Shoulder to shoulder with fin whales – and hummingbirds

The hummingbird is at the feeder again, hanging like an apostrophe in the air. Then it is not. I like to pretend it's the same one that visited our place last year. But perhaps that's pretending too much. Actually I can't tell one hummingbird from another.

I've never known a creature so swift that I can't see it arrive or depart. Now and then, when it is poised on a leafless branch above the feeder, I watch it through binoculars. Its silhouette is emphatic against the dappled-green background, its needle bill bends slightly downward at the end. For a moment it is motionless and substantive, until it erases itself again. Its velocity staggers me. So does its appetite: A week after I put up a full feeder of nectar, it was nearly all gone.

Last year I was led to believe by an expert writing in a New York newspaper that I should take the feeder down before the start of the crisp autumn. The ruby-throated hummingbird must migrate before it gets too cold here on the Delaware shore. For winter, it flies all the way to Central America. If the bird is encouraged to stay too long by the convenience of its food source, it would find itself without nourishment in a hostile climate.

Being thus instructed, I forwent the pleasure last year of watching this darting bird through September and early October. This year, when I went to the bird supply shop to buy some thistle for the goldfinch feeder, I brought up the question with the woman who runs the place. She's tall and tanned and has a no-nonsense demeanor, suggesting, to me at least, that she knows her stuff.

"The hummingbird," she said, "knows it has to migrate – and when. Of course, you might get a bird stupid enough to stay behind...." In other words, the great majority know when to get out of town no matter how pleasant the local amenities.

She also gave me a positive reason for leaving the feeder up and filled as long as I could. With thousands of hummers in the sky winging their way to the tropical comforts of Guatemala or Nicaragua, who knows how many might drop down to my feeder to recharge themselves for the long haul? I could be delightfully invaded by numberless fluttering visitors. This fall I'll await the feathery horde.

Some research informs me that the hummingbird is the smallest bird on the North American continent. It is fragile, quick, and light, of beautiful design. It makes a mesmerizing sound with its wings, those appendages moving – depending on the species – about 20 to 200 times a second, which outpaces the human eye's ability to hold them in focus.

Though it is the smallest of birds (typically 2-3/4 to 3-1/2 inches from beak to tail), it is truculent and aggressive. Intensely territorial, it will rush at crows or even hawks that come into its territory. It can fly backward as well as straight up and down.

There are a lot of birds around my place – finches, jays, wrens – but somehow I think of the hummingbird as not just another of the feathered kind, but rather as a creature that abides in another dimension. I don't mean that in a silly sci-fi sense, but as a bird whose physical characteristics make it more than exceptional within its taxonomic class. Those elements are its blurring speed and diminutive size.

Someone once wrote that human beings, in terms of their size, stand at the precise center of an imaginary line that runs between the largest creature on earth and the smallest. It may or may not be true. It may be only poetic, but the notion returned to me on the very weekend I saw the returning bird.

It was on that weekend in mid-May when the finback whale arrived unexpectedly on our beach, and everybody rushed down to gape at it. Officials of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control estimated its weight at 35 tons, its length at 55 feet.

I had never seen a whale on a beach before, nor at sea, except for a fin or two. I had never seen a creature this big, nor had any of the other rubberneckers standing there in the sand.

Back at the house, turning to an encyclopedia, I learned that the finback whale can live up to 80 years, grow an estimated 60 to 80 feet in length, and weigh as much as 50 to 70 tons. It is the second-largest animal that ever lived, I learned; only its cousin, the blue whale, is larger. It swims in every ocean on the planet. Like my hummingbird, it is a far-traveled adventurer.

The impression made by the whale, now buried beneath the sands of the beach about a mile or so south of us, did not quickly wear off. Nor did it diminish my interest in the hummingbird. When I see the hummingbird, like a mote suddenly in the corner of my eye, I think of the imaginary line that links the greatest and the smallest of things, and when I stretch out my arms to grasp each, I notice I am exactly between the two of them.

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