The saga of my backyard hummingbird and me

Here she is – a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.  Most likely a she, lacking the ruby red throat of the mature male, though it could be a juvenile he, not yet outfitted with the noticeable plumage.


But it has indeed been a bit of a saga to capture her.  Every summer for years the hummingbirds return to my backyard gardens.  Specifically to the Bee Balm (Monarda to some, named for a Spanish botanist in the 1500s) – I’ve seen a few bees buzzing around it, but it’s clearly the favorite of my Hummers.  Wish I knew whether it’s the same family or not; it’s possible given their average lifespan of three to five years.  And there are records of some banded (how do they do that?) species living to 11 years.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to capture these visitors digitally for at least 5 years.  You can understand that because of their beauty and because of their wondrous behavior, hovering, flying backwards, and forwards as fast at 35 mph!  To paraphrase an ad from years ago, "Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Hummingbirds.”  Maybe I should call her Sara Lee?

My first attempts years back resulted in fuzzy renderings, where you couldn’t recognize which of the 300 plus species of this charmer was captured, much less distinguish it from a moth or bumble bee.

But this was the year I resolved to get a crisp close-up, and stop those wings at 80 beats a second.  On day one, I studied her (their?) comings and goings for hours.  Ninety percent of the feedings were at the Bee Balm, hovering next to the petals for a second or two, then zipping to the next, the next and so on.  After about twenty to thirty seconds sipping nectar, they’d zoom to a nearby perch in the hickory or black birch and rest for about four to six minutes.  Then back to the flowers – kind of seemed they didn’t return to the same flower often, but not really sure about that.

Day two. I placed the camera about 15 feet away from the flowers with a 200 mm fast lens on the tripod.  Attached the camera to 75 foot cord with a remote shutter release.  Shutter speed at 1/1000th of a second and aperture at f16 for good depth of field.  My target did eventually visit but was quite wary of the camera.  And had to wait for her to come to the right flower.  Talk about lack of cooperation.

Took about 200 shots and most were complete misses, a few recognizable hummingbird images, but nothing I’d want to share.

Day three was payday!  Waited for feeding time and moved my garden chair (big heavy, carved, teak thing) to within eight feet of the Bee Balm and walked away.  Nobody came, at first – then after an hour or so, she was back.  Next I sat in the chair for another hour and waited.  And she waited.  Could see her flitting around the yard but not approaching me or the flowers.  Whether from hunger, or annoyance, or needing to defend the food supply, I got dive bombed two or three times – she getting within a couple of feet of my head.  What a sound! I heard first hand why they’re hummingbirds, and it’s not because they forgot the words!

So for you techno-geeks, moved the camera’s ISO way up to 6400 (like using a high speed film in the old days) allowing super fast shutter speed and good depth of field (talking having everything within a few inches of the subject in sharp focus with a blurred background).  Hand held now, ditched the tripod.

First couple of shutter clicks scared her away but then it’s like she almost became curious, or perhaps a little teed off.  

For the next couple of hours my backyard Hummer put on quite a show – I think once she felt safe her prima donna personality took over allowing me to capture her antics in many airborne poses. 

These creatures are truly amazing.  Some of the fascinating facts about hummingbirds I discovered while researching ways to capture them in pixels:

  • There are well over 300 different species of hummingbirds – the one in my garden being one of the most common in this area, a ruby throated.
  • The ability to hover like a helicopter requires incredible energy and these birds have the highest metabolism in the animal world with heartbeats over a thousand beats minute, breathing 250 times in the same period.
  • They take in more than their own weight in nectar every day and therefore only a few hours away from starvation.
  • Their summer migration from Mexico across the Gulf takes them 500 miles non stop.
  • To conserve energy at night they can reduce their metabolism down to 10% of normal in a kind of hibernation, called Torpor.
  • The smallest species of hummingbird weighs less than a penny (got to ask who weighs them and how do they do it?)