Jewels of the Sky: Explore hummingbirds close to home through stunning photography
A female ‘Hummer’diving into a Trumpet vine !
Local photographer shares a primer on Hummingbird biology and how to capture their beauty in your backyard during summerStory and photography by Randy Loftus
Every year, the hummingbirds arrive. “You’re as welcome as the flowers in May,” I hum to myself as the old Irish song goes. Generally, the azaleas that are blooming in early May signal the simultaneous arrival of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). Their annual journey has been incredibly long, exhausting, and energy intensive. They travel from as far away as Central America, Mexico, or the southern Gulf States of the U.S. via the Atlantic Flyway, the famed migratory route along the Atlantic Coast and Appalachian Mountains. Their migration often leaves them visibly ruffled, haggard, and weak and starving for energy. And often, the birds are flying much further north than the Chesapeake Bay. In that case, they tend to fly directly to the sugar water feeders of our backyards and, poof, they’re gone. Perhaps showing as a blur that turns into a brief sighting and back to a blur again as they depart.
Many early-summer sightings are “pass-through” birds flying as far north as Canada for summer. Others will stay a few day days and tend to disappear locally. The flowers that are their mainstay are still growing and just starting to bloom, while the feeder is quite important early on for their incredible fuel needs. Plants will eventually be preferred, generally from June to August and into mid-September. Competition/territoriality, eating frequency for body weight gain before winter migration, and general activity really picks up during late-August and early-September before diminishing toward October, when the hummingbirds finally vanish southward.
Other hummingbird species that show up in Maryland are called vagrants and accidentals, which include the Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus, aka Snow Hummingbird) and the Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), the latter of which shows itself predominantly in the western Maryland mountains—it can tolerate the cold. Sightings of these two species are rare and often make the local birding news. For the following collection of facts and advice, the focus will be the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
Real Fast Hummingbird FactsMajor environmental function: Pollinator
Recognition: Males have a ruby-colored throat when mature; a checkered throat when immature. After the first full molt at about one year, they acquire the full ruby (gorget) throat. Females have a white throat when immature and mature. Females are about 15 percent larger at maturity.
Reproduction: Males and females briefly meet up in the spring and then the female tends to do 100 percent of the parenting, which includes nest building, egg laying, feeding, and nurturing.
Migration: Up to 1,500 miles; can fly over the Gulf of Mexico without refueling in about 20 hours. The average speed is 25 mph and up to 40 mph or faster in dives, which can exceed 50 mph. They are very quick up, down, sideways, backwards in motion capability.
Metabolism: Hummers are extremely energy intensive and need to eat their approximate body weight daily, which is 3 to 4 grams (1 to 1.5 ounces). They also eat insects and spiders for much needed protein and lipids (fats). During their fall migration, they attempt to put on fat and double their weight.
Noises they make: No songs at all…just a real quick “chit…chit…chit” chatter. They communicate back and forth this way.
Heartrate: At rest, 250 times per minute and about up to 1,200 beats per minute while flying. Keep in mind that’s 20 heart beats per second.
Breathing: About 200 breaths per minute at rest.
Wing Beats: About 50 times per second.
Body temperature: Normally 102.2 degrees, but can dip dramatically during torpor.
Torpor: The unique lifesaving ability to lower core body temperature. During cold times, it’s sort of like a mini-hibernation.
How to Attract and Feed HummingbirdsFirst and foremost, I’m a proponent of using native plants to Maryland. Non-natives will also attract hummingbirds, but are not host plants for insect life cycles. Here’s quick list of Native Plants recommended to establish a garden in April and May:
- Coral Honeysuckle
- Cardinal Flower, Red or Blue
- Bee Balm aka Monarda, Oswego Tea
- Trumpet Flower
- white turtlehead
- wild columbine
Favorite colors: Since hummingbirds see near the blue end of the ultraviolet spectrum they are attracted to red, blue, and orange flowers. The native plants above often come in these colors.
Sugar water feeders: Small volume feeders are best with a 25 to 35 percent white sugar solution (one quarter cup of white cane sugar to one cup of water). No red color is needed in the solution in a clean feeder...use only very hot water to clean. Never use honey as it is toxic to the hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are incredibly geo-spatial. They tend to be repetitive and return to the same areas and plants almost instantly after learning their position. Research suggests they can remember well over 100 feeding areas and the condition of the site.
Perch Branches: All hummingbirds have their own perch branch in my yard. The main function of a perch branch is to roost, rest, preen their feathers repeatedly, attack other birds coming into their claimed territory, stretch, and do what I call “Hummingbird Yoga.”
Based on these repetitive perching patterns I can identify the individual birds and then they tend to become my pets: “Little Broken Wing,” “Scruffy,” “Little Long Neck,” “Whiskers,” “Speedy Gonzales,” and “Dennis the Menace” I’ve named them. Through their branching behavior and my photography, I can identify my “pets” instantly.
I have charted bird behavior over the last four years and have witnessed that individual birds will set up a feeding pattern that includes my garden, which then becomes my photo studio. They start to frequent the garden in July and then multiple birds appear in my garden by the end of the month and into August. The males start to dominate and become quite territorial. They display “attacks” from their designated perches. August is a high-speed battle month with a lot of “buzzing chases” that the human eye sees as a blur and sounds like a “vroom/buzz”...often near your head. They are not timid at all during this time and may get in your face out of curiosity and territory.
Photography TipsPlace your sugar water feeders and plants as close to a window as seems reasonable. I actually hang one off my gutter, about two feet from the window and can reach out and refill it easily. I plant the various native plants that hummers desire and can’t resist, within the focal range of my camera, which is about 10 feet to infinity.
I arrange plants that can handle full sun to full shade and both appropriately; on the border line of sun and shade with a northeast-facing garden works wonderfully.
Quality of light is always important. I prefer morning angular light, but having trees with shafts of light illuminating the subject and passing clouds can add variation in the quality of light. You get back-lighting/front-lighting at times, based on the time of day. Overshoot the subject and delete readily. You will have many opportunities, believe me.
Photo Settings: I generally shoot at >1,000th of a second shutter speed priority up to 3,000th of a second at f6.3 to f7.1 and use auto ISO, as the birds move quickly between sun and shade, and partial light. Also come back to the photo area often to see how the light changes during the day and in various moments. I’m currently using a Canon 6D for low light shooting and a Canon 7D Mark II for full-sun shots.