BY NANCY JENNIS OLDS
As many of us were forced to do, I was more often than not relegated to our home last May, with eagerly anticipated travel plans and airline flights indefinitely postponed while facing a pandemic of historic proportions. Normal routines such as shopping for food, for both my husband and our beloved pets were reduced to carefully planned trips armed with masks, hand sanitizer and sugical gloves, for filling the gas tank. I was having the hardest time refraining from photographing wild birds and various wildlife in our truly unique desert parks in Henderson, Nevada. Springtime in Clark County was in full bloom. Migrating birds had been building nests and their offspring were flourishing in the cooler spring breezes before the next several months of relentless heat.
While many of our parks remained closed and off limits to bird watchers and photographers, it wasn’t a difficult adjustment for wildlife in our local parks. The birds and other wildlife were able to enjoy socially distancing from humans in their protective refuges. Mother Nature’s creatures were left blissfully undisturbed to take care of their young while most humans were forced to remain close to home.
Surprisingly, my initial frustration at being confined at home turned out to be a blessing in disguise! All of us spent more quality time in our backyards. We have several fruit trees and a pool, so although we couldn’t entertain friends, we had each other. Staying at home more than usual, my husband and I planted more vegetables in our garden and we cleared out the weeds and the overgrowth while adding more organic soil to maintain a robust garden. Our flowering bushes and trees attracted more honeybees, grasshoppers, lady bugs, birds and a very welcomed guest, more hummingbirds!
One day, in mid May, while I was relaxing in our backyard, I noticed an unusual behavior about hummingbirds that I wasn’t fully aware of, and it is fascinating! When one hummingbird lighted on a slim leafless branch, another one flew in momentarily and proceeded to feed this little chap with its long and slim beak! I grabbed one of my cameras and a fairly telephoto lens, 70 to 300 mm, and began photographing this behavior for three consecutive days!
I did further research online, reading Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, and I asked some questions and submitted some of my images to some of our Red Rock Audubon members, because I had never witnessed this feeding behavior before. These smallest of all birds in the north, south and central America, who are marvelous acrobats, have much to teach us!
Hummingbirds are so tiny and lightweight, that depending on the species, they weigh less than a U.S. copper penny. They build nests the size of a golf ball and usually lay two white eggs, each about the size of a mini jellybean! Hummingbirds are constantly on the move, therefore their metobolism runs very high, so they spend a continuous effort foraging for food. Their diet consists of nectar from flowers, tree sap, tiny spiders, and small insects. Hummingbird species have adapted the length and shape of their slim beaks to the specific flowers that they seek.
Hummingbirds are very acrobatic and can hover, rise up and down like a helicopter, and fly backwards. On average, their wings beat 12 to 80 times per second depending on the size of the species. Their sturdy tail feathers act as rudders. Their small and dainty feet are meant for perching, they can’t really walk on the ground, although they can hop a bit. Their elaborate soft nests are wrapped in spider webs. Lifespans of these tiniest of birds can range from three to five years, after their vulnerable nesting and fledgling period of a year, to as long as a decade in the wild. Hummingbirds in captivity can live up to twelve plus years!
These relatively solitary birds, the males do not sit on the eggs or help raise the newborns, are wonderfully devoted mothers while their fledglings are learning to hunt for their own food. This feeding behavior was what attracted me to photograph these two hummingbirds from mid May, and several more species of hummingbirds, for more than a week. Although this fledling fed on its own, as I witnessed while it was waiting for its mom to drop by, its mother consistently returned to the fledgling, regurgitating her food by directly pushing her long beak into the young one’s throat!
These feedings are very dramatic episodes! The young fledgling would appear to be almost convulsing or shaking as the mom inserted her long and slim beak and very thin and long tongue down the fledglings’ wide open mouth. Routinely the fledgling would appear first and try to call out to its mother for some time. Hummingbirds are highly intelligent and have the largest brain size per body weight of any bird, despite their brains being no blarger than a pea. They recognize familiar places and people. They have sharp visual and hearing skills, and they are fearless for their size!
While I sat in a swivel chair outside by our backyard pergola to keep cool in the sunshine, I observed several varieties of hummingbirds flying by our flowering bushes and trees. I believe that it was the fledgling who “buzzed” me a few times with its aerial manuevers, all the time calmly observing me!
Whenever the hummingbirds appeared in our backyard while I was photographing them, I made sure that our two cats stayed inside. Our cats are permitted to to roam in our backyard while we watch them. These apex predators will hunt hummingbirds and anything that moves. Also, lizards, snakes, roadrunners, dragonflies, mice and other predators could take down these delicate beauties. I was determined to make our backyard a welcoming habitat for all birds. I am planning to add some more hummingbird friendly plants to our backyard next year.
Initially I photographed this family of hummingbirds and some others who flew into our garden with my Nikon DSLR camera and Nikkor 70 to300 mm telephoto lens. I wanted to zoom in closer, so I switched to my Nikkor 80 to 400 telephoto lens, both lenses incorporate a vibration reduction stabilizer feature. A photographer needs everything in their equipment arsenal to freeze frame a hungry hummingbird! Hummingbirds are very high energy birds who have to consume 1 ½ to three times their weight per day. They don’t stay still for too long. It took some practice to be able to zoom in while they were feeding on the flowers and trying to take a sharp photo. In this case, size matters. This is quite a different thought process from photographing large American bald eagles!
When life takes an abrupt turn, it’s time for Plan B. I was confined to my home. I had very few places to go, but I discovered more than I ever knew about the charms of these tiniest of birds, especially the hummingbird mother and its fledgling, providing many delightful photographic studies right in my backyard! Such a precious gift for birdwatchers and photographers!
Additional Information: As far as I could tell with my new limited knowledge, and the knowledgeable advice of Red Rock Audubon member, John Hiatt, the hummingbirds that came to feed in our backyard were varied and as follows: Black-chinned Hummingbird, Costa’s Hummingbird, and Anna’s Hummingbird.