It is near impossible to spot a hummingbird nest in the wild. So it was a fortunate mix of timing and placement when I spotted a female Ruby-throated hummer flying up to a maple branch suspended near our porch at Dollar Lake. The tiny bird perched near an equally tiny bump on the branch. This spot proved to be her nest construction site and I was provided a front row seat for the ensuing process – and quite a process it was.
In all, the entire effort took well over seven days and I was present for at least three of them. Considering that the final structure was only about the size of a walnut (or about the circumference of a dollar coin), this betrays the complexity of the construction and the sheer determination of the builder. This female chose a typical location on an overhanging branch, about 15 feet from the ground with ample open space beneath. Her chosen spot was at a point where the branch bent downward and a few over-arching leaves provided some overhead protection.
An average day began at sunrise and consisted of repeated forays for nesting material until around 8:00 p.m. (at which point she would retreat to some unknown roosting site). Arriving at the nest, she would insert/weave/ apply her chosen material and perform some variety of wiggle dance. Her dance steps depended on the material. For instance, upon arriving with a clump of Aspen down this material was placed into the center and packed down with a series of foot tamps accompanied by a metronome-like rocking action. Spider silk was applied while sitting in the cup, reaching over the edge, and applying the strands around the outside perimeter. Lichen bits were individually placed and secured into the silk with a few pokes.
In all, the Hummer spent little more than a minute at the nest and anywhere from 2 – 15 minutes on her gathering missions. Longer absences were probably used for food gathering at the local Columbines.
Each forage trip sent her in a totally different direction from the previous foray, although she tended to repeat forage themes. A trip to gather spider webs was followed by a few more with the same material in mind – but never the same web location twice. On one venture she investigated all the webs on the cabin porch just a few feet from where I was sitting. Hovering inches away from a web spanning the space between the vertical rails, she darted in to snatch a few strands at a time. She then directed her attention to the cobweb in the upper corner of the window before returning her silken findings to the construction site.
The silk was laid on with a back-and-forth wiping action of the beak. Application of the spider silk was aided by flicks of the long tongue to pull the threads into place. This latter action would have gone un-detected without the stop-action record provided by the camera.
The silk endeavors were followed by a bout of lichen picking in which she plucked small bits off of bare tree limbs and trunks. Tufts of cat-tail down were pulled off of the winter worn heads lingering atop the old stalks down by the lakeshore. Aspen down – flying through the air and drifting on the ground like January flurries – were also added in liberal amounts to the soft central core.
By the end of the first few days of activity, her nest was mostly a light-colored mass of silk and fiber with a few darker lichens for effect. Upon my return a full week later, I found her nest to be thoroughly adorned with a layer of cryptic blue-green lichens. The nest blended perfectly with its host branch both in color and contour. She was sitting in the nest at that point – perhaps even on eggs- but it was not yet “complete” in her mind. Once or twice every hour she would venture off the clutch to gather up yet another bit of lichen or tuft of down for that final touch. On the following day, she looked to be really done (as in really truly done) and did not attempt to add anything else to her miraculous little structure.
After 14 or so days of incubation and relative inactivity, her charges will hatch and she will resume her frantic pace while feeding her micro family. This, like her act of nest construction, she will do without any assistance from the male what-so-ever. A hummingbird’s work is never done.