March 15, 2023
When I left snow-covered Montana a few days ago to visit friends in Seattle, Washington, it was a sudden transition from the depths of late winter into full-fledged spring. Today, the morning sun is making the feathery branches of the western redcedars glow a soft green. It illuminates a dark-eyed junco, trilling exuberantly from the willow at the edge of the lake. All around Seattle, the dandelions are emerging like brilliant spots of sunshine among the grasses.
In the middle of this bustling city, Green Lake Park is an oasis of water and plants, humming with humans and birds. People walk, jog, and push strollers along the paved trail that circles around this urban lake. American wigeons and Canada geese graze on the lawns. Song sparrows sing from the cattails and the Himalayan blackberries along the water, and golden-crowned kinglets flit along the Douglas-fir branches, gleaning tiny invertebrates.
A few days ago, the ruby-crowned kinglets started their springtime singing here. Now we can hear them all around the park, the lispy introductory notes of their song transforming suddenly into an exuberant, chattering crescendo.
Connecting with the birds
“It’s been spring for the birds for a while,” says Roniq Bartanen.
Roniq, a professional bird guide (find out more about her work here), has been watching the birds at Green Lake for years. Today, I’m one of over 20 people who have joined her for the free monthly bird walk she leads here. It’s one of a number of these regular, urban bird walks, coordinated by Birds Connect Seattle. This organization – which envisions “cities where birds and people thrive” – recently changed its name from Seattle Audubon. The new name emphasizes all of the ways that birds connect us to each other, the landscape around us, and the larger world.
At Green Lake Park, the plants, too, are telling us of connection with the birds. The red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is in full bloom, its clusters of rich pink flowers contrasting with the unfolding, deeply textured leaves. Roniq says that, in this coastal ecosystem, it’s one of the earliest native plants to flower. In her yard, it’s been blooming for nearly a month already. The Anna’s hummingbirds, which remain around Seattle throughout the winter, often visit these striking pink blooms. Before long, the highly-migratory rufous hummingbirds will join them here as these long-distance travelers return from their winter homes in Mexico.
More signs of spring
Over the course of our bird walk, signs of spring are all around us. And it’s not just the blooms of the dandelions and red-flowering currants. A pair of bushtits are starting to build their sock-like, hanging nest in a western redcedar. A great blue heron standing in the shallows is sporting its long, breeding-season feather plumes. At one point, I see a black-capped chickadee disappearing into the decaying end of a broken birch branch, where it presumably has its nest.
“This is the time of year when the hormones are going, so the birds are moving fast… they’re chasing each other, they’re building nests,” Roniq says.
It’s an exciting time to be walking here, sharing the wonder of the season.
Easily distracted by conversation and by so many birds, I find myself lagging behind most of the group. I’m with a few other birders, walking slowly, when we see an Anna’s hummingbird doing something that surprises me. She’s hovering near a sprawling tangle of Himalayan blackberries along the water’s edge. As we watch, she moves methodically from one blackberry leaf to the next, probing the edges of the undersides with her slender beak.
The Anna’s hummingbird mystery
Hummingbirds are well-known for feeding on flower nectar… but the blackberries are nowhere near flowering yet. What is she doing?
I already know that, besides drinking nectar, these miniature birds also feed on a variety of insects. Could this one be finding some tiny creatures to eat on the blackberry? We continue to watch with curiosity as she hovers with agility and then zooms forward to probe another blackberry leaf. She’s clearly finding something that’s of interest.
“[She] literally is just going one by one, checking everything,” says fellow birder Ross McLane.
Ross keeps watching the hummingbird while I pull my camera out and manage to get photos of her behavior. After a few minutes, she zooms off, and I walk over to take a closer look at the blackberry leaves.
Himalayan blackberries (Rubus discolor) first came to Seattle around 1900, after fruit breeder Luther Burbank brought them to California in hopes of starting a new fruit-growing industry. The blackberries – which Burbank dubbed “Himalayan” as a marketing gimmick (they’re actually native to Armenia and Iran) – became wildly successful. They spread extensively into natural areas around Seattle and all along the Pacific Coast, offering their large, tasty fruits to anyone who could pick them. But the success of the blackberries came at a cost. Their fearsomely thorny stems, which can arch higher than my head, have crowded out many of the native plants that once grew here.
In Green Lake Park, a group called the Green Seattle Partnership is actively managing the Himalayan blackberry, removing patches of it by hand and replanting native species, such as goldenrod and red-flowering currant.
To learn more about the blackberries and the restoration work, I interviewed Ash Lehto, who works as a Stewardship Coordinator for the nonprofit Forterra and is part of the Green Seattle collaboration.
“Our relationship to blackberry is very complex in the Seattle area,” she told me.
A complicated plant
On one hand, the blackberry acts like a “bully,” growing so fast and forming such dense thickets that it tends to push out other species. On the other hand, it’s a popular plant for wildlife. It provides cover for rabbits and manages to grow in some of the most inhospitable places in Seattle. And it’s not just rabbits that the blackberry supports.
“Birds really like these plants – they like the flowers and they like the fruits,” Ash told me.
That’s why, whenever the Green Seattle group decides to remove a patch of Himalayan blackberry, they focus on replacing it with native plants that offer similar benefits (and also provide much better habitat for native insects). Among these native plants, Ash mentions that salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) and thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) offer summer fruits for people and wildlife. Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) fruits stick around through the winter, offering a later-season food source for the birds. Meanwhile, species like the red-flowering currant offer spring flowers for hummingbirds and bees.
It’s not just about fruits and flowers, though. To feed the birds, insects are essential – and to support them, we need native plants. Ed Dominguez, Lead Naturalist at the Seward Park Audubon Center and another partner with Green Seattle, told me more about restoring bird habitat in Seattle’s urban parks.
“The indigenous plants are the ones the insects select,” Ed reiterated. And, once again, those same insects are critical food for migrating and nesting birds.
Among some of Ed’s favorite native plants for restoration projects are beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis), salal (Gaultheria shallon), and wild ginger (Asarum caudatum).
Anna’s hummingbird behavior
In Green Lake Park, gradually removing many of the blackberries will benefit plant diversity – and the birds and insects. But in the meanwhile, this hummingbird is showing a lot of interest in the blackberry patch. Why?
Up close, the Himalayan blackberry leaves are rough, like sandpaper. They’re paler below, with a few curved prickles along the midrib. When I hold one up for a closer look, the sun shines through it, lighting up a fine pattern of reticulated veins.
Was the hummingbird hunting aphids? I wonder. But when I check the undersides of the leaves, I see neither aphids, nor other insects, nor anything else that catches my attention. The mystery remains.
When I catch up with the main group, I ask Roniq about the hummingbird’s behavior. Has she seen anything like this before?
In addition to the insect-hunting idea, Roniq suggests spiderweb-gathering as another possible explanation. Anna’s hummingbirds commonly use spiderwebs – along with lichens and mosses – to construct their nests, she tells me. And for these year-round Pacific Northwest birds, the nesting season is already in full swing.
“Anna’s hummingbirds nest earlier than a lot of other birds – they’ve been nesting since February,” Roniq continues.
Indeed, even during my short visit to Seattle, the nesting of the hummingbirds has already become a common theme. A few days before, I found a nest in West Seattle’s Schmitz Park, an urban patch of old-growth forest that has survived a century and a half of logging and house-building. That day, it was the movement that showed me the nest: a tiny whirring flash of green as the Anna’s hummingbird dove from a branch towards the forest floor. As I watched carefully, she levitated towards the canopy once again. Then, suddenly, the movement stopped. And where she stopped was her nest, a tiny cup of mosses and lichens on top of a gently sloping alder branch.
After Roniq mentions the spiderwebs, I take another look at my photos of that nest. Now that I’m paying attention, I can see the glint of the spider silk this female has woven through the wall of her nest.
As I’ve started getting to know the plants and creatures of Seattle’s urban spaces, the Anna’s hummingbirds – like the Himalayan blackberries – are proving to be my frequent companions. Over the last half-century, these tiny, iridescent birds have become beloved residents of Seattle’s neighborhoods and gardens. (If you see a hummingbird in the city in mid-winter, before the migratory rufous hummingbirds return in March or April, it’s very likely this species.) But surprisingly, the Anna’s hummingbirds – like the vigorous blackberries that sprawl through Green Lake Park and greet multitudes of motorists along the I-5 – are relative newcomers to the area.
Adapting to the urban landscape
Anna’s hummingbirds arrived in Seattle in the 1960s. Originally they were birds of California’s coastal region, where they would start nesting when the late-winter rains triggered the blooming of the local currants (Ribes spp.). But with the growth of cities along the West Coast, these four-gram hummingbirds started finding that neighborhoods were an acceptable substitute for the southern California chaparral. Where houses, gardens, and hummingbird feeders had replaced the old-growth forests, Anna’s hummingbirds began to find a home in the urban landscape of the coastal Northwest. Now, just like Himalayan blackberry, Anna’s hummingbirds are a well-established part of Seattle’s urban landscape.
It’s just half an hour after we notice the Anna’s hummingbird probing the blackberry leaves in Green Lake Park that we find the day’s first hummingbird nest. Once again, it’s the female’s movements that show us the nest, a miniature cup resting on top of the horizontal branch of a white pine. She stays on her nest briefly, then departs again. On the other side of the paved trail from the white pine, 22 birders have their binoculars and cameras raised. Everything else is momentarily forgotten as we gape at the miniature nest, in awe of the magic of spring.
Even to sharp eyes, the nest blends in very well, a tiny cup on the branch of the white pine.
“I have it now, but it took me forever to find it,” says Rayne Wilder.
Its sides are fluffy with what appears to be cattail down, blended with mosses, lichens, and the telltale glint of spiderwebs. If we hadn’t seen the hummingbird’s movement, we would have walked right past it without noticing.
“It blows my mind that it’s so small,” says Ross McLane. “I can’t imagine there are babies in there.”
Farther down the trail, someone notices another Anna’s hummingbird. This one is still in the middle of the nest-building process, carrying material to the spreading limb of a large Douglas-fir. It’s tempting to keep watching her: nest-building is a fascinating process. But it’s also an especially sensitive time for the birds, and Roniq encourages us all to move along and leave the hummingbird in peace.
“We are in their territory, they’re not in ours,” she reminds us.
Solving the Anna’s hummingbird mystery
It’s been an incredible morning at Green Lake, full of the exuberance of spring. The air around us has been filled with the melodies of the song sparrows and the occasional bubbling trills of a Pacific wren. But the puzzle of the Anna’s hummingbird and the blackberry remains. What was she doing?
I read more about Anna’s hummingbirds in Birds of the World, a wonderful online reference full of painstaking detail about the biology of the birds around us. In terms of insect hunting, it’s somewhat common to see these hummers catching midges in mid-air. They’re also known to visit spiderwebs for insects, robbing the spiders’ catch. And in one California study, researchers noticed that Anna’s hummingbirds often hunted whiteflies (family Aleyrodidae) on blackberry leaves from April through mid-summer.
So was the female we saw catching whiteflies or aphids, gathering spider silk for a nest, or doing something entirely unrelated? In the end, without directly observing what she was gathering, there’s no way to know for sure.
When I mention the hummingbird to Ed Dominguez, though, he tells me that he has seen similar behaviors. Ed, who has much more experience with Seattle’s birds and blackberries than I do, thinks that she was most likely gathering spider silk – or possibly hunting spiders.
“Spiders are a real delicacy for them,” he tells me.
Ed frequently sees spiders on the Himalayan blackberry leaves. Aphids? Not so much. Come to think of it, that makes sense. Most of the world’s 4000+ aphid species are specialists on particular plants. Around Seattle, then, we’re likely to find these specialist aphids on the native plants that they’ve coevolved with.
Sparks of curiosity
It lasted just a few moments. An everyday mystery: in a tangle of blackberry in the middle of a massive city, an Anna’s hummingbird was behaving in a way I didn’t understand. This spark of curiosity led me towards some delightful and informative conversations with several of Seattle’s excellent naturalists. It led me towards more questions – and, eventually, towards a glimpse of the complicated dance between a non-native blackberry, a sort-of native hummingbird, some unseen spiders, some missing aphids, and the nuances of Seattle’s native plant restoration efforts. The puzzle of the hummingbird on the blackberry leaves was a reminder – like the well-hidden nests along Green Lake’s busy trail – that the world is complicated and wonderful. And by paying attention to the creatures around us, we can connect with that wonder – and with each other.
So next time you find yourself around Anna’s hummingbirds and blackberries, keep your eyes open. Watch for foraging behaviors and check for signs of spider silk and tiny insects. And, if you’d like, let me know what you see.
City of Seattle. (n.d.). Green Lake vegetation management guidelines. Retrieved from https://www.seattle.gov/documents/Departments/ParksAndRecreation/PoliciesPlanning/Vegetation%20Management%20Plans/GreenLakeVMP.pdf
Clark, C.J. & Russell, S.M. (2020). Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A.F. Poole, ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.annhum.01
Dornfield, A. (2016, August 29). The strange, twisted story behind Seattle’s blackberries. National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/08/29/491797791/the-strange-twisted-story-behind-seattles-blackberries
Healy, S. & Calder, W.A. (2020). Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A.F. Poole, ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.rufhum.01
Legg, K. & Pitelka, F.A. (1956). Ecologic overlap of Allen and Anna hummingbirds nesting at Santa Cruz, California. The Condor 58(6):393-405. Retrieved from https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/condor/v058n06/p0393-p0405.pdf
Peccoud, J., Simon, J., von Dohlen, C., Couer d’acier, A., Plantegenest, M., Vanlerberghe-Masutti, F., & Jousselin, E. (2010). Evolutionary history of aphid-plant associations and their role in aphid diversification. Comptes Rendus Biologies 333(6-7):474-487. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1631069110001095
4 Replies to “Spring in Seattle and an Anna’s hummingbird mystery”
I wish I had paid more attention to the hummingbirds. When I lived in a town east of Seattle we had hummingbirds create their nest on the balcony flowers we set out.
Great story Shane!
Thanks, Laura! Neat that the hummingbirds would nest on your balcony!
There’s another mystery, in the Olympia area, about Anna’s Hummingbirds. Namely, that they’re missing… both my mother and I are used to them sticking around all winter, and regularly visiting us. They’re such bossy, bold little things, unafraid of anything! This year, they all disappeared several months ago, and neither of us have seen any at our houses. My mother did hear from one person who saw one grounded, unwell and unable to fly, leaving them wondering if the latest outbreak of bird flu might have affected them, but she didn’t witness it herself. Hopefully, they just migrated to higher ground for some reason… but it doesn’t fit their pattern from prior years, if so.
Hi Cas, thanks for sharing that troubling news. I hope they come back – it’s always concerning to see unexplained bird disappearances.