Nature Notes: Lively

Hummingbirds fly fast and furious

    A very active week in birdland, indeed! Topping the list of May returnees were ruby-throated hummingbirds. The first to return to the South Fork, perhaps, were the four that showed up at the house of my Noyac neighbor Ellen Stahl on May 6. She called to tell me that they were back, she had her hummingbird feeders up, and they were flying in my direction every once in a while. She thought they might nest in my backyard.

    On Saturday, I received news of the return of another hummingbird. This one appeared in the morning at Emily Corwith’s East Hampton house. Emily emailed me with the news and said that it must have been one from last year because it made a beeline for the spot where her feeder had been. Without hesitation, she filled the feeder and hung it back up in its usual spot.

    Lois Markle came back to her Hither Hills house in Montauk for the first time this spring and voila, on Saturday morning she was greeted by two male hummingbirds sparring over the feeder. Before they left in the fall they were tussling, now they’re back and back at it. On Sunday, the two ruby-throats that showed up at the Bustamantes south of Big Reed Pond in Montauk topped off the list.

    Hummingbirds are the world’s smallest birds, but they have the energy of a football running back. They fly fast and furious and are just as adept at rising up and down, vertically, backing up, and going forward as helicopters, and they are almost silent in doing so. They have been reported to fly for 500 miles non-stop during one of their migration legs north and south. When they stop to refuel in the spring there are nectar sources on the way up. In the fall, near the end of the flowering season, there are more nectar sources on the way down.

    How can a tiny bird the size of a dragonfly with a brain no bigger than a pea do that? And come back to the very same spot where the feeder hung the year before? It defies the imagination, and almost defies the theory of evolution. It’s one of those amazing feats that Ripley would put down in the old Sunday newspaper comic sections, “Believe It or Not.”

    Last week was a bumper crop for new spring migrants. The partly exposed shores of Sagaponack Pond were hopping with peep sandpipers, dunlins, dowitchers, plovers, and a yellowlegs or two. They all stopped in on their way north at the precise time the pond was seapoosed to the ocean as it is every spring, along with Georgica Pond in Wainscott and Mecox Bay in Bridgehampton.

    The Rubinstein sisters were out making a day of it on Sunday. At the Grace Estate Barbara found a blue-gray gnatcatcher, not much bigger than a hummingbird, with a new nest. Karen found a rose-breasted grosbeak building one along the Stony Hill trail. They ended the day with 43 species, including 12 different warblers, 2 wood thrushes, several Baltimore orioles, and a scarlet tanager. A lot of song and a lot of color!

    On Friday I attended a wonderfully done celebration of the Mulvihill preserve, one purchased by Southampton Town with community preservation funds, on the border of Bridgehampton and Noyac just a stone’s throw from Sag Harbor. Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming served as the master of ceremonies and there were brief speeches by State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., both of whom had much to do with the passage of the New York State act that created the community preservation fund for the five East End towns, Eric Schultz, president of the Southampton Town Trustees, and four generations of Mulvihills, who actually lived in the historic house on the property during part of their lives.

    I was standing next to Jim Ash, retired director of the South Fork Natural History Museum, both of us to hear not only the speeches but the various calls from nature coming from the tall white pines and the wet fens that surrounded the little plot on which the house stood. Both of us suffered from a loss of hearing and could barely pick out the notes of orioles and other high-pitched songs. Halfway through the ceremonies, we both heard what appeared to be the tremolo of a bird. Jim whispered, “Gray tree frog,” while I was still wondering. First one, then a second, then others, they were summoning their would-be mates to the new water in the fens, giving celebratory speeches of their own.

    A little later, a raucous crow sound descended from some lofty perch against a background of common crow calls. “Raven,” we both exclaimed under our breath. The raven was letting us know that it was establishing (re-establishing) itself on Long Island the way turkey vultures and bald eagles were. That kind of mixed chorusing from the thickly vegetated surrounds was one more proof that the community preservation fund was, indeed, worth it and is bringing about what it set out to do from the beginning — preserve the community of nature.

    Larry Penny can be reached via email at