Saturday, December 11, 2010

Anna's hummingbird is the star of Joe Neal's Christmas story

Joe Neal writes:
Out of the blue, out of the Far Western Ether, a star is born, a few ounces of feathered reality finds a feeder at a farm near Fayetteville: Anna’s Hummingbird. The world of the western Ozarks in Arkansas has never seen anything like it. Those of us with an interest in such undertake the journey, from afar if necessary, not on camels exactly, but we hear the message, we can’t resist the pull of celestial gravity.

Sara Cain-Bartlett has made her front porch available to both the bird and to visiting birders. Bob and Martha Sargent traveled from afar (Alabama) to band it and to document it in the way of scientists. Observers and photographers have turned the Bartlett front yard into a sacred space. We hope for it on the Fayetteville Christmas Bird Count on December 19.

As curator of bird records for Arkansas Audubon Society, I can tell you in a quantitative way that this bird represents one of a very few records for the whole great Natural State. Despite all the feeders, despite ardent bird watchers, despite the presence in Fayetteville of the Natural State’s greatest institution of higher learnin’, this is the first Anna’s in “these here (Ozark) parts”. So does this mean the world is warming? Does it mean Anna’s has lost its way? Does it mean we have more feeders? Does it mean that despite thinking we know EVERYTHING that needs to be known, we don’t? Maybe there’s still this one thing, a few ounces of feathers and a few thousand miles of travel, that we just don’t know the WHY of?

And, can it survive winter in the Ozarks? Those of you who are connoisseurs of the arcane may appreciate that the same Ozarks now hosting Anna’s in December has also hosted winter Say’s Phoebe, another westerner. One bird has returned three years to a farm in Boone County! We saw one in February during a Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trip. On 7 January 2010, I photographed Say’s Phoebe as it foraged alongside a chicken house in the middle of an ice storm. This Anna’s Hummingbird, too, may benefit from the near presence of cover, poultry houses, farm animals, and a welcoming family, not to mention a heat lamp!

As I was taught as a child, the original Christmas story extolled the virtue of hope and possibility in a world where even a pregnant young woman was denied room at the inn. Instead, she gave birth in a manger. Sara could have blocked all of us from coming to her home to see her hummingbird, but didn’t. Bob could have refused to evaluate pictures or to band the bird – but didn’t. Birdwise, it is a season of generosity.

It’s a hopeful sign, when just as we think we know it all, out of the Far West –and straight out of the heart of quantitative improbability -- comes Anna’s Hummingbird. A young male, he’s a creature with star power, on a farm, in a small community, in Arkansas. Birdwise at least, it’s a hopeful season.

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