What's Our Excuse?

While living in SC, I was fortunate enough to have a Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) hang around my home from December 2013 to April 2014. This tiny vagrant was a reminder of just how fragile, yet strong, nature is. Facing not one, but two significant snow and ice storms during her accidental stay in SC, she seemed to reside in that small area between survival and succumbing to the harsh elements that winter flung at her. I kept a steady supply of warm nectar for her to have easy access to and placed heating lamps for her to utilize during the coldest days. She became an instant celebrity, attracting people from all around to come see her; even being featured in a front-page story in the local newspaper.

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufusat feeder in the snow. A heat lamp and fresh nectar was provided throughout her accidental winter stay. Showing up in December 2013, she stayed until April 2014. (Click to enlarge)

One of the coolest visitors to come experience the Rufous Hummingbird was on February 9, 2014. Ann Humphries, from Columbia, SC, is easily one of the most inspiring naturalists I’ve ever had the opportunity to hang out with. Ann is constantly on the move, frequently visiting parks all over SC and soaking up all nature has to offer wherever she may roam.

By early February 2014, quite a few people had come to observe the tiny little off-course-winged-wonder. Many saw her quickly, but some had to wait quite a while to catch even the slightest glimpse of her as she zoomed to drink up from the feeders I had placed in my front yard. Fewer still had the luck to hear the twittering vocals of the miniscule selasphorus. Unfortunately, more than one person was even blanked in their efforts to see the hummer; it proving to be quite shy from time-to-time. Hilda Flamholtz was one of the people who had previously come by and was even able to take a few nice photos of the bird. Shortly after her visit, Hilda asked if she could bring a friend by for a chance to admire the lost drifter. I replied that I would be thrilled to have another birder come by and soon went back to preparing to teach an upcoming natural history class. As fate would have it, I was soon to get one of the more lasting natural history lessons I have ever received.

The determined little survivor braving her second snow storm of the winter. (Click to enlarge)


That morning, Hilda and her husband, Jon, pulled into my driveway and introduced me to Ann and her companion, Brego. Ever faithful, Brego joined Ann everywhere she went; by her side on adventure after adventure. I greeted them both and walked with Ann over to a bench about 15 feet from the hummingbird’s preferred feeder, reminding them they may have to wait a while before the star of the show came out of her favorite hiding spot. Ann and Brego sat, preparing to be as patient as they had to be. Within a couple of minutes, the Rufous zoomed straight out of a Camellia near us and went directly to Ann. This diminutive aerial dancer, who had been more than a little coy during other visits, hovered just a few feet from Ann’s face and was now staring directly at her. In what I can only describe as a moment captured by my senses in slow motion, Ann’s eyes grew wider and wider with each passing millisecond.

Hearing the soft hum of the bird’s wings, Ann turned towards me with a smile filled with wonder and amazement. It was at that moment the Rufous began vocalizing like never before, causing Ann’s face to light up as with the warm glow of the morning sun. After a few moments, the hummingbird darted towards the nearby feeder and drank her fill, then went back to the safety of her favorite hidden perch. Though only a few fleeting seconds, that instant gripped the attention of every one of us fortuitous enough to witness it.

Ann and I have stayed in contact as well as two busy adults can. But, as we all know, time and distance adds to the difficulty of staying in touch on a regular basis.

Fast-forward two years and I am halfway across the country. Just last week, I was walking through an airport terminal here in Austin, TX. Through the crowd, I thought I saw Ann walking through the airport. However, I didn’t see Brego with her. Instead, a new young fella walked with her and I decided not to work my way through the crowd to potentially embarrass myself by calling out to a stranger. What I decided to do was to email our mutual friend, Hilda, and let her know I saw someone who bore a striking resemblance to Ann. Shortly after I sent the email; I boarded my plane and went on my way. That evening, Ann sent me a message to let me know it was, in fact, her I’d seen! She was in Austin and the surrounding area visiting family and, as luck would have it, she has a sister who lives about 10 minutes from me.

Thursday morning, Ann and I were able to meet for coffee and I met her lovely sister, Mary, and brother-in-law, Jack. Sitting there enjoying our coffee and catching up on lost time, Ann told me she’d been hiking all through the Frio Canyon the previous day. Ever the naturalist, she made sure to get some hiking in while visiting the hill country. Always interested in what others have observed, she asked me what birds I’d seen lately and what I thought of the natural history of central Texas. As we talked the morning away, I was continually thinking of that morning in February 2014.

Now, at this point in our story, I must take a second to inform you that this amazing naturalist; this enthusiastic birder, is blind. And Brego, her trusty companion? He was her guide dog that fine day. As it turns out Brego is now retired and her new young companion, Monti, is doing a terrific job of keeping up with Ann’s love of nature.

And me? Well, in fifteen years of capturing and banding scores of birds across the country, climbing trees, running after snakes and gazing into the magnificent compound eyes of dragonflies, I’d like to think I’ve seen a lot of nature’s magic. Very few things; though, could ever compete with the magic of a moment in which a lost hummingbird floated out to have a close encounter with a very special naturalist. I also had a concrete reminder Thursday morning that, no matter how we take in the enchantment around us, nature touches us all. As I rode away on my bike, I looked at the beautiful blue sky and, smiling, had only one thought… “Despite what many of us would consider a major disability, Ann soaks up nature as often as her schedule allows and delights in new adventures outside. So, what’s our excuse?”

Just before leaving for the airport to head back to South Carolina, Ann met me for coffee here in Texas. My career has been punctuated with encounters with great naturalists. She is on that list.

Just before leaving for the airport to head back to South Carolina, Ann met me for coffee here in Texas. My career has been punctuated with encounters with great naturalists. She is on that list.