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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Firecrackers!

Updated: Dec 1, 2022



“Pit-chew!” Like a gunshot it rings! The chase is on… Iridescent colors zip past a background of blazing red flowers where territorial boundaries are crossed and a frenzy of miniature battles ensues. The combatants arch skyward, simultaneously freeze in midflight, clash, and as a single tormented entity, spiral back down into the underbrush. Scolding succumbs to feeding and each appears to do so right along that unforeseen border that initiated this little episode.

What is this, the wild west?!

I am hunkered down a thousand feet above the ocean on the island of St Thomas. More specifically, I am in the parking lot of the St Peter Great House and Botanical Gardens. Located opposite to the entrance of the grounds, a large stone wall rises toward the main road. A luxuriant bloom of firecracker plants, Russelia equisetiformis, seems to have filled every conceivable nook. Its spindly, rush-like stems host a cluster of deep red, tubular flowers creating a graceful cascade of colorful overlapping arches. I made a point of arriving early to avoid the onslaught of “safari” taxis that will eventually fill the lot – five cruise ships arrived last night.

I have toured the grounds once some years ago but now my interest lies opposite its gardens. Here lies Hummingbird Haven; a personal roadside refreshment stand, as it was. Antillean crested hummingbirds (Orthorhynchus cristatus) dominate the scene.

Found in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Lesser Antilles, this little green bird (less than four inches) has a ”big” chip on its shoulder. Encompassing the entire backside of this car park, an individual’s domain encompasses a stretch of about four car spaces or about thirty feet. However, I noticed at the furthest corner the firecracker’s blooms continued unabated almost right up against the guard-rail. This perpendicular hunk of real estate was one third the size across the face but made up the difference as it continued uphill.

At times I must have been quite the sight standing in my “camera-ready” position for nearly an hour. This generally happened when something really piques my interest, e.g., upon discovering a perching platform - easily identified by its white guano stains.

The most opportune moments were just after a territorial dispute. Often after incessant chiding, a virtual stand-off ensued. Clearly agitated, the birds faced each other, posturing to reflect a brilliant iridescent blue-green crest. This continued until one decided to groom, flew off to feed, or give chase when another interloper just flew right through his home, literally, again.

The irascibility of these little bundles of energy cannot be emphasized enough. Here is an excerpt from Sydney Porter, “Notes on the Birds of Dominica,” Aviculture Magazine, 1930. “No bird is more pugnacious than this tiny mite; he will attack birds twenty times his own size, especially Hawks, and even a male and female cannot meet without slight difference of opinion. I have noticed the little hummers busily engaged around the flowers, when suddenly they have heard the sound of a fight, and they have gone off in the direction like the shot from a gun. Like the proverbial Irishman, if there is a row he will be there…”

“Zzzzzt, zzzzt, tsleee, tsleee!” The clamor continues. I swing like a pendulum with my camera glued to my face in an attempt to capture the action.


I glance outside my field of view towards a distant commotion. I discover a larger hummer with a decurved bill; he slides back, turns, faces his adversary and with indifference, goes back to feeding. It lands. I indirectly approach, slowly walking behind a parked car. He turns to look, what a magnificent green gorget!












He takes wing, shrugging off the taunts of its smaller brethren. As it feeds I see its blue chest band. This is the Green-throated carib (Eulampis holosericeus).















Finally a sighting of a female; she hangs out in the back, near the upper edge directly in line with parking space number six. Lacking the crest, I thought it to be another species. No chaperon here, she was as combative as the others, turning away suitors with real attitude. Moreover she was the only hummer, other than the two caribs, to hightail it out of here after a feed.



The few times activity ceased is when a kestrel flew past or a stiff, insistent breeze whipped through. Often, the latter loosened flowers and leaves blanketing the ground with a brilliant red and green garnish.

Other nectar feeding critters included various flower flies, wasps and butterflies. A beautifully banded white and black heliconian conveniently alighted for a feed.

A katydid is undaunted when an Anolis lizard springs onto its perch. Resident Bananaquits (Coereba flaveola) and Black-faced grassquits (Tiaris bicolor) also had an affinity for nectar. Their presence was tolerated but only after an initial reproach.

I spent most of my time with a little guy who would do a nifty side shuffle each time he landed. Pollen and nectar accumulated at the base of his bill giving it a crusty white appearance. With crest flattened, I noticed how he would slide his bill into a drooping flower then raise it horizontally, before feeding.

When it came to a territorial display he fired away with wings spread, throat puffed out and leaned forward to emphasize that gorgeous glistening blue-green crest. Head on it was quite a site; flashing what appears to be a metallic shield atop its crown.


“Pit-chew!” Like a ricocheting bullet, another firecracker goes off! Can you imagine doing this routine all day, day after day, for your entire life? I’m not going to complain about standing all morning. Actually I feel fortunate to have been able to experience the behavior of these little guys. So if you have some time while in St Thomas, head out to the gardens. Remember upon arriving as you step out, turn around and take a walk to the wild side. You’ll be glad you did.


Location: Phantasea Tropical Botanical Gardens, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Date: February of 2009

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