Life in the Real Desert: The Hummingbird Feeder Experiment

Hummingbird wikipediaI am not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. Innate curiosity does drive much of what I do and as a young boy I did think that science was the path to be taken. That was overridden by the realization that I would not be the next Brains Benton or even Sherlock Holmes. My brain lacked the essential element necessary to make one an expert in the scientific world.

Logic.

Years later my curiosity and imagination are still here and logic, while it has increased in some aspects, has ceased to be the main reason behind not pursuing a scientific path. It is now brainpower and time that stops me dead in my tracks.

It was the curious part of me that wondered why all of the neighborhood birds flocked around my nectar filled hummingbird feeder. The upside-down bottle is full of a homemade concoction, recipe taken from the good old Internet, and when first filled only the little manic wing flappers supped from my good-natured offering.

When I made a new batch, using slightly different measuring utensils, other feathered friends began stopping by to have a drink. Even the woodpeckers would land awkwardly on the small feeder, using a series of gymnastic maneuvers that can only be described as comical to the extreme, to drink from my tiny well of nectar.

This intrusion on my little hummingbird friends would be acceptable except that a lot of the other birds are actively chasing off my little feathered chums. First there were the yellow, quite pretty birds, then the red headed and red crested ones and now the woodpeckers are all having a go at the original recipients of the nectar.

I left the feeder empty for a couple of days and all of the winged ones were approaching it, landing and dipping a beak in to see if anything was left. I then filled the thing with common tap water, sans boiling and sans sugar.

The idea being that as this is the desert and not a lot of excess water is to be found, perhaps the other birds are just thirsty. Time will tell whether this hypothesis is correct or not.

Thus far, the feeder has not been approached by anything apart from the odd hummingbird. After a day or two, I will boil some water to see if the avoidance is because of “treated” liquid. Apparently the tap stuff needs to be boiled in order to rid it of the chlorine, et al.

It will be interesting to see if all of the winged neighbors in my area return to have a sup of plain old water after the chemicals have been removed. Afterward, I will go back to the original utensils to make the nectar and see if the hummingbirds can partake of the sweet drink undisturbed by the bullying birds that have invaded their feeder.

I wonder if the enormous road runner spied this morning will decide to have a drink in either of the provided fluids in the feeder. While is seems unlikely that this veritable giant could manage it, the woodpecker with gymnastic tendencies is not shrinking violet.

Watch this space…

23 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Life in the Real Desert: The Sands are Alive (With the Sounds of Barking)

Schwinn 700C - my bike
After an eventful weekend of flat tyres on the bike, repeated attempts to fix this problem went badly and left me with a disposition best left alone, and weird dreams, it was time to take stock of the critters who have been scampering, scuttling, and gamboling across the desert floor. The sands are alive this time of year, it seems, with all sorts of little animals, and a lot of huge insects. The air is also alive with the sounds of barking, I’ll talk about this a bit as well and doves are not the peaceful creatures they seem to be. This will be sort of a pictorial, and I will apologize up front for the poor quality of my snaps.

I blame it on my poor iPhone, which to be fair has had some rough handling this year, two spills in the desert, one in a wash and the other on what seemed to be perfectly flat ground, a “hit and run” in Love’s car park and another impromptu flip when hitting the wrong brake at Burger King.

Quick quiz: What is the big difference between having a tumble in Love’s Truck Stop car park and Burger King’s car park? Answer: Burger King has employees who care! Two employees who did not know me that well, yet, came over and after checking I was okay, and that the bike was not damaged, went back to their personal conversation. Did I mention that they were on their break? Class act Burger King.

Not so my prospecting neighbor. He has come back in from searching for gold to bring eight dogs, one of which is a loud constantly barking Chihuahua that sets the rest of his pets off. The noisy little bugger should thank its annoying little stars that I do not own a gun, otherwise at five in the morning, he, or she would be eliminated with extreme prejudice. Sorry animal nuts lovers, no irritating creature is worthy of saving when it will not shut the f*** up.

I have only seen the dog once. It stood on the other side of our property fence and glared daggers at me while barking non-stop. The little sh*** never even stopped for air. My hands itched for an instrument of destruction but my more civilized instincts took over. Besides, it was not five in the morning.

One friend who lives three houses down mentioned the irritating mutt and told of how it came and barked at their entire garden party for a couple of hours. Just as it was mentioned that perhaps a marauding coyote might eat the little pest, it stopped yapping and moved on. I am currently on the look out for a coyote call on the internet…

Apart from obnoxious domestic dogs, I’ve discovered another type of dog; prairie dogs. What I had mistaken for a kangaroo rat was in fact a hole dweller. I did not realize my mistake until one stopped and reared up on its rear haunches, stretched its neck up and took a long careful look around before proceeding. I took the cute creature’s picture after it decided to hide out in a hollow spot on the hard pan floor and peek out:

Prairie dog in AZ
Camera shy…

When a camera is not immediately to hand, these small cute creatures scamper quickly across the eye line. They do pause to have a quick look about and then zoom on their merry way. These same animals were the bane of a cowboy’s existence back in the old days as many a horse stepped into a prairie dog hole with the end result being a broken leg and “old Paint” being put out of his misery with a well placed shot.

Other wild creatures include lizards, like this health conscious lizard filmed on the fence (this was before the little happy mutt moved in next door, hence the total silence except my commentary):

Another chap hangs around the side of the house and under the carport:

Lizard

A neighborhood visitor, a prairie gopher snake – now we know what those prairie dogs are scouting for – came by for a leisurely visit and despite not being bothered by all the attention at the time, has not yet been back:

Snake crossing the road, @4ft

Now about those doves…Certainly the air has been full of barking from the eight dogs, all ranging in size like the owner is paying a personal homage to the dogs in Second Hand Lions – sadly there is not pig or chicken hanging around for comic effect. The other noise, which permeates the early morning hours along with the woodpecker’s knocking on wood, tin, brick and anything else they can bash with their beaks, are the doves.

Sidenote: These woodpeckers are young ones, I think, and thus far they are uncanny at imitating the knocking noise associated with someone pounding on your front door. There is also a bird, a mockingbird perhaps, which does an insanely good job aping a cock crowing. Without the necessary power of a cockerel this feathered micmic sounds like it has laryngitis as it whispers, “cock-a-doodle-doo” a few times then stops. I am trying to get this on tape as it is priceless.

Doves, despite their calmly cooing on an afternoon, are the loudest creatures in the world come mating time. Squawking, flapping, fighting, mating, and otherwise making one hell of a row by smashing on the tin roof of my domestic dwelling, they are the loudest neighbors imaginable.

They also stomp. These birds are well known for making the least practicable nests possible in England and it seems their American cousins suffer the same inept home building skills. Building their temporary abode out of brittle sticks, they place them on air conditioning units and window ledges.

It seems that the brittle sticks are not to their liking so the feathered homemakers then stomp on the twigs presumably in an effort to soften them up. For such a “peaceful” bird, when stamping on the nests they could be wearing seven league boots, or at least heavy hobnailed boots. Plus, it has to be said, that for such pretty creatures, their offspring are, “Uuuugleeee!” See for yourself:

Baby Doves
To be honest they were a lot uglier a few weeks earlier…
Baby Doves
See? UUUGLEEEE! (Just sayin’.)

There are other creatures awaiting discovery via my iPhone 5. A red-tailed lizard, which was apparently quite a delicacy amongst the local Native American denizens, crawls into a crevice and inflates itself so it cannot be plucked out. One was glimpsed on a ride into town, although its tail was more orange than red and it was huge.

Of course there are other inhabitants in the real desert. Coyotes, one of which is so “domesticated” that according to another friendly neighbor, it comes and lies on top of the low fence for a nap, completely ignoring all the two-legged denizens who are walking around its sleeping form. Baby bunnies are all over the place, one in my garden has gotten so use to me that it no longer runs when I come out.

Deer, mountain lions, bobcats or wildcats all make this area home. I found a dead deer the other week and all that is left of that poor thing is one leg, a bit of vertebra and the odd rib bone. Tracks of a large mountain lion have been spied on my several jaunts across the desert floor and luckily I have yet to bump into this large predator.

One more desert resident can be seen constantly (usually searching or as in the case of the expired deer landing nearby) and this is the buzzard or vulture. Surely the ugliest creatures ever created; these can be seen soaring above the sands looking for carrion. They also sit in trees near a dead, or dying animal, waiting…

Buzzards...or vultures...

Single vulture
This chappy looks like a bit of CG but he is real…

The only creature I’ve not included in my little pictorial was that of the very aggressive rattlesnake I encountered on the way back from town. The snapshot taken of this angry chappy did not turn out too well as I opted to stay clear the other side of the road from him. This after coming within two scant inches of his slowly moving form. Slow, that is, till I turned round and took his picture, in my Twitter feed I named the creature Kanye West; who also hates having his picture taken by strangers…

20 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Life in the Real Desert: A Typical Day

Rattlesnake on Dome Road, AZ
Yesterday in the “real” desert there was a thunderstorm that literally lasted most of the day and all night. While Skype messaging my daughter in the UK, (We had to IM versus talk as the signal is so sporadic that real conversations consist of, “Can you hear me? Are you there? You’re frozen. You’re frozen again. Am I frozen?”) I remarked that I meant to bike into town but looking at the ominous clouds and lightning it seemed a good idea to pass on the visit. Not long after, we ended the “call” and I went out to video the ominous looking clouds.

Doing my impression of a “storm chaser” on foot, I walked down the street outside the house filming sporadically. After a short period of “Oh there’s a great bit of lightning! Sh**, I missed it,” I gave up the roaming reporter rubbish and wandered back to my front garden and opted to just watch and occasionally film things that caught my eye.

Real storm chasers and those who document their exploits can rest easy in the knowledge that I am not a threat to their livelihood. My talents do not obviously lay in that area. Of course the storm threatened to break out all day and only really got interesting after dark. Once the sun went down all hell broke loose and rain came down in sheets of frenzied water that thrashed the trees almost as much as the gusts of wind.

The ferocity of the rain was such that the weather-proofing I had done weeks before was inadequate to keep the water from forcing its way into the trailer. Three leaks appeared but only after the pounding rain swept through on the third wave. The storm blew the rain in and out three times, at least that was what I counted before falling asleep waiting for the next onslaught of weather, and it was this last time that the leaks made themselves known.

Before making my nightly visit to the Land of Nod, I put out a pot for the worst leak and thankfully the other two watery intrusions were not enough to warrant pots or pans.

The sun came out upon a typical day of sun, sand and critters roaming throughout the neighborhood. Woodpeckers and some sort of yellow and black bird busily stealing the hummingbird’s nectar (with me busily chasing them off, call me cruel but they knock the feeder all over the place and get nectar everywhere) and lizards exercising along the surrounding property wall.

While the entertainment value of the pushup performing lizard does not match the heart pounding excitement of the rattlesnake encountered over the weekend or the sounds and the fury of last night’s storm, it is enough to keep me amused and content. All that remains is to see what tomorrow will bring.

5 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Life on the Real Desert: Snakes Alive

Snake crossing the road, @4ft
On the way to town today I came across a lady on the “main road” out of the estate. Standing by the side of the paved surface, clutching a hoe, she moved toward the center of the street and waited for me to approach on my bike.

“You could have crossed over,” I said, “It will take me ages to get to you.” This as I slowly moved toward the stationary gardener. It was my impression that she was heading to the desert on the other side of the road.

“Is that a rattler?”

The question caused me to turn, as I had passed her already, and head back to where she stood. “Careful, he’s right there,” she pointed to the rock and cactus frontage of the lot to my right. I looked but saw nothing that resembled any sort of desert creature. Stopping and dismounting I walked to where she was and turned to follow her pointing finger.

In the shadow of the property’s boundary fence, the long serpent was contentedly stretched out and occasional flicks of its tongue tested the air as it relaxed in the shade. It was well over four feet in length and unperturbed by all the attention. Whilst we discussed what sort of snake it was, the thing began to slowly move along in the shade.

Several attempts were made to photograph the placid creature but the shadows he, or she, stubbornly clung to, made it difficult. While we stood about taking snaps with mobile phones (cell phones) and deciding that the lack of rattles meant that it was not a rattlesnake, other folks from the area congregated to look at the traveler.

Snake in the shade
Do I look bovvered?

The calm snake, which a friend has guessed might be a Pacific gopher snake, moved into the hard pan after traversing a long stretch of fence line.

Snake in the shade.
The Snake-Fence.

This is the first live snake I’ve come across. The only other one was dead hit, apparently, by a car on the road running parallel to the highway. Red and grey and not rattles either, I still have no idea what sort of snake it was. The visitor also was the first creature that moved slow enough for me to take a picture of.

Yesterday I saw a kangaroo rat nimbly hopping across the vacant lot across the street from my home. It was huge and, for a rat of any kind, cute. Bold as brass, it ignored me completely and headed for a huge cactus with yellow “roses” on it. He, or she, disappeared as I got closer and despite standing there for a while it did not reappear.

Not counting the time spent living in Las Vegas, Nevada, the last time I lived in a desert setting was in 1980 – 1982 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I cannot remember too much about colors of flowers or seeing too many creatures scurrying about, but I do recall falling in love with the desert itself. White Sands was just down the road from my trailer and my first wife, along with our son, went out a few times to that amazing gypsum land.

The entire time I lived in England, the question of returning stateside was continually cropping up. I said, at the time, that only if I could live in the desert…

Yellow flowers on huge prickly pear cactus.
It’s the yellow rose of…Arizona…

Well, here I am. Living in the great Southwestern desert. The land of Billy the Kid, Apache warriors, the Navaho and Mojave. Each time I ride my bike into town my imagination runs riot. Reading about days gone by in the state, and the local area, fuels my trips of fancy. Wild west outlaws, larger than life characters and prospectors searching for personal riches reside in my mind.

I have been talking to a neighbor about looking for gold and he has relayed some marvelous tales of robbery and mining. I will be sharing some of these stories soon. In the meantime, I shall be researching this land that features so heavily in literature and film.

23 April 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Life in the Real Desert: Hummingbirds

Hummingbird wikipedia I love hummingbirds. A lifelong fascination with these constantly moving tiny collectors of nectar has been around since the first one spied on my Grandmother’s honeysuckle bush. Since my new life in the real desert began this year, I’ve noticed a plethora of these nimble creatures.

These beautiful miniature birds, with their long needle-like beak, are as adept at avoiding the camera as the many lizards that populate this area of the world. Although the lizards are getting used to my presence. One who scampered by me two days ago stopped and turned around to look at this odd creature that it had zipped past.

Moving back toward my still form, the little chap slowly walked right between my legs. Demonstrating complete nonchalance about this huge thing that had initially startled it. My imagination had the scaly fellow thinking, “Ha! I’ll show you I’m not afraid of any giants or strange creatures.” In reality, since I was not moving and the day was incredibly still, the lizard with the long black tail just could not sense me. Still, it was…entertaining.

Equally entertaining has been watching the hummingbirds getting used to the feeder I put up two days ago. After finding the thing at the house, empty, I asked my mum about filling it. She was unsure about the recipe for homemade nectar. I looked it up on the Internet. (4 to 1, if you are interested; i.e. 1 cup of sugar to 4 cups of water, add to a pot and boil, but not too long as it weakens the sugar content. Let the mixture cool. Do not add food coloring to make the stuff look like the red store-bought stuff, trust me, the birds do not need it.)

On the first day, after I’d cleaned the thing thoroughly, I prepared the nectar and let it cool as per instructions. Later I filled the feeder and placed it in the shade of the porch. These was a larger hummingbird who was flitting about the front garden (yard) all week. I retired to the RV and watched his flight pattern throughout the day and he seemed bound and determined to ignore the nectar recently placed for his pleasure.

Speaking to a neighbor later the same day, I explained that I was worried about the recipe used. Perhaps the sugar to water ratio was off? I told him that if after another day the birds had not stopped by to have a drink, I’d take it down and find another formula to make the nectar.

The next morning, Mr. Large Hummingbird continued to flit about the small courtyard, but now he seemed to be looking for something. Flying up about the same height as the feeder but a good 20 to 30 feet away he hovered and floated this way and that, searching. A bit later he made a maneuver that can only be described as the hummingbird version of “sidling.”

He (or she) edged up to the feeder slowly and cautiously. Any noise, like my television or a car moving past frightened it off.  The creature was large for a hummingbird, but the constantly moving wings and tiny talons put him in that class of feathered friend.

Eventually, the thing approached the feeder and sat on the edge. Looking all around, it finally dipped its beak into one of the slots and after the first time, did so repeatedly. Funnily enough, this was like a signal to all the smaller hummingbirds in the garden. Presumably if the big chappy liked it, the stuff was considered okay and lots of the wee little, and colorful, birds stopped by for a drink. Before the sun went down around 9 came by for a leisurely drink.

As I sat on the porch, reading yet another Louis L’Amour book (this one about a female Sackett named Echo) several came up to drink. The sounds of their wings up close has the same effect of a wasp’s wings in one’s ear. Unlike a wasp, the tingly feeling was not one of alarm but just the start of gooseflesh which dissipated rapidly. The texture of the flappy wings was more leathery and not insectile and the sensation was odd, to say the least. It was, however, enjoyable.

More so because the little frantic creatures accepted me sitting there with my cup of green tea and western novel. It was very nice and calm, despite the leathery flapping.

There are a huge amount birds in the real desert. One, who obviously is not a friend to the hummingbird, attacked the large chap who first took a drink at my refilled feeder. The other creature was gorgeous. Yellow, with darker tones mixed in and much lager than the tinier bird. I have not looked up what sort of bird the yellow, and disagreeable, bird was, but will do so.

This morning, I laughed till tears rolled at a sparrow who was bound and determined to catch, and eat, a moth on the inside of the window where I sat working.  I had paused, taking my hands off the keyboard for moment and was surprised to see this small bird about a foot away from my face, pecking at the glass.

Beak open, he darted forward and smacked the window then, wings flapping, it backed up and tried again. I was puzzled at first and then saw the small beige colored moth on my side of the glass. The insect was moving slowly across the surface, completely unfazed by the predator on the other side who gave a few more hungry pecks at the glass before giving up.

Before coming to town, aka Burger King where I have coffee and Wi-Fi, the hummingbird was back at the feeder. This time he hovered at the side, dipping into the nectar repeatedly before flying off. As he zipped around the corner of the building, I was reminded of a story my mother told me when my cousins and I were playing around Gran’s honeysuckle bush and chasing the hummingbirds when we were little.

Mum said that she had an aunt (or cousin, it was a long time ago so I’m not sure which) who was terrified of these speedy little things. Apparently, at the same house and near the same bush, she was playing chase with someone else. As she rounded the corner one of the hummingbirds flew right into her hand, impaling the girl with that long nectar seeking beak. For the rest of her life she was scared to death of the tiny creatures.

Looking at the large hummingbirds beak, I can see why, that must have hurt like hell and must have been very shocking to boot. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for my lifelong fascination, this tale of a sudden involuntary attack and the phobia it spawned. I’ll ponder it later today while I watch the creatures collect more of my homemade nectar.

17 April 2015

Michael Knox-Smith