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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ Mike Jacobs: Hummingbirds appear in the garden

GRAND FORKS — Last week, I kept company with hummingbirds. It was accidental, really. The hummingbirds happened to be where I was — or the other way around. In any case, we shared space in the garden, the hummingbirds among the flowers and I among the weeds.

The hummingbirds visited the Monarda, also called bee balm, which we've planted in front of a big field stone in the front yard. They hovered in a patch of zinnias that borders the vegetable garden. They even probed the flowers as I went about pulling the garlic plants.

They were with me on a brief visit to Joann Ewen's garden along the Goose River in Mayville, N.D., on Thursday, Aug. 10, when I stopped there. Again, they were visiting Monarda. Showy and aromatic, Monarda is the plant that provides the flavor in Earl Gray tea.

These hummingbirds were not the showy birds we see at nectar feeders in the spring. They lacked the ruby throats entirely. Instead, they were plain birds, gray overall with a slight blush of green. Not at all iridescent, these birds were obviously not in courtship plumage.

This made me wonder if they might be young of the year, and that made me wonder if they might be from a nest on my property. I've never found such a nest, nor have I been aware of hummingbirds earlier in the summer.

These birds were obvious as only hummingbirds can be. Their humming is loud and unmistakable, although it is not humming at all. Rather, it is the noise produced by their wings, which beat so rapidly they are only a blur as the hummingbird darts about, not just forward but in full reverse—and not just that but sometimes in my face.

Western edge

Grand Forks County is at the western edge of the ruby-throated hummingbird's range. They're on the county checklist, and they've been recorded nesting in most of the Red River Valley counties, in the Devils Lake area and in the Turtle Mountains.

The Turtle Mountains straddle the international border about halfway across North Dakota. The nesting population there is part of a range extension that runs west along the border as far as the Rocky Mountains. This westward projection forms a handle on the map of the hummingbird's range. Otherwise, the map resembles a deep kettle whose western edge is almost a straight line from our area to the Texas Coast.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are very much more common only a short distance to the east. They are frequent visitors throughout the summer to feeders hung around the lodge at Minnesota's Itasca State Park.

Without this offering, hummingbirds are dependent on naturally occurring nectar, which they take from flower blossoms using their remarkably long, thin and sharply pointed bills.

Such blossoms are what brought the hummingbirds into my garden.

Hummingbirds are birds of the New World. More than 320 species have been described. About half of these occur in Central and North America. Only 23 are known to nest in the United States. The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species likely to be encountered here—or anywhere in the eastern half of the country.

In my own experience, this is a bird of spring and early autumn. I usually begin anticipating their appearance about Labor Day.

So, this week's birds were early, and that made me wonder.