The ruby-throated hummingbird, about a thumb in length from head to tail, arrives with swooping, juking moves to case our patio, alert for challengers. It hovers, looks left and right then safely dips its needle nose in horns of summer phlox.
Pugnacious little birds, when two or more have spied a nectar source, a fight for territorial dominion typically breaks out. If no one wins, they’ll all fly off unsatisfied till one sneaks back to nurse at velvet folds of lavender in peace.
In fall, our inexpensive plastic feeder full of sugar water with its candy-red boudoir and phony yellow-flower lures, attracts as much attention as the showy bed of tiger lilies did in June.
The hummingbird has far to go, and migrates yard to yard. Two brittle legs hang down behind, designed to perch but not to walk. He crosses mountains, covers fields and fens, negotiates the courtyard gardens of New Orleans where a praying mantis lies in wait to make a meal of him.
If he survives, he’ll follow the trail of landmarks he remembers, west along the cranial curve of coastline, past the demolished Morgan Mounds, unwanted ancient tombs raised up above the chéniere of Pecan Island, a ridge of fossil shells amid the marshes, to briefly land in Galveston, that weathered shiv of vulnerability, and sink in Purple Foxgloves’ hairy cornucopia before he speeds beyond to lonely stilted houses stalking Christmas Bay from Follet’s Island, the wrecked Cabeza de Vaca’s Isle of Doom.
Pulling a final draft from Trumpet Creepers climbing stuccoed condos by the beach, he takes a leap across the waves then hastens inland bound to skim along the continental spine to Costa Rica’s misted forests, and reunites with far-flung family, trochilidae.
His winter respite lasts to January, when instinct intervenes and urges him to make an epic flight: return through jungled Yucatan to cross the great, wide Gulf of Mexico. Atop an oil rig far offshore, a lonely welder tilts his helmet, startled by the sudden thrum of thousands zipping past.
By early May the twitchers here in northern Jersey will report: “First Hummingbird!”