Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Birds & The Bees at the High Mountain Lodge

Went to feed the bees the other day and got stung. We have two hives in the hay loft of our ruined barn down below the High Mountain Lodge.

We're keeping them courtesy of our friend, Hugh, who is a biology professor at the University of Denver and an amateur bee keeper. Last summer, Hugh brought one hive up to the lodge; this year, we're hosting two. We'll keep them until it becomes too cold, after which he'll take the hives down to his house and hide them in his garage where they'll overwinter, much to the chagrin of his less-natural-history-sensitive neighbors.

It was the first time I'd been stung by an insect since I was a child and my father burned out a hornet's nests under the eaves of our house using a kerosene-soaked rag attached to the end of our 20-foot-long tree-twig trimmer.

By the time the wasps, annoyed at the immolation of their home, began to sting me, dad was too busy to pay much attention to my predicament. The paint around the nest had begun to blister and the wood of the soffits to char. He was whacking at the burning paper hornet's nest with the burning rag and splattering drops of inflamed kerosene-soaked rag ash all over the place. It wasn't the best way to try to put out the fire.

Nor was my mother any help. When I ran screaming into the house because of the stings, she, hearing my shrieks and knowing my dad, had rushed out of the house fearing he'd set it on fire and wanting to give him advice on how to put out the blaze at the top of her lungs.

I was left in the house alone, moaning and rubbing the stings, which only made them hurt worse. By the time Mom and Dad came back inside extrovertedly triumphant, having cooled off the wood and dispatched the rest of the hornet's nest with the garden hose, I was pretty welted up. They were proud of themselves, having staved off a catastrophe of Dad's own making. It wasn't my finest hour getting attention from my parents, but I'm pretty sure mom subsequently put some sort of lotion on me which made the stings hurt less.

I was sort of surprised when I got stung up in the loft. I've been up there dozens of times, pouring sugar water in the feeders to supplement the bees's nectar-gathering. I hadn't even begun to pour the mixture into the feeder when this one crazed bee came at me and stung me on the wrist. It was quite a shock (and it hurt like the dickens). I don't know why she took such a dislike to me, but I suppose even bees have bad days every now and then.

A honeycomb from our bee hive.

Our experiences with birds have been equally challenging so far this summer. In June of 2009 when we moved in, barn swallows had colonized most of the eaves of the High Mountain Lodge. For a while, we thought it was a charming sight, watching the birdies building their fascinating mud nests. Then they started to drop chunks of mud when the flew up, and it would hit the windows of the dining lodge. Other things they were emitting also hit the windows. Soon, it became apparent that the swallow colonies were less than a success.

Before long, we had so many swallows under the eaves, and their synchronized swooping would have given Alfred Hitchcock the heebie-jeebies.

We power-washed the eaves and eliminated the swallows.

Then, this year, we have been fighting a pitched battle to discourage them from re-establishing their nesting sites. It began earlier in the year when the swallows began to get frisky. In the air, on the roof, and even on our decks:

We have managed to discourage swallow nesting around most of the High Mountain Lodge, though there is one colony that got past us and set up housekeeping behind the exterior paneling outside our owner's quarters. I plan to plug some holes this fall after the chicks have fledged, and with any luck, they won't be able to start a new generation next year.

If the swallows have been a nuisance, the hummingbirds have been a source of delight and amusement.

Years ago, Julie and I visited some friends in southwestern Colorado. Thor and Twyla had retired from their corporate jobs and proceeded to buy an alfalfa farm in the uplands above Cortez, Colorado. They built a barn (first) and then a house--with their own hands. Then they spent summer moving the irrigation sprinklers every twelve hours in their alfalfa fields until their allotment of water ran out and the ditch master told them to turn off their sprinklers and shut off their ditch; then they were forced to make their last mowing. When friends tease us about the work involved in running a 12-room, 13,000 sq. ft. Bed & Breakfast in our semi-retirement, we only have to think of our friends growing alfalfa in Cortez.

We were sitting in their kitchen one morning having breakfast and being entertained by the legion of hummingbirds fighting over the long row of feeders outside the windows. I'd never seen so many hummingbirds before, and I was entranced. "This is wonderful!" I exclaimed. "I didn't realize that hummingbirds were so agressive!"

"Yeah," said Twyla, pouring me another cup of coffee. "If they were any bigger, we'd have to shoot 'em."

Well, this summer at the High Mountain Lodge, we've had a perfect crop of hummingbirds. The broadtails (the ruby-throated ones, cousins of eastern Ruby Throated Hummingbirds) showed up in June. Broadtails kept us and our guests entertained outside the windows of the dining lodge. Around the fourth of July, the hummingbird action quieted down, and we wondered what had happened.

Then the rufus hummingbirds showed up. Rufuses are a bit larger than broadtails and infinitely more aggressive. They get their name from their colors: tawny yellows and oranges with even flashes of pink. There's one spectacular male who seems to be trying to channel Lady Gaga. The rufuses took over the hanging feeder outside the windows of the dining lodge. And, to our surprise, they scared up the last broadtails in the neighborhood who hadn't migrated to higher elevations (as if there were many elevations higher than the High Mountain Lodge), and proceeded to have a pitched battle with them over the feeder outside the sitting room of our owner's quarters.

The result has been amazing. When we get up in the morning before we start to cook breakfast for guests, we like to have a cup of espresso while watching the news on TV. It's been mild enough lately (nighttime temperatures in the high 40s or low 50s) that we open the sliding glass door out onto our balcony where one of the hummingbird feeders is.

You know that your bird feeding has gotten out of hand when the pitched battles over sugar water outside your door are so loud that you can only hear every third word the CNN announcer is saying (mem. to self: this may not be a Bad Thing). 

It's a cacophony out there! It's like avian D-Day. You can hear them dopplering in from the dead pine trees on the other side of the valley, determined to get their sip of sugar water from our feeder. And when they arrive there's this swarm of squabbling and darting and buzzing and zooming birds the size of thimbles, and suddenly the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico doesn't seem so significant. 

Thank God hummingbirds don't have nukes.

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