metallic song both faster and octaves higher than Charlie Parker.

Then the two hummingbirds vanished, perhaps for love, a nest, two eggs and babies – but even in their absence, our two human hearts and minds continued to swell.

Those lilies and hummingbirds were bursting with life here for a reason – and because of us. Don’t go to the average woods looking for such birds and flowers. Once filling oak woods by the tens of thousands, lilies in recent decades have declined almost to nothing. Invasives have made the woods too dark for them. Though they once nested principally in the open woods, hummingbirds are almost unheard of in tallgrass woodlands these days. Hummingbirds are co-evolved with some of our greatest flowers – mostly red or orange ones – lilies, fire pinks, columbine, wild coffee, cardinal flower, figwort. You don’t see great stands of these in the woods any more for the same reason the oaks are not reproducing. Too dark. The malignancy of invasives -- and lack of fire -- and too many deer had driven out most species of flowers, and grasses, and butterflies, and birds, and so much more.

Thus, our emotions. In this breathtaking performance, we felt gratitude from the forest. This drama meant success. Linda and many volunteers have for decades cut the invasive trees and burned them in bonfires, stamped out the herb invaders, gathered and broadcast the seeds of hundreds of displaced plant species, many of which barely still survive in the region. Here we planted lilies, fire pinks, columbines and all.

With this performance, the woods thanked us for the controlled burns, which helped the fire-adapted species to thrive, and thanked us for fewer deer. Our advocacy supported the deer-control programs that are increasing in the forest preserves. But for most sites, the lilies and hummingbirds are still gone.

I wonder if Somme is the only woods in the region with breeding hummingbirds. Most of the scattered reports are of vagrants, hanging around for sugar water from red plastic dispensers on patios. Here for the first time I’m seeing ruby-throats fully natural (and much less subject to neighbors’ pesticides) in their ancestral place.

What a pleasure and an honor. We thank the hummingbirds, the lilies, the woods, and you.


It’s one of the goals of this blog to empower others to pick up the mission that leads to fulfillment like we felt today.

Another goal is to share the adventures of what conservationists do – with people who will support the mission even if they feel it’s maybe too hot, too buggy, too cold, too prickly, too muddy or too something else to join the fun all that often themselves.

Despite a zillion ruby-throated hummingbirds on YouTube, I can’t find a video of the mating dance. Can you? We’re reduced to diagrams. Too fast to follow without radar? Still, in this age, the hummingbird acrobatics is a drama where "you have to be there."

Photo of Michigan lily in Somme Woods by Lisa Culp. The hummer is from Steve Creek Outdoors. 


Daniel Suarez said...

Perhaps it would be possible to attract more ruby-throats by starting more active programs of propagation and planting of those species which attract rarities? I know that time, money, and space are limited, but couldn't we "move along" some restorations that were not taking place in remnants (which may already have a seed bank containing, for example, Michigan lily) by creating somewhat conservative communities and actively caring for them? Or does the artificiality of the community, without true tests of adaptation and survival, essentially spell out its eventual failure?

Where does one draw the line between "letting nature do its own thing" and human intervention?

Stephen Packard said...

@Daniel. Good questions. Many of us try to take into account the needs of rare butterflies (larval plants and nectar sources) when we restore. There's talk of restoring the larval foods of the hawk-moths that pollinate the prairie white fringed orchid, since lack of pollination is one of the threats to that species. We could certainly do the same for hummingbirds. Every initiative like this attracts some great new people to the cause, and puts back another component of the whole. Once all the "cogs and wheels" are back in the mix, the ecosystem has a better opportunity to "be all it naturally can be."

Katie said...

Stephen, I enjoyed reading your latest blog post, I always learn something new and interesting. I was referred to your blog by Daniel Kielson and with your permission I would like to add a link to Vestal Grove on our website. Please contact me at