In memory, there’s nothing so thrilling as the sudden pulling up into an arc — those Gs! — and flying upside down, hanging from straps with the earth 3,000 feet below and the blue Pacific stretching forever.
Something tiny darts through my peripheral vision. I put my book down and go to the back door. A ruby-throated hummingbird is in full aerial dogfight mode.
The enemy: a nuthatch minding his own business on the trunk of the sycamore and a skittish chickadee hunting seed on the patio slates.
The hummer is having none of either. I assume she’s protecting her young in a nearby nest. Out! Out of my territory! I watch with fascination her zips, hovers, banks, and dives. The sound is that of a tiny motor — no, more like a tiny fan on HI. Her attacks, beak first, are aimed at the heads of the interlopers. She doesn’t miss. She’s a missile.
In my younger years when there was nothing I wouldn’t try at least once, I did some aerobatic flying with a friend who was equally as experimental. An R&D engineer who knew his physics, he’d draw the maneuvers on paper. Inside loops, outside loops, lazy 8s. I’d see on his face the thrill of it, and he probably read expectation on mine. “Let’s do it!” I’d say.
We’d strap ourselves in – him in the front seat, me in the back – and take off in his single-wing from a small airfield north of San Diego. The smell of motor oil, cockpit leather, and runway dust, then clean air and cloud; the sound of a revving engine and our shouts to be heard over it. There’s nothing so thrilling as the sudden pulling up into an arc — those Gs! — and flying upside down, hanging from straps with the earth 3,000 feet below and the blue Pacific stretching forever. Among other tricks, he showed me the Immelmann, that elegant maneuver of WWII’s drop-the-bomb-on-the-Allies-and-run.
Now, the hummingbird’s dogfight brings all this sweet history back to me. I love her feroscity. The nuthatch and chickadee are embattled. Not willing to give up so quickly – there are tasty seeds in the patio – the chickadee hangs on until the hummer’s sharp beak convinces him otherwise. As for the nuthatch, braver, hanging in there longer, he finally realizes he’s no match for a mother hummer and retreats to the far side of the sycamore trunk where I last see him perched, as still as a mouse, hiding.
My father was an avocational pilot, and in his younger years he, too, did some aerobatic flying. He learned his barrel rolls, loop-de-lous, and wingovers from the barnstormers whose flying circus he joined, preferring ticket-taking to algebra, then wing-walking to high school. He understood the physics of the airfoil and explained this phenomenon to me using a model airplane. My mother, protecting her young, objected: “No, you may not take the children up when you do that dangerous stuff.” He promised, and he was as good as his word. But I remembered and was hungry for it.
I take the binoculars to the patio and follow the hummer to her nest. It’s about twenty feet up, glued to a branch that’s amazingly out in the open, but almost invisible. Tiny, the size of a walnut, like a black and white basket, and tightly woven. She zips into the woods and returns for a moment, checking. She zips into the garden and returns for a second, checking again. Then, certain that the enemy has been banished, at least nor now, she leaves her two tiny babies in their sunny cradle of woven spider’s silk, and she’s off again to feed that hunger, taking a left wingover as she reaches the honeysuckle in the pine grove.
Photo credit: Matt Bowen