November 4, 2021
Anna's female at Fairy Duster
Anna's female at Fairy Duster
You might not be human if . . . you haven’t had a moment of existential angst in the last two years.  My latest one occurred last month as I lay on a table in my dermatologist’s office being prepped for Mohs surgery (google it).  Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door began playing on the “elevator” music piped though the office just as a nurse prepared to stick me with the anesthesia needle.  There’s really nothing major about Mohs surgery, but then again there’s nothing really minor about any surgery.  So, Dylan’s song wasn’t helping my mood, and I mentioned its irony to the nurse.

She laughed, then directed my attention to the hummingbird feeder secured to the glass outside the only window in the room.  I’m not sure who the birder in the practice’s personnel might be, nor am I sure the feeder was there to alleviate patients’ fears or concerns.  All I can say is “Works for me.”

Throughout the pandemic a consensus has arisen that immersion in the natural world helps alleviate stress and, since I had dealt with this very premise in my most recent column, I thought I should try it even though I couldn’t, at that moment, actively engage with nature or even be outside.  I determined I would breathe deeply, keep my eyes open, and focus them on the feeder rather than slipping sideways glances at the slicing and dicing tools in the doctor’s hands.

I was expecting one or more Anna’s but hoped I might get lucky and see a late migrant or an overwintering Costa’s.  I didn’t get lucky, but I quickly came to realize it had been way too long since I focused on the subtleties of immature and female hummers.  I also came to a greater appreciation for the casual birder’s lament about passing off any hummer without throat color as just a “little green job.”  In the two separate half hours I spent on the table I counted a dozen visits from two decidedly different hummers, and I’m calling them both Anna’s despite neither having any hint of red on the throat.

Here are the visual clues I used to decide both birds were Anna’s—

Stocky build with large head and thick neck
Thick, medium length, straight bill
Mottled gray, dingy underparts
Primaries all of equal width
Green mottling on the flanks
Not a hint of rufous feathering anywhere
Rectrices broad and rounded

For me these diagnostics ruled out the other obvious possibilities—the other Calypte hummingbird, Costa’s (pot-bellied body, short, slightly curved bill), Black-chinned (smaller body, longer, decurved bill, white underparts, near constant tail pumping), and Rufous (rusty plumage).  The thorny problem with which I grappled during my second stint on the table (did you google Mohs Surgery?) was that I finally noticed something different about the two birds—their tails, though the rectrices on both were broad and rounded, bore different color patterns.  One of the birds had obvious white tips on R4 and R5, but the other showed just a little white on R4 and sported a thin black line through the white tip of R5.

Though the window was right at the foot of the table, being on my back with no binoculars required focused visual concentration, and the time seemed to fly by.  I couldn’t wait to get home and study Sheri Williamson’s Hummingbirds of North America Peterson guide.  I sort of lost track of where I was until I smelled the acrid aroma of burning flesh during the cauterization at the end of the surgery.  With that I half expected Dylan’s song to recycle through again.

The lab report is back, everything is clean, and I’m good to go.  Oh, and the Anna’s with the white tips on R4 and R5 was an adult female, and the other one was an immature male.  My next photo project is to capture diagnostic shots of the rectrices of female and sub-adult Anna’s.  Get Sheri’s book and study it.  It will enhance your appreciation for our feathered gems and take your mind off any stressors even if you have to do it from the inside looking out.
Anna's females queueing up for the morning shower
Anna's females queueing up for the morning shower