Saturday, January 5, 2013

Flossie, the Hummingbird Lady

A Broadbilled Hummingbird examines the world from its perch in Flossie's yard. In a village filled with interesting characters, Flossie the Hummingbird Lady stands in a class by herself. Her formal name is Florence Ocea Merrifield, but most people know her simply as Flossie. For many years, she has provided a seasonal home for hundreds of migrating hummingbirds, as well as a permanent one for those that are native to the area. Sometime back, I wrote a profile of her and her avian friends for Judy King's website, Mexico Insights, Living at Lake Chapala. I recently decided to up-date the piece for our blog, after checking to see that Flossie is still "alive and kickin'" and living in the area. She answered my email immediately to confirm that she is still here, in both senses, and helped me by updating some of my information. The Broadbilled hummer above is one of the medium-sized species. It can be found anywhere from the Southwestern US (Louisiana through Southern California) to Southwestern Mexico. Inside the long beak is an even longer extendable tongue used to extract nectar from flowers or catch insects on the wing.


Flossie's Place


Flossie prepares to refill one of the many feeders that attract hummingbirds like magnets. The Hummingbird Lady calls her feeding area "Flossie's Fast-Food Fly-through." For many years, she has rented a property that includes a small cottage in one corner of a huge, jungly lot at #2 Independencia, in Ajijic. Her home is just west of Calle Morelos, the street that leads down to Ajijic's pier. It's quite a job keeping up with the ravenous little birds and Flossie reports that last week she added 25 kilograms (over 50 lbs!) of sugar to the water in the various containers. She welcomes visitors Monday through Saturday (not Sunday, though) as long as they come before 2 PM. People dropping by should also remember that she has a very big lot and sometimes can't hear the bell if she is at the far end of the property. To get her attention, it is necessary to jerk vigorously on the piece of clothesline attached to the old fashioned bell inside the tall, blue gate. Flossie foots the bill for most of the sugar she uses but, since her income is limited, she is always grateful when visitors think to bring a bag or leave a cash donation to help pay for it.


Ladee, Flossie's former companion, is now munching treats in doggy heaven. When I visited and took this shot three years ago, she was still around but getting a bit grey at the muzzle,  Given that Flossie's home is only 1 block from the Lake's shore, and the lot is huge, I wondered if her bird-sactuary might be at risk from developers. Fortunately, her Mexican landlord apparently has no intention of selling. At least for now, she is secure in her small adobe cottage, surrounded by her ever-whirring, beautifully feathered guests. Although she celebrated her 80th birthday last year, Flossie is still alert and talkative, if a bit creaky at times. A while back, she had a knee operation and sometimes she requires help with heavy objects. However, she is still very independent. Her children have pleaded for her to return "home," but Flossie is adamant that she is home. As for getting older, her eyes twinkle when she declares "I earned every wrinkle!"


Broadbilled Hummingbirds

Another Broadbill displays its gorgeously iridescent green feathers. Hummingbirds are among the smallest of the avian species, with some weighing less than a US penny. By rapidly flapping their wings, they can hover in mid-air, and they are the only bird that can actually fly backwards. They get their name from the humming sound made by their whirring wings. They are also quite speedy, as anyone who has watched them can attest. They have been clocked in excess of 15 meters/second (34 mph).

As a child Flossie lived in Iowa where "it gets down to 37 below zero, you know. My mother was a slave and my father was no good. He came and went. She canned fruit to keep us alive." At age 15 Flossie married, but the relationship failed after 18 years. At loose ends, she decided to visit her father who was then living in Washington State. Flossie liked the Northwest US and decided to stay, eventually meeting and marrying her second husband, George. He was a logger and jack-of-all-trades. With a grin, she told how "George could handle anything but electricity. One time he hooked up the electric doorbell, but it made the toilet flush!"


A Broadbill comes in for a landing at one of the 17 feeders strung up around Flossie's patio. During what she calls "the high season" (May, June, and July) the migratory birds flock to her yard and she puts up even more feeders. During this season, Flossie will fill the feeders with as much as 50 kg of sugar per month. This can cost her more than $60 (USD) per month, an amount she used to handle herself until her friends in the Audubon Society persuaded her to start asking for donations. The feeders come in all sizes and shapes, including a red one in the shape of the State of Texas. The one above was made from an old plastic Pepsi bottle. The red disk at the bottom has a perching rim and holes where the ever-hungry birds can poke their beaks to get a drink of sugar water.

One of the highlights of her marriage with George was the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. "We were just outside the Red Zone when she blew." During her married life Flossie had 5 children, including 2 daughters and 3 sons, all of whom still live in the US. In addition to all of those kids, she raised her half-sister for 11 years. George died after a 17 year marriage, leaving Flossie in tight financial circumstances. George's Veterans Benefits and Social Security were just not enough to live on in high-cost Washington State.


Violet Crowned Hummingbirds

A Violet Crowned hummingbird stares intently at a small insect. Time for lunch? This bird likes to catch insects on the wing in addition to enjoying Flossie's sugar-water. The Violet Crowned bird has a similar range to the Broadbill: Southwestern US to Southwest Mexico and is typically a mountain dweller. The female will lay two white eggs in a nest she builds in a tree or shrub. The male is more brightly feathered than the female.

Looking for warmer weather (and lower heating bills), Flossie left Iowa for Arizona with her few possessions stuffed into an old car. After arriving, she lived in the car for a while but eventually acquired a pickup with a camper. Living in her house-on-wheels, she took up residence in the desert outside Yuma. At the time, there was quite a motley crew of "desert rats" scattered throughout the bleak landscape. To stay busy, she worked as a volunteer on a CB network, helping keep track of her more isolated friends.  A thrift store provided another volunteer opportunity. "I was always good at sales. I could sell ice cubes to Eskimos."


A Violet Crowned hummingbird digs into dinner while two more cruise in for a landing. The little creatures appetites keep Flossie busy, requiring her to fill up the feeders as much as 3 times a day. It's sometimes a struggle to keep up, especially in the high season. In 2012 she spotted 7 different species of hummingbirds in her yard, but in 2011, 11 species showed up. One year she even had a rare Sparkling Tail Woodstar drop in from Chiapas for a snack.

Arizona's winters were still a bit too chilly for Flossie, and money--as always--was tight. She kept up her search for someplace warmer and cheaper. Finally, she stumbled across a book about low-cost living in Mexico. It sounded interesting and, not long after, she met a man who told her about Ajijic and its nearly perfect climate. About 20 years ago, she packed up again and headed south. Things were still pretty tight, at first, even in Mexico. To make ends meet, she took care of elderly people, house-sat for absentee owners, and did whatever she could to keep body and soul together.


A Violet Crowned hummer, in mid-flight. Hummingbirds are difficult subjects to photograph. They always seem to be in motion and tend to dart about in unexpected directions. Perhaps this comes from the "sugar high" they get from nectar full of that sweet substance. They are able to judge the amount of sugar in nectar and reject any flower where the content isn't at least 10%. Sugar doesn't provide all their required nutrients, however. They still need protein, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, and these they obtain by consuming insects. The birds are so fast that they can usually catch their prey in mid-air. A bird the size of the one above flaps its wings about 20-30 beats per second. The smallest-sized hummingbirds can reach 100 beats per second.

Eventually, Flossie found her current home with its sympathetic Mexican owner. The large lot is full of fruit trees, including papaya, mango, strawberry guava, tangerine, and bananas. In addition, she grows vegetables in a small garden near her cottage. "I'm a vegetarian, so it works for me," she says gaily. In past years, she supplemented her meagre income by selling fruit pies made from the produce of the trees in the yard.


Hummingbirds seem to be quite social, or at least tolerant of each other. Although one of my sources claims that hummingbirds are extremely territorial and will fight off others in order to control a food source, I saw little evidence of it in the behavior of those in Flossie's yard. Above, a feeder is mobbed by 5 birds, while another sails in to share the spoils. On this feeder, several of the Violet Crowned birds share space with the shimmering green Beryline hummingbird in the center. The hummers never stay in one place for long, however. They constantly shift from one feeder to another, and from the feeders to the various perches Flossie has provided in the area. The buzzing, whirling spectacle is quite entertaining but a little hard to follow, until you become used to it.

Flossie first took notice of hummingbirds back in Arizona, when neighbors hung up feeders. After she settled in Ajijic, she started setting up her own feeders as a hobby. Eventually she began hanging up as many as 20 during the high season. The mob of tiny birds consumes as much as 3 gallons of sugar water each day. "I'm a slave to my hummingbirds," she told me. "Except for my garden, I don't do anything else. But I don't mind."


Beryline Hummingbirds


A Beryline hummingbird feeding. They are semi-migratory, moving between the Southwestern US to Western Mexico. Because Berylines use so much energy flitting about from place to place, they must eat a tremendous amount of food. In addition to many small insects, each bird will consume up to 12 times its own body weight in nectar each day. Although they appear to be constantly in motion, they actually spend 75-80% of their time sitting and digesting, according to one source. This may well be true, but I saw a whole lot more flitting than sitting at Flossie's place.

While I watched the show, Flossie regaled me with stories of her birds. "Do you know how hummingbirds drink? They have a long tongue which goes all around inside their skull and out through their beak. The tongue has a groove in it. You may think they suck up the sugar water, but they don't. They lap it up. They can lap at 13 times a second!" Shuffling through a pile of old photos, she continued. "Somewhere here I have a picture of hummingbirds sitting in the palms of my hands. The awning overhead sometimes confuses them and they get tired and drop to the ground and I have to pick them up. Ladee used to eat them if I didn't."



A lone Beryline takes a break from feasting to watch other birds whirl about. Berylines are one of the more colorful species. The shimmering, iridescent feathers of these birds were highly prized by the pre-hispanic people of Mesoamerica. The name of the capital of the Tarascan Empire, Tzintzuntzan, means "Place of the Hummingbirds." The Purépecha, as the Tarascans called themselves, wove hummingbird feathers into cloth, creating beautiful designs. The Mexica (Aztecs) also revered these birds. The name of their patron god Huitzilopochtli means "Left-Handed Hummingbird". They believed that he originated in a ball of hummingbird feathers found by the Mother Goddess Coatlicue

Flossie is not just a well-known local character, she is internationally famous. "I've had people come from all over the world to visit me," she said proudly. "Some of them have come from England, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, and New Zealand. Can you imagine, in England and Ireland, they don't even have hummingbirds!" In addition to donations of sugar and cash, her many visitors bring her hummingbird knick-knacks, like the Texas-shaped feeder. During my visit, Flossie showed me a postage stamp with a hummingbird on it that had been attached to a letter she had just received from some previous foreign visitor.


A Beryline stretches its wings as Violet Crowned hummers suck up sugar water. Surprisingly, for an animal with such a high metabolism, hummingbirds can live quite a long time. While many die in the first year of life, when they are most vulnerable, an adult can live as many as 10 years or more. Sadly for the female hummingbird, the males take no part in the nesting process, leaving all the work to the female. This pattern of behavior has also been reported in other species, most notably Homo Sapiens.

When I originally approached Flossie to request an interview, I told her I was looking for interesting local characters to write about. She gave a hearty laugh and said that I should "just tell them I'm not eccentric. Tell them I'm unique!" And she surely is.

This completes my posting on Flossie the Hummingbird Lady. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, feel free to leave your thoughts in the Comment section below or email me directly. 

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim



13 comments:

  1. Please tell Flossie I'm very pleased to meet her next time you see her. And thanks for sharing her life story.

    Joan

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  2. No questions right now, but I really enjoyed the colibrís and Flossie. Thank you! I live in Querétaro.

    Paz y bien. Hilary West

    hilaryw@hotmail.com

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  3. tJim We have known Flo since 1991 as we stayed in Ajijic from 1988 thru 1996 3 mo. each year in only for a week or two as we went to the west coast for the balance of the winter.We made lots of Mx friends over the years as well as some like Flo we call and email her often. that was nice story about her. Errol and Deloris Schafer Marshfield Mo

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  4. Have been trying to get my email to Jim & Carole's Mexico Adventure so I can email Back and Forth for info on Mexico. Hope this works. Bill Holloway bjhfrog@gmail.com

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  5. Hello there!

    My daughter, who is from Ontario, Canada, is visiting her cousin in Ajijic for a month. Before she left, we looked up things to do and found your article about Flossie's Fast-Food Fly-Through.

    Neither my daughter, nor her cousin drives, so they rented bikes for a couple of weeks to get around town. A couple of days ago, Sheannah and Sean attempted to visit Flossie, but they just could not seem to find the place. Google Earth and Google Maps did not help them. They also could not find two of the restaurants that they wanted to visit in the same area. They ended up getting quite lost, and Sheannah got badly sunburned, despite several applications of sunscreen.

    Sheannah has tried calling and emailing a local horse riding ranch, but the number was out of service, and no one replied to her email. She has been in Ajijic for two weeks now and has not been able to get a taste of the local culture. She would really like to know what to do and how to get around.

    Can you provide any hints/tips for finding Flossie, and perhaps for finding other places in Ajijic?

    Thank you very much for any help. It is much appreciated.

    Elf

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  6. Dear Elf Gurl,

    You didn't leave your email, so this is the only way I can reply. Hopefully you will find this. Have your daughter email me at jcmx07 (at) hotmail.com and I will be glad to point her in the right direction, according to her interests.

    Best regards, Jim Cook

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  7. Hola Jim,
    I am Susie from Ohio and we e-mailed each other when you began your blog. I love all the information and pictures you lovely provide.

    I'm returning to Ajijic for Day of the Dead and staying at Los Artistas with my cameras and friends. I hope to invite you to lunch if you and Carol are around at that time and learn more about your lives in Mexico.

    I have tried to e-mail you and it comes back so that is why I am leaving you a message this way.

    Can you contact me??? sioux.106@hotmail.com

    Susie Blauser

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  8. Oct 22/2014 I had tons of humming birds coming every to feed in my back yard,but since three days ago I hardly had any.I was feeding up to one and a half litters of nectar a day.This is our first year here in Ajijic.Are they migrating elsewhere now?Is this normal for this time of the year ?
    My email is sanchoc66@yahoo.com
    Nice pictures.Thanks

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  9. Love your very informative and interesting blog..thank you for sharing! We will be there in Ajijic and would so like to say hello. We hope to make Ajijic our new home and your site helps us immensely!
    Thanks you so much! Erin and Len

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  10. A baby hummingbird was left in the nest don't know what happened to the mother.
    How and what should I feed it I have been putting hummingbird food on my finger and let it get on the beck. Can I bring it in the house. Thanks Ura Furry email ufurry@verizon.net

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  11. Hi this is Ginger gandpblymyer@hotmail.com I am looking for Flossie. I haven’t heard from her since her computer broke down and so am concerned. My daughter Xochi will be there in June and she will visit her place so I hope she is still there. Jim, are you her relative. I know they wanted her back in Washington. But I don’t have that address. Darn. Thanks Ginger Blymyer

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  12. Hello this is Flossie's daughter Linda.
    Flossie and her new dog Baby Lady came to Washington State in October of 2015 to live with her daughter and family. Flossie had a stroke on Feb. 2, 2016 and is alive and well in a nursing home in Brewster, Washington. She loves to read and wear her different hats. She can no longer feed the hummers but an aide bought a feeder and hung it outside her window during the season. Flossie can no longer remember how to use the computer or most of her friends but does remember the hummingbirds she fed.

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If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim