Bare Trees and Butchers

Bare Trees and Butchers:  An Autumn Reflection

moose maples near my brook

Waking up to bare trees on a fog bound mid October morning is distressing because fall is my favorite season and it has been cut short. Most of the leaves have already slipped to the windless ground, many maples without having become our astonishingly pure “fire on the mountain”. Day after day of summer-like temperatures and nights that followed suit have blurred the edges of autumn, confusing even the tree frogs that continue to sing. Last night clouds drifted across a waxing moon like a torn veil. How much I miss crisp fragrant fall mountain air…

 Although the deadly fires continue to burn in the west releasing a good portion of the world’s 2.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the Windy Fire in Sequoia National Park is 88 percent contained. Hundreds of ancient sequoias perished in this blaze… foresters saved some of the big ones like ‘general sherman’ – disgusting name for a tree – but no one seems to be aware that losing whole forests means that tree suffering is profound – some scientists inform us that trees ‘scream’ through releasing chemical scents into the atmosphere, and saving the big trees probably won’t make a difference long term because any forest is a whole social organism – all the trees depend upon each other for sustenance and reproduction. This fire burned too hot destroying potential seedlings that were released by the cones.

It may sound fanciful but it seems to me that the sudden loss of so many leaves of our trees here in the east may have something to do with the destruction of whole forests out west, aside from the obvious – that the air pollution we experience in Maine is directly connected to the fires in California. Trees that grow together grieve and often die when one of the two is cut. We know that trees communicate above through air and below ground through mycelial networks, and I suspect that trees also convey distress over great distances in the same way, through smoke, and/or in other ways as yet to be discovered. 

Trees can hear sounds although they don’t have ears; for example, their roots gravitate towards running water. Trees need to sleep at night and when they do their fronds, branches droop, sometimes perceptibly. They also have a circulatory system that pumps water into the branches/needles, releasing some through transpiration, and then what’s left cycles back down to the roots to begin the process again (without transpiration clouds don’t form so clear cutting whole forests heats up the earth and prevents rain from falling). Trees breathe the way humans do, only at a much slower rate. The difference is that they breathe in toxic CO2 and breathe out the precious oxygen we need to live. We have a tendency to think that all trees photosynthesize all day long but mostly this process occurs in deciduous trees during the first part of the day. Once the temperatures rise too much (90 degrees is the cut off point) broadleaf trees shut down to rest; conifers can continue to photosynthesize although they don’t do it as quickly/efficiently as deciduous trees do. Needle bearing trees can eat light all winter long if temperatures stay above freezing, and the bark of thin skinned trees like cottonwoods/aspens/poplar (the willow family) also photosynthesize through their bark during the winter months as long as the temperatures permit. Trees nurture the seedlings of their own kin and also share carbon and nutrients with their neighbors. They warn each other about insect invasion above ground through scent, below through fungal networks. Suzanne Simard’s research indicates that old Mother trees (both male and female) are connected to every other tree and plant in their forests. 

Trees can deal with normal climate changes; they have been doing so for millennia. When the next ice age hits, we will lose the trees we have, but others will take their place as ice sheets recede. The problem that trees are facing now is that Climate Change is occurring faster than our trees can adapt; that and the fact that we continue to clear cut and create plantations with foreign species that will grow too fast, developing weak root systems in the process. These trees are vulnerable to insects like the pine bark beetle that kill whole plantations rapidly; shallow root systems encourage blow – downs. In Germany where there are no real forests left, 57 percent of the plantation trees die from either poor root systems or insect invasion.  Former forester and author Peter Wohlleben states that foresters are not tree protectors – they are tree butchers. Trees cannot withstand Climate Change alone; they must be part of a forest in order to survive.

 Foresters continue to ignore the fact that Northern species like spruce and fir will not thrive in warmer climates; they continue to grow them because these trees mature fast and can be harvested in a short time. Climate Change continues to be ignored. Androcentric thinking dominates forestry practices; trees are expected to behave like crazed humans do. Faster is always better and more profitable (of course). Trees live out their lives in the ‘slow lane’ normally living hundreds or thousands of years (bristlecone pine/spruce – the latter 10,000 years old). Many humans don’t live as long as I have, 77 years.

 Because our global culture demands that trees conform to human standards our forestry practices remain exactly the same as they were 40 years ago. We insist upon projecting our machine mentality onto trees. Any attempt to use language that the average person can understand is criticized as being anthropomorphic. Calling an ancient tree a ‘mother tree’ or stating that trees suffer are prime examples even though we have solid scientific evidence that supports trees mothering their kin or trees that die of grief. Misinformation abounds. Last summer I attended a gathering and listened to foresters pontificate on how selective cutting encourages wildlife to thrive even as I was standing on parched ground where any seedling would struggle to survive. The impeccable research that demonstrates the sentience of trees is totally ignored. As a dedicated tree advocate and naturalist I find this attitude incomprehensible.

 I recently learned that European scientific research indicates that plantations are unhealthy places for people to visit. The distress signals that the foreign trees on a plantation emit (spruce and pine) cause human blood pressure to increase. The exact opposite response occurs when these same people walk through native beech and oak trees. Blood pressure decreases (Peter Wohlleben). 

I regularly walk through a forest that hasn’t been logged since long before the industrial logging machine took over in the eighties, and each time I go there I feel a profound sense of being restored to myself – I am ‘coming home’ and experience a kind of peacethat only an untouched forest can emanate. I have had to stop hiking near any land that has been brutally logged because even if where I am walking has healthy trees if it is close to a slaughtered shred of forest the whole area depresses me. I believe that butchered forests radiate a kind of chaos and misery that any sensitive person can feel. 

sugar maple in my favorite forest

 As I look out my window into a woodland that has matured in the years that I have been here because I have left it alone, I spy beech, witch hazel, and moose maple who still have some leaves that are drifting earthward in the silence of this moment. I call out to them “I love you” as I give thanks for all trees and this golden haze that animatesme – body and soul. 



cloaked in crimson


orange – lemony hazel

– healers with bony

 sun gold fingers –

dawn backlit by chartreuse,

shimmering ruby

salmon, lime, when star

burns away puffs of

cottony mist rising

  transpiring trees

  still standing


 on the mountain  

breathe in leafy 

 brilliance that

will not last

bespeak eternity


  a golden

haze spreads over 

the mirrored lakes

sky meets water 

not a ripple


 emerald ducks

quacking reeds

and geese take flight

at dusk….

Every year autumn ceases me like a lover and I become HER – Transformation is real and always embodied. I live through the natural wonder of every tree even as the departing geese remind me of the season to come…

Scarlett Sounding

Scarlett Sounding

Seasonal rounds

were once so predictable

comforting passages

lighting dark days.

 I took them 

all for granted.

 Now that

they no longer 

mark four turnings,

I am set adrift

in a boat without oars.

 Swamp maples

torched the yard

in September.

 Flaming Fire

 on the mountain

celebrated my 

birth -day when

family forgot.

Now the month

has forgotten too.

 Permanent separation.

It took me years

to accept.

After the pain

settled, knife


blunted by blood

and time,

 turned me inside out.

Yet the maples remembered

And I was grateful

to be witnessed

by such a celebration.

In these last years

Maple coats have dimmed.

Trees no longer leaf out

unfurling emeralds.

Stunted growth.

Bare branches.

Dying from

 the top down.

  Leaves withered 

from drought,

damp gray days,

curled brown edges

barely flutter – 

fall to ground.

 Predators thrive.

Am I the only one

who sees, or is

this because

they are dressed like me?

Maples are moving North

I’m told.

His call came out

of the blue –

sky made of pure thought

and earth’s

crimson core.

Only a sturdy

a green mantle

separates the two.

For a moment

two dolphins rose

out of the sea

 from opposite directions

uniting as One.

Autumn gold

brought a Circle

 to Life…

 And my body

 re -membered

 what it was like

to feel familial

arms around me.

“We’re Family,” he said.

Sandborn River Song

One day while


 I grew leaves.

How can it be that

I slips skins

with such ease?

Light breezes twirled my

petticoat, and a chartreuse

sister drifted orange light.

Earthborne – feathery

grasses and crisped

  travelers meet those

 who have already

transformed – 

crumbling minerals,

wings and bones

 nourish sweet soil

 rich in moisture

fungus and mold.

New life unfolds.

Five fingered petals

  crimson hands

 fly by – just a few, 

infusing bodies

still vibrant

with song.

Thanks – giving

is a natural high.

 Not far behind

  old bones ache

from wandering alone

 for so long…

Fire on the mountain

is thin this year – 

 Yet roaring flames

consume our Elders

whose bark is smoldering,

seed cones charred,

 shriveled tombs

will not release

 the dead.

We celebrate

 Deep Rose

and do not

 ask for more

when winds

bring smoke 

and sorrow

to choke us. 


in green,

focus is


one hoarse croak –

 Where is

that fly?

 Cold blooded


hug stone

still warmed from 

 an autumn star.

I awaken then

gazing into a silver stream

  swept along

down the Sanborn

as clouds burst

blue and gold

 and the peace

I feel is mine

to grow,

to own.

Dedicated to my dear cousin Billy Pottetti who walked beside me today… (10/4/21)

Amazon Journey

Diving Deep

into murky


memory sounds..

They come in pods.


 silvery pink skins

break river’s rippling surface 

fins and beaks shining.

Beaded eyes

bore into mine.

Arcing bodies

 cast circles

around the dugout

whistling goodbyes.

For a moment,

 startling illumination –

And then

they are gone…

Sinking back again

into a massive

 tangle of flooded roots 

I ache to join a


Pink Dolphin


The Amazon river dolphin, pink dolphin, or boto only lives in fresh water in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. These dolphins are extremely intelligent and friendly displaying a complex set of behaviors. Skilled, sharp-toothed hunters, they often reach more than eight feet in length,and are well adapted to shifting river levels. During highwater periods they penetrate deep into the rainforest using echolocation to search murky pools amid submerged tree roots for prey including dozens of fish species, turtles and freshwater crabs. While I was on the Amazon I loved watching them swimming through the submerged and tangled tree roots. They often accompanied me while I was doing research. This extraordinary animal is currently threatened and facing possible extinction.

Suzanne Simard Creates a Bridge to the Future

It interests me that September 30th was declared Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada because this is the day I was born and this is where we need to begin! Truth and Reconciliation is about acknowledging the wound and healing the split between the Indigenous ways of being in the world and the rest of western civilization. First we become fully accountable for the blood that was shed in this country by immigrants (knowingly or unknowingly). Healing the bloody root that is still caught underground. And then we need to begin to listen to those who are still in direct relationship with the earth…If there was ever a time for humans to surrender one perspective for another it is now. We need to reject the values of patriarchy – domination, war, hatred and division – and embrace what Carol Christ calls an egalitarian matriarchy  – a communal way of living that values relationships and compassion and thrives upon equality between the sexes – one that also celebrates diversity. Turning to Nature and Indigenous peoples to learn how to make this shift is an avenue to genuine hope…

All summer I have been engaged with mushrooming in the forest, a practice that has deepened my relationship with the forest as a whole as well as making it even more real to me that I am walking on hallowed ground with Forest Scientist Suzanne Simard, who also learned about mycorrhizal and other underground networks by examining mushrooms. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of some of the millions of gold, silver, red and orange threads that lie just beneath the forest floor. Thanks to the work of this feminist, the word is never used in her book Finding the Mother Tree…, but she is a prime example of a woman who has lived her life as a feminist who does not find men a threat.


Suzanne grew up in the forest as the daughter of a logging family, feeling that she was a part of a great web of forest interconnection.  She says the trees were in her DNA and of course, we know today that they were (each of us shares about 53 percent of our DNA with trees). The men in her family logged old growth forest in BC sustainably, “never taking more than they needed” and the very dangerous work of logging was all done by hand. 

Suzanne was the first woman to enter the field of Forestry as a young undergraduate in the late seventies where she discovered to her dismay that everything she was learning was increasingly focused on separating the parts of the forest from the whole.  She believed that clear cutting whole mountains and replanting ‘plantations’ composed of one species of fir was detrimental to the trees, inviting insect infestation while destroying the underground mycelial networks that she intuited connected all the trees and plants of the forest in a ‘wood wide web’. She sensed that entire forests were communicating not just above ground (they also communicate threats of insects invasion and other information by way of air) but underground through thousands and thousands of miles of  mycorrhizae composed of roots and fungus. She believed that when these root and fungal nets were destroyed during logging, young seedlings had difficulty generating. She also sensed that separating one tree species from another would have negative long – term consequences for clear cutting and plantations alike ( plantations are one species of tree planted in rows after clear cutting). “Mother trees” are the oldest trees in the forest, the trees with the most complex underground networks that support the rest of the trees and plants. She believed that leaving these trees and their young helped the forest regenerate as well as encouraging wildlife diversity She later proved all the above. 

 After Suzanne’s values collided with those of the forest service and funding dried up she left the forest industry. When she obtained her PhD. Suzanne became a Forest scientist/ecologist. In her first field experiment she proved that fir and birch exchanged carbon through mycelia and that these two species cooperated with each other supporting and enhancing the growth and health of both (birch also protected fir from devastating root disease). Through extensive research over a period of thirty plus years she demonstrated how many trees communicated and exchanged carbon and other nutrients, nourished and favored their kin but also helped their neighbors, and when dying, offered precious carbon and other elements to the forests they left behind as well as sequestering the former in the ground.

 Initially she hoped that this research would demonstrate that each forest acted like one living organism. And that this new understanding would help change existing destructive forestry practices. Sadly, after thirty plus years, and hundreds of field experiments by Suzanne and her graduate students that continued to prove her theses, not one forestry practice has changed. In Canada 80 percent of the forests continue to be clear-cut. In the US where we have fewer trees 40 percent are still strip logged. In both countries enormous amounts of carbon are being released into the atmosphere as a result.

Today, Suzanne, who has closed an ancient circle when she discovered that her values mirrored those who lived here for millennia, is working directly with Indigenous Peoples. She has begun an ambitious one hundred year research program called “The Mother Tree Project” which is designed around learning how to help forests survive during climate change. Many trees throughout the country are already sick and some are dying. As the climate continues to warm some new species will replace those that cannot adapt fast enough, and thanks to Suzanne’s research we already know that trees will pass on nutrients to NEW species giving them the necessary carbon etc. they need to survive. This program is open to existing and future graduate students, citizen scientists and anyone who is interested in participating. Central to the program are the values of relationship and partnership, which we desperately need to embrace if the human species is to survive…

 Regardless of outcome, Suzanne has created a bridge into the future with her groundbreaking work that I hope will reach the ears of people soon enough to make a difference.

Message from Water?

Message from Water?

Here is the message from Water at the River Dart, Devon, England on 2nd Dec 2016:

” My dear child do not worry about me, Water. I recover quickly with the song of our birds, the love of trees, with movement, moments of rest and the prayers moving around our Earth. I regain balance with your heartfelt tears, your remembered songs added to the ones of so many now. Do not focus your energy on ‘Saving me’. Something way more profound is taking place right now, listen and observe! All of us; Soil, Water, Plants, Air, Animals and all Ancestors are Calling YOU Humans, to Us so we can Save YOUR species. We know and have known for a while that you do not have much time left if you do not wake up to your birthright Belonging to Earth and come Home soon, real real soon. We keep dying, we keep Giving Away our Lives to shake you up from a deep and very long amnesia. Once you can allow the truth and quality of such Love to permeate through your traumatised being and desolate soul you will wake up from a life time of anesthesia to your immense grief and capacity for Love. When you create containers of sacred beauty that opens your Heart to what Love truly is then you will realise with a massive Sob that you were loved all along, always have and for ever by all of Us who you think You are Saving! You have five years​ as a species to Wake up, Mature and Remember in your bones who you are and that you belong in Life ” Azul-Valerie Thome

Who is Azul? She calls herself a ‘creative visionary’…. She is a gifted artist, I think.

When I read these words in a publication that I respect I experienced fury and responded that I didn’t believe what had been written. The editor of this journal refused to publish my comment, which of course was her right.

I told the editor that others might feel as I did and let it go… then I had the following response along with a conversation about ecological grief from a human perspective that is worth listening to.

The editor wrote:

“maybe this will help… from 5 years ago”

Here is my response to the youtube conversation and one that includes my own commentary:

my brook


“I found this conversation to be genuine, moving, and meaningful. It helps me to understand where many people are coming from.

I agree that rituals, (especially those written by oneself) have power to ease grief, if only temporarily. For extroverts perhaps group ritual is the answer – for me I must be with my animals and bird.

I also agree wholeheartedly that Beauty is key – Beauty keeps me awake, tuned to Love from my animals and plants and from nature as her individuals and as a whole. Occasionally, I experience brief sparks of that quality of love from people. 

I have not forgotten that Primal Relationship – rather the opposite – I am embedded in it.

And I am awake.

Therein lies the Source and Context of my grief.

What I have learned from Nature:

(1) Water is part of every ritual I enact for release and blessing – or it was until about ten – fifteen (?) years ago when I realized with a shock that I was asking Water to take on what I was trying to rid myself of – human suffering – oh no – what am I doing? Our Precious Waters are increasingly burdened with human pollution of all kinds –  with and without awareness – at that point I stopped releasing anything to water – Burning it instead.  What I do continue to do is to ask for a water blessing as I offer up my profound gratitude for this element. I am both the mother and daughter of water. I also believe the grandmothers live in both forests and under water. 

(2) It upsets me greatly to read that water doesn’t need our help – Water isn’t screaming – s/he is weeping. Water needs us to know that s/he is choking with filth. I hear her screaming around the edges – see my blog La Llorona Weeping Woman

(3) We have been socialized into the world of the Anthropocene. I think we get caught – (I certainly did) in this idea that the elements (or other aspects of nature) aren’t capable of feeling/sensing/intuiting and without realizing it we “use” these elements to ease our suffering. 

(4) At this point we can no longer afford to get caught in being the “children” of “Mother Earth”… we are adults who need to take responsibility for what we have done… it is no longer our “mother’s” job to succor us.

(5) Any healing ritual that does not honor water as Life Bringer, any healing that expects water to “wash away our sins” needs to be done away with.

(6) Our time has run out. Five years still feeds false hope giving humans time that does not exist in order to procrastinate further. This is not a time for initiation for humans, it is a time to begin to witness the intolerable -to grieve what has been lost, and that job for those of us who have known this time has been coming for a long time have to figure out how not to drown.

(7)**** Nature is not there to save humans from anything. Nature has her own agenda and autonomy. She is engaged in the survival of the whole planet, not individual species. S/he is attempting to restore imbalances any way she can and that includes terrible fires and floods. She will communicate with humans who love her demonstrating that we are all connected. S/he appreciates being seen.

Each one of us who has been called has a piece of the truth – you have heard a little of mine.

Hopefully you can see why I reacted the way I did and why I stand by my response.”

“My dear child do not worry about me, Water. I recover quickly with the song of our birds (2.9 billion birds extinct), the love of trees ( we have lost most of the worlds trees and continue to slaughter), with movement, moments of rest and the prayers moving around our Earth. I regain balance with your heartfelt tears, your remembered songs added to the ones of so many now…”


The Burning Times

When I think about the burning trees I think about women in particular because we are so closely related through myth and story as well as sharing DNA. What is happening to these trees once happened to us… I note that women who normally are not keyed into trees in general seem to be deeply moved by the burning of these ‘elders’. Is that because we feel the threat to the Tree of Life and all that entails manifesting as uncontrolled fire?

I gaze out my window into the swamp maples that ‘normally’ would have caught fire by the end of September. Not crimson red but bittersweet orange. I note a brownish tinge on the edges of dying leaves. Some have let go, fluttering to the ground. I must find a way to emulate them. Yesterday in the woods I am straining to see brilliance that isn’t there except for an occasional flicker. I don’t realize until I get home that this lack of color is literally depressing a life force that I have identified with my entire life. Accepting these seasonal disruptions is so hard for me – so much harder than I ever imagined.

Climate Change is a Monster. 

I read about the burning Sequoias in the Northwest staring out the same window, overcome with grief. Intolerable heat from  massive fires torch ancient trees I have never seen. Penetrating bark up to two feet thick. Last year it was the Redwoods. Great Basin National Park is still closed from that holocaust. This year it is the inner forest giants, 10,000 of them, that are charred, but not beyond recognition. Some one thousand year old bodies still stand as bony skeletons. Smoking. I have no idea how long it will be before the suffering of these tortured beings will actually end because as of this writing that fire is only eight percent contained.

Sequoias and redwoods are closely related. The primary difference between the two is their habitat. Redwoods live near the coast, while Sequoias live in subalpine regions of California.

Coastal Redwoods are adapted to fire and other disturbances. Cool burning fires, flooding, or wind throw are necessary for seed germination and establishment. Seeds can also germinate on duff and logs.

Ironically, for Sequoias cool burning fires (or insects that can penetrate the cones) allow most cones to set seed. Nature orchestrates these cool fires through her thunderstorms and other natural occurrences but as the human population continues to explode there is no longer any room for natural fires to burn, so we repress them until fire explodes with a vengeance… Climate Change assures us that these fires will burn hotter and hotter with each coming year. The age of the Anthropocene is probably going to bring down the remainder of all these elders because relatively few seeds are germinating from recent fires. Too much heat. Of those that are, 98 percent die in the first year.   

Forest scientists like Suzanne Simard inform us that trees have receptors for pain that are similar to our own. We share more than fifty percent of our DNA with these elders. I am not saying that trees feel pain the way humans do because we do not know. However, trees communicate with their neighbors, share resources, care for their kin, protect themselves and others and behave as one coherent organism overall, so it is likely that they are suffering deeply. 

I stare into my young forest sending loving thoughts and feelings – witnessing from afar. Because I know that communication does not have to be distant dependent I am certain that my trees and those that are burning are well aware… Bearing Witness with an open heart isn’t enough, but it’s all I have to offer. In the house I have two pots of Norfolk Island pines that I touch many times a day without awareness until I realize I’m thinking about those burning trees, even as I long for bursts of autumn color outside my window, caught in a longing for what can no longer be. 

Avian Friendship

Avian Friendship 

 “Chirp chirp!”

“ I love you!”

Always this exchange

between us as he

lands in the crabapple. 

I peer into withering leaves,

  encroaching dusk,

strain to glimpse my friend. 

He fluffs his feathers

  flashing ruby red.

   He sings for Life –

Sorrowful songs

for trees and water.

I feel his Love

pouring through

each cell…

He is Phoenix

rising out of the ashes

of Mourning Days,

his presence Balm 

  for war torn minds,

  fearbound bodies

 moving on.

 Though mist shrouded

 mountains crumble under

Anthropogenic strain, 

 each dusk he comes

for seed, 

to remind me that grace exists,

to let me know 

 I am seen.

It is impossible to describe the intimacy that develops between a bird or animal and a person. The fact that a wild creature chooses to befriend me like this cardinal has (and all of his

 predecessors have) seems like a perpetual act of Grace even though our relationship spans almost 20 years and generations of birds..

This kind of love is dependent upon a mutual ability to feel and sense. Our feelings and our senses reside in our bodies. Our culture denigrates feeling and sensing (along with bodies) just as it elevates thinking. I have been taught to feel shame about feeling so intensely, sensing is ignored or dismissed as non – rational, and yet without these gifts, which I am still apologizing for, I would be unable to communicate across species with the ease that comes with non – verbal communication. 

Animals know because they sense and feel.

This bird announces himself when I walk out the door – all year round. I never get used to the fact that he is talking to me, lets me know when food isn’t available, and during late summer, brings in his offspring to teach them how to call me for food when I am inside the house. He has an uncanny knack for appearing to witness when I am feeling totally invisible and unloved. In times of deep distress I am comforted. Sometimes, like last spring, he flies in chirping madly when I am going to make a serious mistake. Although we always greet one another out loud the remainder of our conservation is wordless on my part. Except when I call out “Hi beautiful” in a random sort of way. Usually he continues to chirp; in the spring he sings his complex love song, sometimes over and over. Most communication occurs directly – body to body.

 My relationship with these birds began when I first built my house, and over the years has become more complex and nuanced. Even when I am experiencing profound hopelessness his presence brings me back into my body in a way that allows me to feel gratitude for the gift of life.

Autumn Equinox 2021

(picture taken last winter) 

My Hummingbird Mystery

Mysteries of Migration: 


Every year I am cyclically drawn into the mysteries of migration by some particular bird, and this year it was the Ruby throated hummingbirds.

 I habitually document the arrival and leave-taking of my hummingbirds observing and recording relevant contextual weather information. This year the first male arrived the morning of May 7th alerting me to his presence by landing on my head! Within a week other males and then the females began to arrive and over the summer I had, as usual, hoards of hummingbirds (probably more than 50). Beginning in mid – August the hummingbirds drained my two quart feeders every single day (the most ever). Because of the spring drought I had let my flower garden go, noting that my perennials – many of which were hummingbird plants – had gone by, so I assumed this frantic draining of sugar water might have something to do with the fact that I had so few flowers left overall. As the days shorten these birds also undergo hyperphagia, eating excessive amounts of food for two weeks or more to put on sufficient weight and to store it for migration, so no doubt hyperphagia was involved as well. 

The night of September 4th – 5th I was watching masses of hummingbirds dive-bomb the feeders as dusk set in. The next morning (I awakened before dawn) I was outside with my dogs when it registered that the usual hummingbird twittering was absent. It hadn’t been a cold night so they hadn’t gone into torpor, although it was the dark of moon. It wasn’t until later that I realized that all but two hummingbirds were gone! I couldn’t believe it. Had they all begun to migrate in one night? When I checked my records they confirmed that nothing like this had ever happened to me before in almost 40 years. Naturally this occurrence sent me to the computer to check on hummingbird migration. 

As usual the research is contradictory. A few sites suggest that hummingbirds did migrate at night; others like the Cornell site said they migrated during the day. All sites I consulted said each bird traveled independently. Because hummingbird migration is not well studied I can’t help wonder if these birds don’t actually migrate in small groups. Every year around here the bulk of them leave within a few days of each other, although I have never experienced a mass exodus before. I will probably never know what happened to all my hummingbirds this year, but I do know that they were all around as darkness set in and gone by dawn of the next day, so these hummingbirds left here at night. 

 Audubon informs us that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds double their body weight in fat, or more, before embarking on migrations. Some even gain close to half that in just four days. They need it, since their metabolism is one of the highest of any animal on Earth. They require the human equivalent of over 150,000 calories every day to power their fast-moving heart and wings, which can beat 1,000 and 3,000 times per minute, respectively. That fat accumulated before migration is burned in a steady release of energy, ideal for the 2,000-mile journey many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make twice a year.

 Banding studies suggest that individual birds may follow a set route year after year, often arriving at the same feeder on the same day. I keep one feeder outside my bedroom window and every year a female comes to claim that particular feeder. I am convinced this is the same bird or more likely (because hummingbirds don’t live more than 6 -7 years) a daughter who has taken her mother’s place. In all these years I have never seen a male at this feeder. We do not know if any individual bird follows the same route in both directions, and there are some indications that they do not.

Hummingbirds apparently evolved to their present forms during the last ice age. They were (and largely still are) tropical birds, but as the great ice sheets retreated from North America, they gradually expanded their ranges to exploit rich temperate food resources and nesting space, filling unoccupied niches in the U.S and southern Canada while evading intense competition in the tropics. 

Most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds winter between southern Mexico and northern Panama. Since hummingbirds apparently lead solitary lives and neither live nor migrate in flocks,  individual birds may spend the winter anywhere in this range where the habitat is favorable, but probably return to the same location each winter. Ruby-throats begin moving north as early as January, and by the end of February they are at the northern coast of Yucatan, gorging on insects and spiders to add a thick layer of fat in preparation for flying to the U.S. 

Some will skirt the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Texas coast north, while most apparently cross the Gulf, typically leaving at dusk ( for a nonstop flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18-22 hours depending on the weather. Although some hummingbirds may fly over water in company of mixed flocks of other bird species, individual birds may make landfall anywhere between southern Texas and central Florida. Before departing, each bird will have nearly doubled its weight, from about 3.25 grams to over 6 grams; when it reaches the U.S. Gulf coast, it may weigh only 2.5 grams. It’s also possible that a few Ruby-throats island-hop across the Caribbean and enter the U.S. through the Florida Keys.

Males depart Yucatan first, followed about 10 days later by the first females. But the migration is spread over a three-month period, which prevents a catastrophic weather event from wiping out the entire species. This means that a few birds will arrive at a location early, but the bulk of the population will follow later. Around here it takes about two weeks for all the hummingbirds to arrive for the season. Each individual apparently has its own internal map and schedule.

Once in North America, migration proceeds at an average rate of about 20 miles per day, generally following the earliest blooming of flowers hummingbirds prefer. The northern limit of this species occurs after the arrival of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; if the earliest males arrive in Canada before sufficient flowers are blooming, they raid sapsucker wells for sugar, as well as eating any insects that might be caught in the sap. Every spring I also document the arrival of the sapsuckers to help me predict when I will see the first hummingbirds. The northward migration into Canada is complete by late May.

Because ruby throated hummingbird migration occurs over a relatively long period of time I am hoping that even with climate change bearing down on us that our hummingbirds will be able to adapt to a rapidly changing climate, although there is nothing we can do now to stop the extreme weather shifts that can’t help but have a negative impact on the lives of these heroic and engaging little characters.

  Migration Overview:

Migrating birds can cover thousands of miles in their annual travels, often traveling the same course year after year with little deviation. First-year birds often make their very first migration on their own. Amazingly they can find their winter home despite never having seen it before, and return the following spring to the place where they were born.

We don’t know just how birds have developed such complex navigation skills but we have many theories/ studies and project that birds combine several different types of senses when they navigate. Birds may get compass information from the sun, the stars, and by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. They also may get information from the position of the setting sun and from landmarks seen during the day. There’s even evidence that sense of smell plays a role.

Some species, particularly waterfowl and cranes, follow preferred pathways on their annual migrations. These pathways are often related to important stopover locations that provide food supplies critical to the birds’ survival. Smaller birds tend to migrate in broad fronts across the landscape. Studies reveal that many small birds take different routes in the spring and fall to take advantage of seasonal patterns in weather and food. 

Taking a journey that can stretch to a round-trip distance of several thousand miles is a dangerous and arduous undertaking. The physical stress of the trip, lack of adequate food supplies along the way, bad weather, and increased exposure to predators all add to the hazards of the journey.

In recent decades long-distant migrants have been facing a growing threat from communication towers and tall buildings. Many species are attracted to the lights of tall buildings and millions are killed each year in collisions with the structures. Birds have a remarkable homing instinct, allowing them to return to the same area year after year, even when their migration takes them halfway around the world.

Seasonal change, up until recently, has been one of the most dependable features of our planet, providing predictable resources such as spring leaf-out, monsoon rains, insect hatches, and fruiting seasons.

Each of the world’s bird species has adapted in some way to this seasonality—many by making long, precisely timed annual movements. 

 Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward in the spring to take advantage of burgeoning insect populations, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations. As winter approaches and the availability of insects and other food drops, the birds move south again. Escaping the cold is a motivating factor but many species, including hummingbirds, can withstand freezing temperatures as long as an adequate supply of food is available.