If you had your choice of one bird family to pursue, to seek out and observe and photograph and kvell over, which one would you choose? It’s a question I’ve occasionally pondered, and one that doesn’t draw on one’s intellect as much as one’s spirit–there are simply certain birds, and by extension bird families, that you feel drawn to, that are meaningful in ways that aren’t always clear. A passion for one bird family is also very useful. It provides goals and a definite direction for your birding travels and thoughts; sometimes it even becomes the basis of a book! In 2012, I reviewed The Jewel Hunter, an absorbing narrative in which author Chris Goodie travelled throughout Asia, Africa, and Australasia to observe and photograph every Pitta species in the world. Pitta was an excellent choice for the project: pitta species are few in number, even with the splits that occurred after Goodie’s journeys, and they are “sexy”–beautiful but mysterious.
Hummingbird species, on the other hand, number in the hundreds. The International Ornithological Congress (IOC) lists 361 hummingbird species in family Trochilidae; Birdlife International list 368 species, including two that are extinct; Cornell University Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World database has it down to a mere 349 species in 107 genera.* So, when British natural history writer Jon Dunn (not to be confused with U.S. field guide writer and ornithologist Jon Dunn), decided to pursue his passion for hummingbirds, he smartly did not aim to see every hummingbird in the world. His goal, as articulated in the Introduction to his new book, The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds, was to get a deeper understanding of how they live and survive: “to see for myself the habitats and forces that shaped and formed them over millennia, and to understand how they were responding to newer, more urgent pressures and changes in their worlds” (p.xvii). Also, in grand birding tradition, he wanted to see hummingbirds at extremes, both in location and in appearance–the rarest, the smallest, the most striking and unusual, those on the verge of extinction, those that migrate to the furthest corners of our planet.
The Marvelous Spatuletail as it appears in a video about The Glitter in the Green. It is also one of the photographs by author Jon Dunn that appears in the book itself. https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/jon-dunn/the-glitter-in-the-green/9781541618190/, © 2021 Jon Dunn
The geographic extremes provide the framework for this natural history narrative. Dunn starts in Alaska with the goal of seeing Rufous Hummingbird at the northern extreme of its migration (which he does with some effort and a few bear sightings) and ends in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, “the end of the world,” with the sighting of a Green-backed Firecrown feeding at a firetree in cold drizzly rain. In between, he takes us to the sky canyons of Arizona; botanical gardens on the Pacific coast of Mexico; the swamps and gardens of Cuba; waterfalls in Costa Rica; mountains of Colombia; volcano ledges and feeding stations in Ecuador; a community-owned lodge in the mountains of Peru; a small house at the end of a muddy track somewhere in Brazil; a country’s capital in the midst political unrest in Bolivia; and a small Chilean island named after one of literature’s most famous fictional survivor, Isla Robinson Crusoe, home of the endangered Juan Fernández Firecrown. As he explains in the Introduction, this was not all one trip and his travels took place over several years but shaped by Dunn’s stories the chapters flow seamlessly into one another, leading us through a series of colorful worlds and adventures, with fascinating digressions into hummingbird anatomy, DNA and migratory research, their complicated history with humans and their place in art, folklore, and literature.
Like all talented travel writers, Dunn is adept at drawing us into his experiences. We listen in on conversations with people he meets along the way–ornithologists, local birders, drivers, and guides, and just plain local people that he runs into as he rummages through villages, ferries across channels, and explores city markets. (His guides include our own Patrick O’Donnell, who leads Dunn on a quest to see as many hummingbird species as possible across Costa Rica in just two days, an adventure described in his 2015 post “A Hummingbird Quest in Costa Rica.”) We hear Dunn’s musings of the moment as he observes his target hummingbirds–paeans to their beauty of course, but also observations on their behavior, thoughts on their place in our current disruptive environment, worries for their future balanced against the joy and calm Dunn feels in their presence.
The hummingbird adventures are constructed as mini-dramas and even a wonderfully peaceful place like Septimo Paraiso Lodge in the Mindo Valley of Ecuador (where I’ve also had the joy of watching Booted Racket-tails, Violet-tailed Sylphs, and Purple-bibbed Whitetips zoom around the many feeders) takes on suspense as Dunn and his tour companions face off against two Belgium photographers who have dismantled the feeding station and substituted a staged flower surrounded by flashguns. More dramatically memorable is Dunn’s experience in Bolivia, where he hoped to travel to Chalalan Lodge, an eco-lodge run by the local indigenous population, but ends up facing the 2019 election protests with blockades and a threat of violence at every road leaving the city. But there are chapters in his journey that defy the urge for drama and are simply beautiful in the telling. Such is the story of his visit to Senhor Jonas D’Abronzo, whose home, at the end of that long, muddy, undulating track outside Ubatuba, Brazil, is also home to the Festive Coquette, a near-threatened species with a limited range along the southeast coast of Brazil. Senhor D’Abronzo chose the isolated place because he wanted to be a hermit, he tells Dunn, but he loves his hummingbirds–not just Coquettes–and has opened his home to birders from all over the world and even nurses hummingbirds injured in their never-ending feeder spats. There is a photo of him caring for a White-chinned Sapphire in the book, the only human pictured in Dunn’s 16-page collection of hummingbird photographs, and it is inspiring.
A good part of The Glitter in the Green is devoted to the history of how hummingbirds have been treated and depicted and valued or not valued by human beings. It’s engaging material, at times fascinating, at times a bit too much. Dunn’s Renaissance mind seems to have never met a reference to hummingbirds that didn’t deserve attention: The Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli, who is often depicted as a hummingbird; the life and career of John Gould, the Victorian ornithologist who obsessively collected dead hummingbirds in his London home; the trafficking in dead hummingbirds as love charms in Mexican markets; the trafficking in hummingbird feathers in the 19th-century, including fake flowers made of hummingbird feathers sold in Brazil ; hummingbirds in the poetry of D.H. Lawrence and Pablo Neruda; the life of Andrew Selkirk, the stranded privateer who became Daniel Defoe’s inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. There’s more! A lot more! And though most of Dunn’s historical and literary stories serve specific purposes in each chapter, I wonder if every single reference is necessary. Do we really need to know about the hummingbirds in the gardens in Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban estate? Is all that material on Selkirk needed? A little online research into some of these topics, however–like Elizabeth Gould, an extremely talented woman who illustrated her husband’s bird treatises and who despaired of his collecting habit–and I realize that Dunn was probably exercising a lot of restraint. There really is an awful lot of cultural and historical material out there about hummingbirds and the people who were and are drawn to them.
One of Dunn’s biggest challenges in writing this book, I imagine, was describing the objects of his passion. I mean, hummingbirds are beautiful. Their feathers are the colors of jewels, iridescently changing color as they fly in and out of light and shadow, some have crazy headdresses, others have impossibly long tails, and they are impossible to photograph because they are seldom still and when they are still it’s usually in the shadow of the green leaves of a bush (thus, the “glitter in the green”). What else is there to say? Dunn finds a way, over and over again, in prose that is specific, surprisingly sparing in superlatives, and smartly aligned with each hummingbird’s behavior. Here is Dusky Starfrontlet, an elusive bird Dunn pursues in an all-night drive on a twisting road, followed by a taxi ride, a hike, horseback:
Black as tar, a long straight thin bill, and a glittering obsidian eye that stared watchfully back at me. He cocked his head slightly, and his throat lit up cobalt blue, while his forecrown blazed golden green. A small shift on his perch, and the whole bird was alight–his breast and belly made up of many dozens of iridescent, coruscating scales of lime green. He looked otherworldly, like some enamelled hummingbird god fallen to earth. I hardly dared to breath. (p. 151)
And Marvelous Spatuletail, an exceptionally beautiful and endangered hummingbird of the Andean cloud forest, which Dunn sees at Huembo Lodge, a refuge established for the Marvelous Spatuletail by Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN) and the American Bird Conservancy (not the American Birding Association, as Dunn mistakenly writes) with the cooperation of local communities:
A searing bolt of turquoise, the colour of Caribbean water over white coral sand, shone from its throat above a tiny white body bisected by an inky-black stripe. Beneath him hung two midnight-purple discs, seemingly unattached from the bird itself, so thin were the filaments of feather spine that supported them. He sat…his crown giving searing shafts of violet as the light caught the feathers at just the right angle. This is what the female birds saw when he displayed to them, these arresting blazes of blue and purple. (p. 212)
Complementing Dunn’s exquisite descriptions are his photographs of 27 species plus the mysterious Nazca hummingbird geoglyph, an abandoned Juan Fernández Firecrown nest, and the aforementioned photo of Sr. Jonas D’Abronzo. It’s a fine collection of images, especially considering Dunn’s difficulty in getting photographs of all the hummingbirds he observed and the difficulty in general of photographing these birds without elaborate setups. I had hoped for more. I’m surprised that the book doesn’t include images reflecting some of the hummingbird and human history Dunn writes about in such detail. Portraits of John Gould and Elizabeth Gould, for example, are in the public domain and plates from Gould’s books, including depictions of hummingbirds, have been digitized by universities and are available online.
Other features I wish had been included: a map showing Dunn’s travels and stops and a list of all the hummingbirds he saw across the American continents and islands. The latter is a feature that probably only a birder would love, and Jon Dunn tells us from the beginning that he is not a lister (the exception being his home in the Shetland Islands). Still, I would really love to see this in some form. I would also love to have more documentation of the many books, articles, research points, and stories that Dunn relates, at the very least a list of sources. Thankfully, there is an index–not a scientific index, hummingbirds are listed by their whole name (‘Rufous Hummingbird’ rather than ‘Hummingbird, Rufous’)–but it is a help in tracking down the many stories and facts contained in these ten chapters.
The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds is a book of natural history, a travel narrative, a tale of obsession, a layered mix of ornithological research, folklore, myths, art, literature, and history about hummingbirds, their habitats, and their people. It is also a story about conservation: the danger hummingbirds have always been in from all sides, natural and human-made, and the ways in which individuals, community groups, and larger organizations are working to protect them. Dunn witnesses some small victories–Huembo Lodge, devoted to saving the Marvelous Spatuletail, and describes others–a community in Ecuador where women grow native plants to help reverse the decline of birds like the Black-breasted Puffleg. There are also frustrations, such as the faltering efforts of the Isla Robinson Crusoe conservation group, which can’t stop the spread of invasive plants, feral cats, and bird disease that is probably dooming the Juan Fernández Firecrown. In the Epilogue, he places the hummingbird’s place on the precipice within the larger issues of climate change.
Jon Dunn has no immediate solutions or big answers. He’s a writer, so he has written this book. It’s an engaging, at times enthralling, always well-written book, one that can be read as an entertaining ‘summer read’ or for its plethora of birding information or as one obsessive birder identifying with the passions of another obsessive birder. I hope by this time you have settled on a bird family for your avian obsession. (I don’t want to commit just yet, but I’m leaning towards Plovers.) And if you’re not sure what your next step should be, The Glitter in the Green provides not one, not two, but numerous road maps–research, travel, observe, worry, exult, then research and travel again.
- Gill, F.; Donsker, D.; Rasmussen, P. (January 2021). “IOC World Bird List (v 11.1)”. Retrieved January 14, 2021; cited in “Hummingbirds,” Wikipedia, retrieved July 4, 2021; Birdlife International “Datazone,” http://datazone.birdlife.org/quicksearch?qs=hummingbird, retrieved July 4, 2021; Winkler, D. W., S. M. Billerman, and I.J. Lovette (2020). Hummingbirds (Trochilidae), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, B. K. Keeney, P. G. Rodewald, and T. S. Schulenberg, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi-org.proxy.library.cornell.edu/10.2173/bow.trochi1.01
The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds
by Jon Dunn
Basic Books, 2021, 352 pages; U.K. edition published by Bloomsbury
ISBN-10 ? : ? 154161819X; ISBN-13 ? : ? 978-1541618190
Hardcover: $30.00 (discounts from the usual sources); also available in digital and audio formats; paperback due out in May 2022.