My column this week is about the Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. I saw earlier several this winter on a trip to Cuba with the Caribbean Conservation Trust. With a terrific photo by Kevin Watson. (Thanks, Kevin!)
By Jim Wright
Special to The Record
The modest stucco home known as Palpite Casa de Bernabe is on a narrow street in a little town near the legendary Zapata Swamp. A sign out front is the only hint of the attractions that await.
The feeders are a mix of store-bought and homemade sugar-water dispensers, and they attract two kinds of hummingbirds, the dazzling Cuban emerald and the tiny bee hummingbird. The smaller hummer is the bigger attraction.
The bee hummingbird, the “zunzuncito,” is the world's smallest bird. At .055 of an ounce – yes, you read that right – it’s half the weight of the ruby-throated hummingbird that we get here on the East Coast.
The zunzuncitos that frequent Bernabe Hernandez Ulloa’s backyard have become so accustomed to humans that if you hold a tiny clear-plastic feeder, the bee hummingbirds will fly up to your hand.
That’s a good thing. The little guy is so small and fast that up-close looks are the best way to go.
As the birders in my group take turns holding the little feeder, Bernabe stands off to the side, beaming with pride. Sixteen years earlier he had planted a flowering firebush tree in hopes of creating some shade.
Once the tree bloomed, the hummingbirds arrived, and Bernabe created an amazing mini nature center. Birders have seen nearly 100 other bird species there over the years, ranging from Cape May warblers to roseate spoonbills.
Because hummingbirds are a Western Hemisphere phenomenon, places that attract rare hummers have become famous. I can think of two others that come close.
On a visit to Ecuador, I stayed at an enchanted place called Guango Lodge, 9,000 feet above sea level in the Andes. At the lodge’s many feeders, seeing more than a dozen varieties of hummingbirds in an hour is not uncommon. Nearly 300 bird species have been seen there over the years.
Similarly, on a trip to southeast Arizona many moons ago, I visited a place known back then as Paton’s yard. It has since been purchased by Tucson Audubon, and it’s called the Paton Center for Hummingbirds – named for the 14 species of hummers that have been seen there.
Overall, more than 230 other species of birds have been reported at Paton’s – including violet-crowned hummingbirds, gray hawks, varied buntings, thick-billed kingbirds, and many more local specialties.
The places in both Arizona and Ecuador are unique as well, but that little backyard in Cuba’s Matanzas province mesmerized me the most.
Bernabe’s yard is the result of a happy accident and a bit of imagination that have created an attraction known worldwide. It is also a reminder that nature, like charity, begins at home – and that sometimes thinking small is the best way to go.
The Bird Watcher column appears every other Thursday. His next book, "The Screech Owl Companion," will be published by Timber Press. Email Jim at [email protected].