Photographing Hummingbirds: A Pandemic Escape

Hummingbirds getting ready to migrate. (The right front is an adult male Rufous; the other three appear to be Broad bills.) © Debbie McCulliss
Hummingbirds getting ready to migrate. (The right front is an adult male Rufous; the other three appear to be Broad bills.) f/6.3, 250mm, ISO 640, 1/8000 sec. © Debbie McCulliss

By Debbie McCulliss

On the snowy first couple of weeks of this past spring, to lessen pandemic anxiety, I was thinking of migration—movement from one region to another. It was timely. Epic animal migrations take place every spring. Some of the feats that these animals accomplish, crossing oceans, traveling without stopping, are unthinkable. Their destinations are clear and instinctual.

But this spring was different. People all over the globe were migrating, many without a clear destination, back to their home continent, country, or state, not knowing if, when, or how their lives would be permanently or temporarily altered.

While I normally love to travel, I’m glad to be home. Pre-pandemic, I was looking forward to a bucket-list photography trip this August to the Maasai Mara in Africa to witness the great wildebeest migration. However, as heartbreaking news continued to be reported around the world each day, thinking about the change of season with its promise and fragrant blossoms and the migration of butterflies, whales, or bald eagles provided some relief.

Of all of the animals that were migrating this past spring, I felt most compelled to write about hummingbirds. They are the smallest migrating bird in the world, one that symbolizes courage, fearlessness, beauty, endurance, hope, and enjoyment of life. Every year, my husband and I look forward to their annual migration from the south back to Colorado. They are among my favorite birds to photograph, despite how difficult they make this endeavor. The name, hummingbird, comes from the humming noise made with their rapidly-beating wings. I’ve learned that capturing their motion involves both technique and artistry.

For four months every summer, these colorful and intriguing birds provide us hours of joy as they hover around, perch in trees, or feed at the dedicated feeders that we’ve set up. In years past, I have ventured off to the Botanic Gardens in Steamboat Springs to photograph the hummers flying among different species of flowers, mostly red and orange, extending their bills and long tongues deep into the centers when feeding.

No matter the place, I try to maintain a distance when photographing so as to ensure the birds’ welfare. Last summer, my friend and I found a camouflaged hummingbird nest that looked like an upside-down cup, no more than a couple of inches in diameter. From a distance, we snapped a few shots of this hummingbird’s safe shelter in its shady spot.

Nesting Broad-billed Hummingbird. (Broad-bills and black-chinned are the only common breeders in Colorado) © Debbie McCulliss
Nesting Broad-billed Hummingbird. (Broad-bills and black-chinned are the only common breeders in Colorado.) f/6.3, 380mm, ISO 640, 1/30 sec. © Debbie McCulliss

When we went back a few days later, the nest was abandoned. It looked as though some curious people had trampled the ground and gotten too close to the tree.

Learn more about ethical nature photography with NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices.

Besides not disturbing the animal and respecting their habitat, my primary goals in photographing hummingbirds include sharp images, tack-sharp eyes, and filling the frame, or a significant part of the frame, with these tiny birds, all of which takes practice.

On my patio, I photograph hummingbirds in natural light, although external lighting (flash) is an option. I set my camera to manual, continuous high-speed shutter, and center-point focus. I use a long telephoto lens, with image stabilization on, a shallow aperture to blur the background, and an increased ISO–as low as 200 and no higher than 500-800–to avoid noise when handholding my camera. A tripod, a lens with vibration reduction turned off, and remote cable release will yield a greater percentage of keeper photos. 

I make note of any harsh shadows, bright spots of light, or reflections of a window in the background that could distract from the hummingbird. I learned the hard way to position the feeder with good visibility and away from outdoor furniture. The surroundings or background can help to distinguish mediocre from great shots of hummingbirds. Moving around and trying different positions helps me determine my ideal background and vantage point. Every once in a while, I try to capture a high-key image, such as the image of the hummingbird below.

Resting Rufous Hummingbird © Debbie McCulliss
A high-key image of a resting Rufous hummingbird. f/8, 600mm, ISO 500, 1/4000 sec. © Debbie McCulliss

To capture fractions of seconds at a time, the most important element is a fast shutter speed— at least 1/2000th of a second at a minimum or faster. Since the wings of a hummingbird beat between 70 and 200 times per second, I typically use a faster shutter speed to freeze wings in midair and a slower shutter speed if the hummingbird is sitting on a branch. Lots of experimenting with different shutter speeds has helped me determine that, as long as the eyes are sharp, I don’t have a strong preference for blurred or tack-sharp wings. I like them both.

Sometimes my husband and I spend an hour or two after dinner, sitting on the patio, enjoying time outside, observing and watching these small, fast, and fragile creatures and their predictable patterns of behavior and incredible maneuverability. They are the only birds that can fly both forwards and backwards! Sometimes I just watch, while other times I wait patiently to photograph them. When they are in flight, I focus on the hummingbird’s face or back. It’s difficult, though, as they are constantly on the move. It has taken a lot of practice to consistently create sharp images. We also find listening to their sound and the sound of their flapping wings to be entertaining.

This summer I’ve been experimenting with photographing the hummers fluttering around the newly-added favored flowers my garden and around the honeysuckle at a local restaurant. A favorite is below.

 Feeding Broad-billed Female Hummingbird © Debbie McCulliss
A broad-billed female hummingbird feeding. f/6.3, 600mm, ISO 64, 1/500 sec. © Debbie McCulliss

It has really helped to learn more about the specific hummingbirds that migrate to my area on their way to their final breeding ground in the mountains. Each hummingbird—the broad-tailed, rufous, and ruby-throated—makes me smile in wonder, no matter how many times I’ve seen them.

A few facts I’ve learned over the years about hummingbirds:

  • Hummingbirds are native to the Americas.
  • There are over 325 species of hummingbirds in the world, with over 50 species of hummingbirds in Costa Rica and 17 in the United States. The ruby-throated is our most abundant species.
  • They are the smallest present-day bird species, weighing mere grams.
  • Proportionally, a hummingbird’s brain is the largest of any bird, making up 4.2 percent of its weight. (Human brains are two percent of our body weight.)
  • They have more feathers per inch than any other bird. They get their jewel-like appearance from the iridescence in the arrangement of their feathers.
  • They have impressive vision but no sense of smell.
  • The distinctive buzzing sound that hummingbirds make is the result of the fast-flapping wings, as well as the wind rustling through their wing feathers.
  • They have beaks that are longer in proportion to their body than other birds’ beaks.
  • They have the fastest heartbeat of any bird, upwards of 1,200 beats per minute. (The average heart rate of a human at rest is 60-100 beats per minute).
  • They take in an average of 250 breaths per minute or more if in flight.
  • Aerobic power and flight capacity enable hummingbirds to escape predators more easily. Flight muscles make up 30 percent of their weight.
  • Hummingbirds prefer thickly wooded areas in which to build their nests.
  • Females start building a nest before they look for a mating partner.
  • Males use their beaks as weapons to keep their rivals away from their mates.
  • Hummingbirds don’t mate for life. The female never allows the male around once she has laid eggs. Those eggs are smaller than jellybeans, less than a half-inch long.
  • The shape of a flower, the shape and workings of a hummingbird’s tongue, and the composition of the nectar all work together.
  • Hummingbirds are drawn to flowers or plants, such as bee balm, cardinal flower, trumpet creeper, red columbine, zinnia, bleeding hearts, butterfly bush, lupine, columbine, or petunia. They will look for flowers with nectar and insects, no matter how many feeders are around. They don’t suck out the nectar, but rather lick it about 10-15 times per second with their fringed, forked tongues. The nectar is drawn up into their throats through the capillary action along the fringe of their tongue, making it easy to swallow.

Hummingbirds fly solo (not in flocks), traveling in forward flight speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, primarily to and from their winter habitat in Mexico and Central America. Their route is chosen by availability of natural food sources. Other factors that influence the migration of hummingbirds include daylight, weather patterns, distance of travel, age, and sex. It’s interesting to note that the rufous hummingbird migrates farther than any other hummingbird species, more than 3,000 miles from their nesting grounds in Alaska and Canada.

A wild hummingbird’s average lifespan is anywhere from three to twelve years. Like many other creatures, natural and manmade threats to these beautiful birds also include habitat loss–especially deforestation in their wintering and breeding grounds and along their migratory pathway–pesticides and insecticides, feral cats, and collisions with picture windows. The growth of urbanization, agriculture, and logging also pose threats. A sudden snap of unusually cold weather can prove fatal.

Climate change may affect all hummingbirds. As flowers bloom earlier with warming temperatures, the potential exists for the hummingbirds’ arrival at their breeding grounds not to coincide with the bloom times of their food sources. Because of their small size, hummingbirds are at greater risk than larger birds that may have more ability to adapt.

Female Broad-Tailed Hummingbird in Song © Debbie McCulliss
A female broad-tailed hummingbird sings her song. f/8.0, 600mm, ISO 500, 1/500 sec. © Debbie McCulliss

To protect them:

  • Never spray insecticides near hummingbird feeders.
  • Keep cats indoors and take steps to discourage feral cats in your backyard.
  • Place hummingbird feeders around your yard in sheltered areas away from wind and rain.
  • Make sure sugar water mixture is not cold, especially if you live in a place where mornings are cool. Hummingbirds can become hypothermic if they eat very cold sugar water.
  • Clean feeders and freshen sugar water regularly. You can make your own mixture with ¼ cup sugar and 1 cup water. Don’t let it spoil. Bacteria and fungus can grow in the sugar water or the water can ferment or freeze. Dirty feeders can harbor toxic mold, and feeders that leak can attract bees and wasps that will attack hummingbirds.
  • Avoid red dye/food coloring in hummingbird nectar which can make male rufous hummingbirds infertile.
  • During breeding season, leave some areas of the lawn unmown as habitat for the insects that hummers feed their young. Put scraps of pet hair or other nesting materials outside. Intact spiderwebs can also be used as nesting material, as thread to weave together disparate materials.
  • When planning landscaping, choose native flowers that attract hummingbirds .
  • Support local hummingbird organizations, as well as habitat initiatives and habitat conservation. One place to check is the national or local Audubon Society.

Multiple summers of practice have yielded a lot of photographs. I’ve found that studying my keeper images has helped me to determine what works best for me. It also helps ease the sadness we feel every August or September as the hummingbirds prepare to head back south.  

As the pandemic continued to spread and the noise of daily life was quieted unlike ever before, the spring migration of hummingbirds became a sign of hope and resilience and believing that anything is possible. Here’s hoping that their song will continue to provide all of us with moments of wonder and joy.

Debbie McCulliss is a Colorado-based wildlife and nature photographer whose my work is represented in the Windfall Fine Art Gallery in Steamboat Springs. She is a certified applied poetry facilitator and holds master’s degrees in nursing, science-medical writing and nonfiction writing. She came to photography after an unexpected fascination with the behavior of bald eagles. It didn’t take long before she fell in love with photographing a variety of wildlife and witnessing the strength, fragility, beauty and rhythm of nature. The more she learns, the bigger her photographic world becomes. 

With camera in hand, she travels the globe, mostly to colder regions, to capture images that speak to the heart. She believes that her photography speaks not only for her but also for people who can only imagine what it would be like to explore the world with freedom of mind and imagination. Her goal is to create memorable art that inspires conversation. See more of her work at debbiemccullissphotography.com.