Wee Winged Wonders

Yes, I’m practicing my alliteration on you.

East of the Mississippi there is only one abundant species of hummingbird – the Ruby-throated. Until recently I’d never attempted to photograph them, but since I have pots of flowers on the deck that they come to frequently, I decided to give it a go. For every one photo that works, I delete hundreds.

Yup. Hundreds. Mostly it’s due to my set up. I have the camera set on Medium Burst Mode so it’s taking 7 pictures a second. Sometimes I shoot for several seconds at a time and the camera has to catch up and spends a few more seconds moving the files from the buffer to the memory card. I’ve read that in burst mode some cameras can get warm and the G9 is one of them. I can feel the temperature rise a little and it stays that way for a couple minutes.

250mm | f5.6 | 1/500 sec | ISO 500 | tripod

Shooting these zippy little wonders was a real learning experience. Mostly about camera settings and techniques. Because I primarily shoot things that sit still, I hardly ever used AFC (Auto-focus continuous), but figured out that I needed to in order to up my keeper rate. Animal Detection has improved lately and it does a decent job, too. With AFC and electronic shutter (the less noise, the better) I can shoot nearly the whole time they are on the flowers. I delete a lot while I’m sitting there, but delete even more off the hard drive.

300mm | f/5.7 | 1/800 sec | ISO 3200
300mm | f/5.7 | 1/800 sec | ISO 3200

Another change came when I realized I need to use a faster shutter speed. I reset my wildlife custom mode to default to 1/1000 sec rather than 1/500. Because they appear so suddenly I needed to be ready and changing this helped. It does mean I need to shoot in higher ISOs, but because I’m really trying to expose well and can clean things up with software, I’m fine with it and the images look pretty great.

350mm | f/5.9 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 800

Managing the focus point is a huge challenge with these guys. They are so tiny and so fast that they disappear from the frame all the time. That means I have to try to find them again and sometimes the camera shifts to get the background in focus instead. Aggravating and so I pulled back instead of zooming all the way in to 400mm. The field of view is really tight from across the deck (about 12 feet away) and I have the room to crop in post, so that seems a better way to get more shots each time they visit.

350mm | f/5.9 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 500

To get dark backgrounds, which I love for these little birds, it’s important to expose for them and not the background, so I use exposure compensation at -1/3 to -2/3 of a stop in order to keep the trees across the lawn dark.

Upping the shutter speed even more works well if everything else comes together.

264mm | f/5.5 | 1/1250 sec | ISO 2000

Mostly these pictures have all been of the male (males?). During the time the female was nesting, she didn’t visit as often or for as long as the male. And I assume because of their territorial and aggressive natures, there is only one pair that visits my yard. My neighbors all put out hummingbird feeders and have many more pairs show up to eat. I know this is nice for us humans, but I don’t think it is for the birds. They fight. I mean really fight. I have to deadhead and water the flowers and several times I’ve been in the middle of a dive-bombing session. Felt like I needed safety glasses. They literally ram into each other – you can hear the impact if you’re close enough. Seems incredible that creatures so tiny can cause damage, but they do. Sometimes there are ruffled feathers from their mid-air collisions.

400mm | f/6.3 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 2000

And it’s not just the males who do this. Typically in early summer when males are competing for mates, they will chase each other away and fight for dominance. It seems that the male sticks around the territory as his mate sits on the nest and cares for the hatchlings. I’ve had an opportunity to watch a nesting female and have never seen a male approach her or the nest. I’ve also never seen two males on the flowers at once after they’ve settled their territories and so things get pretty quiet. Until the babies fledge. Then all hell breaks loose. The chaotic air battle I described above was between females with a fledgling present. I could tell it was a young one by the smaller size and how it moved. I’ll get to that in a bit.

After witnessing these fights over territory and food sources a few times I noticed that the victor (I assume the one who stays on the flowers is the victor) squeaks loudly and for while as she goes from flower to flower. I also hear them squeaking as they charge and chase one another across the yard into the woods. It’s quite loud and now I know what it is, I often hear them even if I can’t see them. After a chase sometimes one will flit among the branches of an ash hunting bugs and she continues to squeak as if warning the others to keep off her patch and it seems to include any and all fledglings, even her own.

300mm | f/5.7 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 4000

It’s a little difficult to tell the females from the males when they’re young. The males are nearly the same color as an adult female, but have a little darker gorget (the area just under the bill to the breast) which will turn iridescent red when they mature. Adult males are also a deeper, cooler shade of green. Compared to females the same age males have deeper colors. From a distance it’s nearly impossible to distinguish them. Only when I got the photos into the computer did I realize I got one of each. Ladies first –

250mm | f/5.4 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 6400
300mm | f/5.7 | 1/1600 sec | ISO 3200

When they first leave the nest they are much slower than the adults. Less precise in their movements and coordination as well. It’s pretty funny to watch, especially because they haven’t learned how to get at flower nectar very well yet. I think it’s instinct that drives them to flowers with certain colors and eventually the adults seem to find favorites. Most of the shots here feature vermillion, an annual that produces 3/4 – 1 inch flowers in profusion. These are popular, but at first the little ones sample everything and sometimes take a while to learn where to put that wee beak. I’d watch them tasting or exploring the edges of the flowers instead of the centers. Sometimes mom would be nearby, sometimes the youngsters were alone. During the first days of flight they tire easily and would sit in the flowers to rest. As if a hummingbird could get any cuter! These smallest birds can only perch, they cannot walk; their legs muscles and bones sacrificed to their special kind of flight.

All of these photo were handheld (except the first and last) with the Leica DG 100-400mm f/4-6.3 lens. I sit on the couch across the deck and brace as well as I can on my knees or chest. Mostly it works pretty great. I’m considering getting a flash – my first for a digital camera. I think used as fill only it can help with exposure, lighting and shutter speed. I could have used it in a few other instances this year as well. Maybe it’s time.

250mm | f/5.6 | 1/500 sec | ISO 1250 (no idea why since tripod!)

The light is changing rapidly and the flowers are thinning. It won’t be long until my winged jewels fly south for the winter (I think the adult males are already gone), but until then I will marvel at their aeronautics, grace and beauty and keep trying for more pictures. The whole time I wrote this I could see them from time to time just outside the window buzzing the flowers. Never fails to put a smile on my face. There’s one now!

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