Desert Hummers

Female Costa's in creosote.  Males have purple gorgets.

Female Costa’s in creosote. Males have purple gorgets.

sunbeamThe big sprawling chuparosa plant out back has been claimed by a female Costa’s hummingbird. She buzzes in on a blur of wings and zips up, down and sideways, sipping nectar while hovering before each red trumpet. Her whizzing flight patterns are simply dazzling.

When she’s not working the chuparosa, our backyard Costa’s perches at the top of a nearby creosote bush. From there she guards her food source from intruders. She also retreats to the inner branches to preen and rest as shown in the photo.

The hummingbird is the smallest of all birds and has the fastest wing beat. The birds may reach 60 mph in a dive. Among hummers, the Costa’s is the smallest and the most desert adapted. Costa’s are prevalent in our area from October through May, a time that coincides with the blooming of the chuparosa. The nectar of chuparosa, desert lavender, ocotillo, penstemon, fairy duster and creosote are staples for Costa’s hummingbirds. Hummers supplement their liquid diet with protein-rich insects they glean from the plants they visit or snap from the air while in flight.

The little female in my yard will eventually allow a male into her territory. This is strictly a baby making relationship. Once they mate the female will single handedly build a nest, incubate her two eggs and provide food for the babies. The fledglings linger in the vicinity for a week or more, and continue to receive hand outs and lessons from mom.

A couple of years ago a Costa’s female built a nest in the jojoba plant next to the chuparosa shrub. It was right at eye level. It was about one and a half inches across and an inch deep. Cunningly woven of plant material and bound together with spider webs the nest was nearly impossible to spot. Stretchy spider webs allow nests to expand as the babies grow. We had a big spring storm that year and sadly the coffee bean sized eggs never hatched.

Costa’s hummingbirds have a unique ability to slow their super fast metabolism to a near stop to survive cold winter nights. While the heartbeat of a hummingbird is usually between 500-900 beats per minute, in torpor a Costa’s hummingbird’s heart rate slows to 50 beats per minute. Loss of habitat is the biggest risk to this charming species. You can help by planting native chuparosa or desert lavender.

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