Emerging from Hibernation

Text and photo by Virginia Parker Staat

The freeze was record shattering. Just before Valentine’s Day, South Texas received over four inches of snow. It stayed on the ground nearly a week. Winter storm temperatures plummeted and stayed below freezing for three days in a row. 

Texas hasn’t recorded this kind of weather since 1893. Everything froze… plants, roadways, and, especially, water pipes. In many respects the resulting impact was much like a very cold hurricane. The aftermath included the same kind of power outages and water damage. This time, however, the water came from broken pipes inside homes rather than from rain and flooding outside. 

At our house, we lost power for a mere 14 hours in comparison to many who lost it for several days. Only two of our water pipes cracked, and both were outside and easily repaired. Our indoor temperature dropped to 48 degrees during the outage. Thankfully, camping experience and gear paid off. We ate meals cooked on our backpacking stove in front of the fireplace. 

With the nearest snowplow located in Dallas and working there around the clock, authorities begged people in South Texas to stay at home and off the roads. We bundled up and tried to take a walk, but the snow on the street had turned to ice and was too slippery to navigate. 

I spent most of the three days of freezing temperatures helping our feathered friends and various four-legged visitors. We had birds we have never seen before at the feeders, including a Hermit thrush, Yellow-throated warbler, and, most surprisingly, a Bobwhite quail. Disoriented birds were everywhere. As an example, our local newspaper reported a juvenile Brown pelican was rescued just a few blocks from our house. How he ended up 68 miles inland from the coast remains a mystery.

One of my most important jobs during the winter storm was to keep the hummingbird feeders from freezing. We have three female hummers overwintering this year, including one Ruby-throated and two Rufus. If I didn’t change their sugar water every two hours, it would begin to ice. Each morning, I made fresh nectar because the liquid had turned into a solid sugar popsicle. 

Hummingbird in Torpor
Hummingbird in Torpor. © V.P. Staat

On the coldest day of the three, the temperature dipped to eleven degrees overnight. Early the next morning, I spied one of the Rufus hummingbirds on the feeder that is suctioned to our kitchen window. She was fluffed up and breathing strangely. I ran to grab my camera. When I returned, she had rotated from an upright position to horizontal. The poor thing had gone into torpor, a hummingbird’s involuntary mini-hibernation to mitigate cold weather. Torpor is a fascinating state. A hummingbird’s metabolic rate can drop 95 percent. Her body temperature can drop 50 degrees, and her heart rate drop from 500 beats to 50 per minute. (Fortunately, it appears our little hummer survived her ordeal.)

It occurred to me that currently RMOWP is in a similar state. We are in a torpor-like condition because of the pandemic. This vibrant group is basically on hold. We are waiting for pandemic numbers to lower. We’re waiting for restrictions to be lifted. Perhaps most importantly, we’re waiting for the opportunity to hug once again. 

Temperatures have risen nearly fifty degrees in Texas from last week. I watched our little Rufus hummingbird take a bath in one of the fountains yesterday. This morning I discovered that our redbud tree is blooming. A pair of Carolina wrens is building a nest in our Christmas poinsettia. 

I know that RMOWP has the same kind of resiliency. We will soon emerge from our torpor-like state and get back to doing what we do best. I’m looking forward to seeing each of you in Alamogordo next fall. Until then, please stay warm and healthy.