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"Flying jewels" and other visitors

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Little did I know when we came to live in Mexico City that our garden would attract so many visitors. I'm talking specifically about members of the animal kingdom. It's not what you at first expect of an urban setting.

Of course, it goes without saying that Ozzy is King of the Garden, although this rather impressive title and his methods of ruling his kingdom are pretty dubious. He has three main modes. The first one is the Sleepily Alert mode which is his favourite. It consists of lying semi-comatose for most of the day, with an eye which occasionally opens a mere sliver whenever he hears something that could mean it's time for a walk or a treat. Sometimes it's because the large fat bumblebees which are boring holes in the beams above him have stirred him out of his coma. The second one is his Crazy Run mode. This consists of him freaking out all over the garden as if a whole swarm of those bumblebees were pursuing him. He dashes madly from one corner to the next, skidding round the corners, landing up in the bushes, his eyes desorbitados, his tongue dragging along the ground. He then comes to a sudden standstill, gets his breath back and takes off again. The third mode is the one he occasionally manifests at night, his Howling Wolf mode. When some noise, rustle or the obvious presence of an animal intruder wakes him, he stands up at the railings along the back terrace, lifts his nose to the sky and starts howling eerily like a wolf. When it continues for a prolonged period, I have to get out of my comfortable bed and investigate the cause. At my appearance, he transforms from werewolf back into a friendly dog with wagging tail.

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Ozzy in his Sleepily Alert Mode

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In his Crazy Run Mode

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Howling Wolf posture

Then there's the family or community of field mice which live (or lived, I haven't seen them for a while) out along the back wall under the bushes. What field mice are doing in the middle of Mexico City where I haven't noticed any fields at all is a big mystery. But they have taken up residence here and make occasional forays into the cupboard where we keep Ozzy's dog biscuits. I've watched a very tiny but courageous mouse scoot full speed right under Ozzy's nose and raid the cupboard in search of tasty morsels. Ozzy looks up, momentarily distracted from eating, and then with a distinct lack of interest in his eyes, goes back to his lunch. Of course, this is during the daytime. If it's at night, it may well be the trigger for his howling.

Squirrel Nutkin pays visits to the big tree in the back garden, doing acrobatics along the branches and then along the ivy-clad wall along the side, where he disappears just before coming in through the kitchen window. And we have a whole colony of lazy lizards who think of doing nothing else but sunbathing on the tiles or concrete steps... until they see some big feet coming along. This is the equivalent of waving a magician's wand because the next second, they have disappeared into thin air. The people who lived in the house before us also told us stories of meeting the mysterious tlacuache, a Mexican animal with sharp teeth and a long rat-like tail. It gave them nightmares apparently. I myself haven't seen it but there again, it could be this animal which sends Ozzy into his werewolf mode at night.

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Squirrel Nutkin

Depending on the weather, a whole collection of bright butterflies are also frequent visitors. They waltz in, flit from flower to flower on the bougainvillia bushes, have their sugary snack and then zigzag off over the top of the wall. Beautiful swallowtails, bright orange mariposas, small yellow ones and white ones too stop by for a pit-stop. And then there are the birds... house finches, sparrows, the occasional woodpecker, American robins, tiny yellowish birds which pick excitedly at the Mexican pears leaving them torn and ragged, cute cinnamon-bellied flower piercers, and many other winged creatures who have a particular liking for the huge jacaranda tree.

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Beautiful Swallowtail butterfly

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A House Finch gorging on our Mexican pears

But my favourite birds, without a doubt, are the hummingbirds or colibris. These are the most amazing creatures with feathers I have ever seen. God definitely fine-tuned them to do the most incredible things. They zip in and out before you know it, the humming of their wings alerting you to their presence well before you see them, and are the only birds which can hover and fly forwards, backwards, sideways, up, down and even upside down. As they hover by flowers or feeders, they resemble tiny jets re-fuelling in mid-flight. Truly amazing, I think.

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The irridescent colours of a male Broad Billed Hummingbird

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A streak of irridescent green as a Berylline Hummingbird flies past

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Twisting and hovering

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A female Broad Billed Hummingbird doing a backwards manoeuvre

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Lining up to feed at the feeder

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A young hummingbird re-fuelling in mid-flight

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A Berylline Hummingbird hovering, treading air

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A Broad Billed male caught in mid-flight

They may be some of the smallest birds on this planet but everything else about them, except their size, is big or fast or mind-boggling and their ordinary everyday activities are true feats of engineering. Hummingbirds are some of the the fastest fliers, reaching speeds of almost 100 kmh (60mph) in their dives. Watch them as they hover around the flowers or feeders and you can't see their wing movements or even imagine that their wings beat between 50-200 times per second and their heart rate is 1200 beats per minute! At rest they take an average 250 breaths a minute and they have a voracious appetite, visiting up to 1000 flowers a day. They don't suck nectar through their long bills but lick it up with fringed, forked tongues, licking 10-15 times a second. All that activity is bound to deplete their energy reserves rather quickly and they have to consume half their body weight in sugar every day, feeding 5-8 times an hour. Could you imagine a human having to do that?

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A dazzling dive

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A female Blue-Throated Hummingbird fanning out her tail while hovering

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The male Broad Bill has a very characteristic red bill

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A hummingbird with its tongue sticking out

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"Where's the feeder?"

In Mexico many legends and myths have grown up around the huitzilín (náhuatl word meaning hummingbird). The huitzilín was believed to possess special powers since it could appear and disappear at whim and was admired for its vigor and energy. The Aztecs believed that the souls of warriors who died in battle first formed part of the sun's brilliant retinue and then after four years went to live forever in the bodies of hummingbirds. Such was the Aztec's respect for these tiny birds that their God of Sun and War was called Huitzilopochtli, the Hummingbird Wizard, and only Aztec royalty and religious leaders were allowed to wear hummingbird feathers.

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The Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli

The Maya Indians believed that the Great God had some pieces left over after making all the other birds. As the Great God did not want to waste any pieces, he used the leftovers to create a hummingbird. To make sure the hummingbird could fly well, being so small, he gave it the gift of extraordinary flight with the ability to fly forward, backwards and even upside-down. The Great God liked this little bird so much he made another one and all the animals in the forest came to the wedding. Everything was beautiful, except for the plain grey hummingbirds. All the birds offered some of their beautiful feathers to decorate the couple and the Sun came out and married them. The Sun also promised that the hummingbirds' feathers would gleam magically as long as they looked towards the Sun.

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This photo shows the special gorget feathers on a male Blue-Throat

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When these feathers catch the sunlight, they gleam brightly

As I sit on the back terrace in my hammock-chair, hearing the whirr of their wings as they drop in from the sky and watching them hover in my face or in front of the feeder, the colibris never cease to amaze me. Catch them in the light and their irridiscent blues, greens, yellows, and reds leave you speechless. No wonder the Spanish Conquistadores, when the first saw them, called them Joyas voladoras or Flying Jewels. Colibris only live in the American Continents so they had never seen this kind of bird before. I know what they mean. Anyone coming from the Eastern Hemisphere is in for a surprise if they look carefully.

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This hummingbird is moving his wings so fast that the camera can't register them

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There are over 340 species of humming bird in the world, and 60-65 can be found in Mexico.

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Hummingbirds can reach speeds of up to 100 km when diving or swooping

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They feed 5 - 8 times an hour

I have to admit they aren't exactly the world's cheeriest birds, but are fiercely aggressive and quarrelsome, muttering irritably when others come to snack at their favourite feeder (in my garden). Nor can they walk or hop, but that doesn't seem to be a problem. They just launch themselves off the branches and fly off, giving me an aerobatic display. But I'll forgive them for these little weaknesses. As long as they continue to come to my garden and leave me mesmerised by their dazzling colours and acrobatics.

Thank goodness Ozzy has no interest in subduing these beautiful creatures which visit his Kingdom. I don't think he could anyway. He's much too slow for these speedy flying jewels.

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While I'm left in awe at these "Joyas Voladores", Ozzy doesn't show the slightest interest in them at all!

Posted by margaretm 07:47 Archived in Mexico

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Comments

Your writing is inspiring, Margaret! You should write children's books. My students would love it! Amazing pictures! Thanks for sharing.

by Debbie Lentz

Thanks, Debbie! I'll have to write a book on Mexico City for your students!

by margaretm

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