Hummingbirds, Fireflies, Summer Solstice

Reading and photographs by Robert Towe

From my nature journal: As we approach the Summer Solstice on June twenty-first, we are enjoying the wettest year on record for our mountains, already 17 inches above average rainfall. Given a clear warm evening for a change, I decide to cook supper outside, over fire. A few sticks of green apple wood laid on the coals make a sweet fruitwood smoke. In a few minutes the air is pungent with sizzling meat and roasting ears of succulent sweet corn. Ah, summer! Far off, too far for thunder, glowing like a tall bouquet of pale roses a summer thunderhead towers over the southwest mountains. Perhaps there will be yet more rain tonight.

Tending the cooking fire, I watch a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched briefly on a dead limb in the old Ash tree over the garden. In the low rays of the sun he glistens emerald, his jeweled throat shimmers scarlet fire. He is resting between fast trips down to the red nectar feeder. The quick choreography of his rapid flight is an elegant aerial dance of grace and precision.

Among thousands of bird species, only Hummingbirds have the ability to fly backward, up, down, holding still, making the warm air hum with thin translucent wings, beating over 100 times per second. With the highest metabolic rate of any warm-blooded vertebrate (except for the shrew) his tiny heart is thrumming between 600 beats/minute (resting) and 1200 beats/minute in flight. He must eat constantly, to fuel such a hungry little motor. In the cooler evenings, Hummingbirds drop into a torpor, just to conserve energy until morning, replenished with a sunlit breakfast of fresh flower nectar, flowing with the pure energy of wild sugar. For protein, he steals tiny insects from spider’s webs and easily snatches gnats and mosquitoes in the open air.

Later, after sunset, we sit and watch darkness softly fall upon the land. Like the last embers in the grill, the great glowing thunderhead has burned down to grey ash with the coming night. The moist cooling air is redolent with the thick perfume of honeysuckle, blooming along the forest edge. Now is the magic hour, the dusk, twinkling with hundreds of fireflies, a.k.a. lightnin’ bugs, rising into the twilight. Bioluminescence is the term we’ve given these dazzling fairy-lights, a fascinating chain of chemical reactions which produce luciferin in the firefly’s abdomen, releasing energy as cold light. Do you remember catching a jarful of them and setting it blinking near your pillow as you entered the never-neverland of childhood dreams? The sweet mystery of these wild little yellow lamps does not diminish, sparkling through the summers, all our wintered years.