How to Train Your Hummingbird

Perhaps more to the point: How my Hummingbird Trained Me.

Some of you may recall last year about this time I told my story about trying to capture backyard images of this lovely little creature whose wings beat at 80 times a second, whose heart beats at 20 times a second and who, in order to keep up with a metabolism which is the highest of any warm blooded creature, has to consume her body weight in nectar every day.

In any event I think I prevailed in this battle of bird brains with bigger, brighter pictures this year.

And the three most important secrets for capturing close-up images of Hummingbirds: Patience, Patience, and more Patience.  

These birds are very shy with incredible evasive maneuvers: hovering, flying forwards, backwards and diving at 60 mph.  But I was determined to get closer shots this year, while stopping her aerial antics in mid flight.  I knew from previous years to move my chair closer and closer to the Bee Balm patch over a period of days.  Each day moving up 2 feet and sitting with the camera for an hour or so to get her used to my presence.  But the Bee Balm patch was about 8 feet wide and maybe four feet deep this summer.  And, initially my target was very cagey feeding at the back of the patch where I could get no clear shot.  This was no stationery hanging-hardware-store nectar feeder.

It became a balancing act.  I’d move up – she’d stay back.  Sometimes she’d stay away for ½ an hour rather than her usual 7 to 10 minute intervals. Eventually she started coming to the front of the patch where I could try for a clear shot – is it possible she completely drained the nectar from the flowers in the back of the patch?  Long story short, over three days, I discovered that she felt safe only within an 8 foot Charlie-free zone.  Soon as I moved closer to 6 feet, she totally gave up feeding and stayed away.  Back at 8 feet she would come in for nectar at her usual 7 to 8 minute intervals.  Wonder if I’d waited her out for 6 days whether she'd have let me move in closer.

So who’s training whom here?  In the end we came to an understanding of sorts.  I stayed outside her comfort zone and she spent more and more time putting on her show for me, about 20 to 30 seconds, but always taking 7 to 10 minute breaks, landing high in trees 40 or 50 feet away.  While I learned a little bit of the meaning of patience, I also got a trial and error education about the proper camera settings for shooting this fast and unpredictable subject.

I used a monopod to steady the camera and I used a longer but slower lens this time  But it was was still another balancing act, experimenting with combinations of shutter speed (needed at least 1/1000th sec to stop her in motion), ISO settings (like a high film speed of 6400 to produce an acceptable level of image noise), and aperture settings (5.6 to 6.3 to get enough depth of field for enough of her body to in focus).  In addition my camera has a zillion modes of automatic focus – you didn’t think I was manually doing that with her laser-like movements, did you?

Anyway she came to tolerate me and I learned to be patient during her absences. Maybe the best part about waiting for her periodic returns was ruminating about this man bird standoff.  No, it was more than that.  She gained acceptance of a foreign being in her world by interacting and moving to a comfortable level of trust.  I moved slowly into her realm and let her know I posed no danger, respecting her space and really appreciating her different and wonderous qualities.  Kind of like a negotiated peace agreement with Nature.