Mystery Structures on Hummingbird Island

In ESNERR, Staff Blog by Administrator

Hummingbird Island lies at the far end of the Reserve, an offshoot of the South Marsh Loop Trail just past the railroad tracks. This small swath of land is home to a couple interesting art installations that date back to the early days of the Reserve. We are asked a lot about what these structures are and how they came to be on the Reserve.

From 1986 to 1989, Heather McGill and John Roloff installed these structures as part of the California Arts Commission’s Art in Public Places Program. Described as a land reclamation project creating a native habitat and sanctuary for hummingbirds, it consists of a large trellis for native, hummingbird-loving plants and a structure resembling an Ohlone Indian midden overlooking a small pond.  The pond lies at the center of the island and provides freshwater and habitat for birds and wildlife.

Here’s more information from

Isla de Umunnum (Island of the Hummingbirds) is an environmental art work, designed and built by Heather McGill and John Roloff for the California Arts Commission’s Art in Public Buildings Program.

The project is a part of a large, protected wildlife habitat, the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. The Reserve is sited in the estuary and coastal hills along Elkhorn Slough, an inlet from the Pacific Ocean atMonterey Bay in central California. The site of the artwork is a 3-acre, island-like tract of land surrounded by the slough’s waters and marshlands. The project is accessible to the mainland by a maintenance road and trail.

The focus of the project is to create a special habitat and shrine for indigenous and migrating hummingbirds. Inspired by hummingbird life and mythology, the elements of the project are both functional and symbolic. One of the two functional structures, Trellis element, is a dome-shaped trellis for native honeysuckle vines; a hummingbird food-source surrounded by a formal array of other food-source plantings such as native flowering manzanita, fuchsia and monkey flower.

The second major structure, Mound/Pond element, provides additional hummingbird food sources and is the only source of fresh water on the island. Two bench elements and an extensive path system paved with white oyster shells allow for visual interaction with feeding hummingbirds and exploration of the island. The focus on the symbolic value of the hummingbird pays homage to its very special place in the mythology of many cultures of the Western Hemisphere, its unique quality as a species and the distinctive richness of Elkhorn Slough.

The planning and construction of this project was accomplished through the help of many individuals including: Mark Silberstein, [who at the time was] Director and Staff Biologist of Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, rangers from The California Department of Fish and Game [now California Department of Fish and Wildlife], the California Conservation Corps, prisoner fire crews from Solidad Prison and the Santa Cruz County Native Plant Society.

Since those early days of the Reserve,  volunteers have continued to restore the island’s landscape by planting natives and removing invasive species.