Black -chinned Hummingbird

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One of the joyous aspects of coming to the desert is that I know that I will be seeing Black –chinned hummingbirds again. This small emerald green-backed hummingbird of the west with no brilliant colors on his throat except a thin strip of iridescent purple bordering his black chin has to be one of my favorites. Because it is so difficult to see the rich deep purple band on the males I am always on the look out for it. I have a feeder just outside my east window and in the morning when the light is right I can usually glimpse a brilliant flash of deep purple.

This year the hummingbirds arrived in Abiquiu during the middle of April from Mexico, (or the Gulf coast) just a few days too early because we had a cold spell with temperatures in the low twenties, and one morning a blanket of snow covered the desert floor.

My neighbor found a dead male Black chinned hummingbird on his feeder early that winter morning. As soon as I heard this news I requested that the bird be brought to me, because I knew that hummingbirds have developed an ability to survive cold temperatures by drastically lowering their heartbeats and going into a state of torpor. Unfortunately this bird was dead having already been placed in a freezer.

Frequently, these birds can be revived if held in the palm of one’s hand; once movement is detected it is possible to feed them sugar water with an eye dropper by forcing open the birds’ beak and dribbling drops into the side of the hummingbird’s mouth. Be very careful if you do decide to do this because hummingbirds, like all birds, run the risk of choking. The fluid can kill them. Afterwards the bird can be placed in a small softly lined box to recover completely and then set free.

It is a good idea to put hummingbird feeders out about a week before the first Ruby  throated and Black –chinned hummingbirds arrive because there are so few natural sources for food available. Here in Abiquiu, I will be placing a feeder out by the beginning of the second week in April. Most folks are aware that hummingbird populations have been stabilized because so many people love to feed them.

These birds are strictly migratory wintering in Mexico or along the Gulf coast.

Female Black- chinned hummingbirds are larger than males and have brilliant green backs and pale whitish gray throats. Most females arrive later than the males.

Courtship displays begin soon afterwards with the males sky-diving around the females, flashing their neon throats, or hovering in front of their potential mates and flying back and forth in front of them. These behaviors are always accompanied by whirring sounds.

Hummingbird nests are extraordinary structures that are built by the females. They are shaped like tiny cups and made of grasses, plant fibers, spider webs, and lined with plant down. The outside of the nest is camouflaged with lichens, dead leaves or other debris. The female lays two tiny eggs that are incubated by her for two weeks. She feeds the nestlings by sticking her bill into their mouths and regurgitating tiny insects, nectar, and sugar water. The nestlings fledge at three weeks. The female has two broods a year.

Watching a Black- chinned hummingbird feed in natural surroundings is fun. To catch small insects the hummers may grab them in mid –air and sometimes take them from spider webs!

Black – chinned hummingbirds can be found in semi – arid country, river groves, suburbs, mountains and hills throughout the west. Unfortunately they are at risk because of climate change, so lets appreciate them while we still have them.

Postscript:

This will be my last entry before returning to Maine. I will be leaving on the Summer Solstice and be making a 4 -5 day trip. Just this month a hummingbird sat under the Fire Moon as I took the picture. It seems fitting that my last article would be about these wondrous little birds that I love so much….

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Indian Paintbrush or Grandmother’s Hair

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When I first saw the flower as we sped down a major highway I could hardly believe my eyes. But that tell tale flash of crimson had to belong to the Indian Paintbrush I shrieked to my companion, although I had not seen one in twenty years. I was thrilled. We turned the car around to see if we could spot the flower again. Sure enough, there it was growing in a sparse desert –like area along the side of the New Mexican highway. The next day my friend went back and photographed it, much to my delight.

Also called “Grandmother’s Hair” or Prairie Fire Castilleja is a wildflower that belongs to the Figwort (or snapdragon) family. There are a number of species and all are native to North America. Indian Paintbrush can be annual, biennial or perennial depending on the species.

Growing one to two feet high the flowers are borne in dense bracketed spikes. The flowers are insignificant and are hidden beneath the red tipped leaves. It is the leaves or bracts that are colored various shades of crimson, or flaming orange with yellow depending on the species. The bristle -like inflorescences look as if they have been dipped in paint. Indian Paintbrush grows in both moist areas and dry areas, open prairie, and at the edge of forests. The plant prefers sunny areas. These plants grow in Alaska, California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. The plants also prefer cooler mountainous climates (up to 10,000 feet) and may be found in the Andes and other parts of South America. They are often found near some kind of water seepage. The flowers begin to bloom in the spring and can last well into summer.

Indian Paintbrush has the ability to grow and survive in serpentine soils. For the geologist, serpentine is a mineral class. These rocks are composed mainly of iron magnesium silicate, with impurities of chromium, nickel and other toxic metallic elements. Because of this unusual chemical makeup, soils may be infertile because of their high magnesium to calcium ratio. Many species of plants are not equipped to handle such stressful amounts of high magnesium, low calcium and in general the overabundance of metals.

Indian Paintbrush also soaks up the alkaline mineral *selenium in the soil in toxic amounts (creating hair loss and brittle nails among other things), so although the plant can be eaten it is necessary to know something about the soil content that the plant is growing in before ingesting it. The nectar of the plant is very sweet and it is the flowers that are most often eaten in salads.

Indian Paintbrush is also known as a root parasite. The plant has small tubes called “haustoria” that insert themselves into the tissues of other plant roots, like sagebrush, to obtain necessary nutrients. However, Indian paintbrush can also make some of its own food, so technically it is a semi – parasite. These plants must also have access to water and they rely on other nearby plants to obtain sufficient water for themselves.

This wild plant is very difficult to grow by seed because it must be planted with a host, another native plant or seedling, in order to survive. Unfortunately, seedlings do not transplant well.

Various Indigenous Peoples used the flowering parts of the plant as paintbrushes. Some Native peoples like the Chippewa use the plant to treat rheumatism and to make their hair glossy. Both applications are useful due to the selenium content.

There is a Blackfoot Indian myth about a maiden who fell in love with a prisoner and escaped with him. When she became lonely for her family she took a piece of bark and drew a picture of her home on it with her blood and left the bark on the ground. A beautiful plant with a bush like end grew out of the soil It was dyed crimson red with the maiden’s blood and named “Indian Paintbrush” by the young girl’s people.

The last time I saw Indian Paintbrush it was in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson early in the spring (March). I had been walking up an arroyo that was still seeping snow from the Rincon Mountains when I saw clusters of these magnificent flowers each with a slightly different coloring, but unlike this New Mexican variety these flowers were a brilliant burnt orange fading into a buttery yellow. I would recognize this plant anywhere!

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Photo Credits: Bruce Nelson

 

*Selenium is an essential trace mineral that is important for many bodily processes, including cognitive function, and a healthy immune system. It is present in human tissue, mostly in skeletal muscle. Dietary sources include eggs, brown rice, some fish and meats. The amount of selenium in food often depends on the selenium concentration of the soil and water where farmers grew or raised the food. Another curious fact about selenium is that it can also produce electricity directly from sunlight and is used in solar cells.