Aug 1 2016

Desert Duel

Melissa Crytzer Fry

For years, I have enjoyed the antics of hummingbirds zipping along in front of my office window.

Male Anna’s with sun reflecting off magenta head. Please — click to enlarge.

Without the sun’s reflection, the male Anna’s appears to have a black head. But his feathers are a shimmery green. Click to enlarge.

You may recall my various posts and photos of Anna’s Hummingbird babies over the years. This year has been no exception. We did, in fact, have a successful fledge of babies this spring:

Mama trying to coax baby from under the breezeway. Click to enlarge.

Baby made it safely to the low branches of a palo verde.

But something was different this year. This past weekend, I was mesmerized by the aerial displays occurring outside my writing window. I’d never before seen two hummingbirds chase one another with such intensity. Sure, they’re always territorial over food and aren’t good at sharing, but this pair was weaving in and out of razor-sharp saguaros, getting awfully close to my widows, zipping between spiky palo verde tree branches and moving at breakneck speed.

When they finally would stop, I noted that one of them – my male Anna’s – couldn’t seem to find his equilibrium. He’d try to still himself on a tiny branch, and his head would bob and sway like a dizzied top. Only when I secured the binoculars to understand why a smaller Anna’s would be in such aggressive pursuit of a larger Anna’s, did I realize the smaller was not an Anna’s at all.

Meet the Rufous Hummingbird. Click to enlarge.

In sunlight, the Rufous appears orange-brown. Click to enlarge.

We don’t see them often, as they are migratory (and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why the migration is now… It seems awfully late to be heading north!). Since I’d only seen a Rufous once or twice, I grew very impatient with my Anna’s, who was bullying the visitor (this male Anna’s is the reason I put up two feeders; he was so territorial, he wouldn’t let the females feed).

I managed to play referee, which allowed the Rufous some feeding time. Then I went to town to run errands. And when I returned … Something significant had transpired … The Rufous was now guarding the feeder, and the Annas’ (male and female) were nowhere to be seen.

Without direct sunlight, the Rufous appears green with some rust coloring on the flanks. Click to enlarge.

Without direct sunlight, the Rufous appears green with some rust coloring on the flanks. Click to enlarge.

I did some research on Rufous hummers and quickly learned from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology that the Rufous is “the feistiest hummingbird in North America” … “They are relentless attackers at flowers and feeders, going after (if not always defeating) even the large hummingbirds of the Southwest, which can be double their weight.”

Gulp. Suddenly my allegiance was called into question. I’d been so excited about this new, novel character … But my poor, reliable, familiar Anna’s…

Who was this tiny, scrappy male honing in on my year-long residents’ feeders, taking what had been theirs for many a season? Without hesitation, I sided with my Anna’s. I’d grown to love them. My relationship with them was deeper.

My beloved Anna’s male.

I did a little more research, only to realize that this little Rufous male was not a male at all. This ball-busting bird was a female. Gulp. And once again, my sympathies changed … how was she able to travel these long distances and so courageously take on these males who were twice her size, raiding foreign feeders in her quest for survival? Tenacity. Fearlessness. And even genetics, according to The Lab… “Rufous Hummingbirds have the hummingbird gift for fast, darting flight and pinpoint maneuverability. They are pugnacious birds that tirelessly chase away other hummingbirds, even in places they’re only visiting on migration.”

The male Rufous, unlike the female, has an entire head resembling hot embers. She has only this small patch.

The male Rufous, unlike the female, has an entire head resembling hot embers. She has only this small patch.

For Readers, Writers: It struck me that my flip-flopping sympathies and rollercoaster emotions are the stuff of good fiction. This is exactly what good storytelling does: Skilled authors can guide us into rooting for one character, then the next minute another – in a way that often means we are unable to reconcile in our heads and hearts how we can feel so strongly about both protagonist and villain. We seek emotion when we read, and when an author can lead us through the gamut – joy, anger, happiness, confusion – we catch our collective breath because we’ve felt something. This is good storytelling.

And as if to have the last word on this topic of good writing, my hummingbirds threw me one more storytelling curveball … this morning, a new discovery: the arrival of a second female Rufous. Now who do I root for? How will this story end? Who will win the battle of the feeders? The two Rufouses or the Anna’s? How long will the visitors stay? Will my Anna’s come back home (they are nowhere to be seen)?

Aren’t these the kinds of questions that keep readers flipping pages? Do you enjoy that kind of emotional back-and-forth in your fiction? Do you incorporate it into your fiction? What are your favorite books that offer this kind of emotional tug-and-pull?

Jun 23 2016

Night Bloom

Melissa Crytzer Fry

Once a year, The Arizona Queen of the Night – known as the Night Blooming Cereus (peniocereus greggii) – puts on a spectacular visual and olfactory show.

Largely unnoticed and ignored, this twiggy-in-appearance tuber demands attention on one special night. Bloom night occurred on June 18 this year, a time when nearly all the wild (and potted) cereuses bloom in unison, blanketing areas of the Arizona desert in a milk-and-honey-sweet perfume.

So captivated am I by this magical flower that it has made its way into my fiction (below). Don’t forget to click to enlarge the images; these photos were taken in my back yard. Two of my six Queens produced three blooms – the largest number yet, from my young plants.

She held her breath and listened. A small crackle, like the page of a book turning, rose from the plant. “Do you hear that?” They looked toward a bulb stirring, as if wind kissed. Maybe it was her own hope moving it. “It’s happening,” she said, the breath catching in her throat. It would take hours for the flowers to fully open. “Look – you can see inside.” She shined the light on the top of the blossom, revealing a tiny opening where the once-converging petals began to pull apart from the tip.

Soon the softball-sized globes would open completely, their petals nearly horizontal, stamen rising to meet the moon. Spurred by sundown, they would quiver under the cool breeze. Then upon sunrise, the white balls would close, the flowers dropping off days later, wilted, returned to the desert floor.

She looked at the white- and pink- petaled cups before her, gleaming like angel wings. She was humbled by the quickness of it, the life that had arisen before her eyes.

She was struck by the sadness that it would be gone tomorrow, fallen to the ground in the next few days. Returned to dust. But how gloriously and spectacularly it had lived.

For Readers, Writers, Everyone: Is there beauty in death? Can you think of any novels that explore that theme or instances in nature where a living thing seems too short for this Earth?