To photograph the hummingbird...

Whilst I tend to photograph mammals, I thoroughly enjoy identifying,

watching and photographing birds. I have many favourite species ranging from the tiny Goldcrest to the majestic Golden eagle. But of all of them, the group that I find the most fascinating is the hummingbirds.

An Anna's Hummingbird feeding from a flower.
A hovering Anna's Humming Bird. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

I saw my first hummingbirds in a Victorian styled display case many years ago. I couldn’t believe that these tiny creatures were real. The variety of iridescent colours made me wonder if somebody had actually painted them. I also couldn’t fathom how, if I changed my angle of view, the colours could alter to almost black. I looked at the variety of beaks and plumage and wondered how many types of hummingbird there were. It was to be many years before I had a clue as to how many species there are, or to learn some of the other facts which make the hummingbird family special.

Hummingbirds have been described in many ways: iridescent jewels and flying acrobats are but two I’ve come across. They were thought to have originated in the Americas and spread throughout the two continents. However, in 2004 two primitive hummingbird fossils were found in Germany so where did they come from? I’ve rapidly discovered that there are more questions than answers where hummingbirds are concerned!

Hummingbirds are record breakers! At the moment there are 338 species which can be found in a variety of habitats from desert to mountains and especially in the tropics. They are distantly related to swifts, having the same wing structure, consisting of extended hand bones and a ball and socket joint attached to the large breastbone. This combination allows them to fly backwards, forwards, and even upside down! The flight relies on a wing that can turn through nearly 180 degrees, producing lift on backward and forward strokes. The wings on some species beat up to 80 times a second. Although most hummingbirds feed on nectar they also eat insects for protein. Their energy consumption is so high they need several times their bodyweight of nectar per day. Their metabolic rate is the highest of any warm-blooded animal and to conserve energy they can shut down to a torpid-like state. Who would believe that the life of such a tiny bird could be so complicated?

Anna's Hummingbird feeding from a purple flower
Anna's Hummingbird feeding from a flower. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

In 2016 I was on holiday in California. We stayed in a motel in the Carmel valley which had a beautiful garden. On the first evening, I went exploring. The flowers seemed exotic and it wasn’t long before I saw a large insect hurtling to and fro amongst the plants. Fascinated by it, I soon realized that it wasn’t an insect but a male Anna’s hummingbird. The male is beautiful with pink cheeks and a bright green back whilst the female is much duller but still beautiful in her own way. Its weight is less than 5 grams and it is about 3 inches long. The quest began. I had to photograph one in flight!

Next morning I was up early and in the garden, my Canon at the ready. The male was also about, zooming around the plants. I soon became totally frustrated as it adopted squirrel-like tactics. If I went left, it went right. If I moved to the front of the bush, it flew around the back. It really wasn’t cricket! After half an hour I realized I wasn’t alone. Mr. Sony and Mr. Nikon had joined the quest. Acknowledging each other's existence, we all tried to get shots without success.

The evening continued in the same way. We spread out, again acknowledged each other's existence, saw a second male dispute territories with the first, and took copious shots of empty bushes and flowers. Next morning we were back. Good mornings were exchanged. This progressed to talking about shutter speeds, depth of fields, ISO’s, and tactics. We all agreed that we were setting up the cameras in a totally different way to anything else we had ever photographed. All the cameras were being pushed to their extremes, as were our reflexes. An Anna’s hummingbird turned up and carried on feeding from a variety of plants, being careful to move out of view just as the button was pressed.

Anna's Hummingbird hovering beside a purple flower
Anna's Hummingbird. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

The final morning dawned. We greeted each other like good friends who had been through trying times together. A bond had been formed. We stood in a line like gunslingers and, on maximum burst, we blasted the Anna’s hummingbird as it zoomed past. Suddenly I realized that it was heading for a plant which had only just come into bloom. It was making the same trip repeatedly and another had found a similar plant on the other side of the garden. The three of us spread out, covering the two plants, and knelt down. Both hummingbirds zoomed in to devour the nectar and we used up our memory cards in long bursts. Success! We viewed our efforts and were all delighted to have some sharp shots. Final, warm goodbyes were exchanged with Mr. Sony and Mr. Nikon. The quest had been achieved.