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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hum along with me

They are tiny, irredescent acrobats. Their smallness inspires the casual observer to think "adorable" and "delicate." But they are bellicose warriors of the sky, extremely territorial, and capable of putting on an aeronautic display to rival the dogfights of World War II pilots.

A juvenile hummingbird flies past a butterfly bush.

Hummingbirds are incredible creatures, the only birds capable of flying backwards, with wings that beat so fast (more than 50 beats per second in the case of the ruby-throated) that they are invisible to the human eye when the birds fly. You often hear one before you see one: a loud hum that brings to mind the buzz of potenially huge bumblebee. Hummers have long, thin beaks with specialized tongues; though you might think they suck up the nectar like humans might suck up the ambrosia of a rootbeer float, their tongues instead trap their liquid food and delivers it back into their mouths.  (A set of great videos on show how it's done--in slow motion.)

A juvenile hummingbird shows off the long beak it needs to reach nectar. You can tell it's not an adult by the "5 o'clock shadow"--dark stippled feathers on its neck.

Flower power
In September of 2004, about a month after we moved into our house on the first ridge of the Watchung mountains here in New Jersey, we saw our first hummer. This poor guy mistakenly thought the fuschia-colored flowers on our patio umbrella were the hummingbird equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet. He eventually realized it was all a sham, but we were thrilled, because we knew hummingbirds were in the area, and we might be able to see more of these little creatures.

A female hummer is looking to feed on the flowers in a hanging basket.

Rest stop on the New Jersey flyway
Over the years since then, we've learned a lot about hummingbirds. First of all, it's important to put out their special feeders before the first individual of this migratory species flies through in the spring. There are maps available online that tell you when the first wave of hummers are likely to appear in your area; ruby throated hummingbirds start showing up in our neck of the woods around April 1. The males--whose iridescent throat feathers give the species its name--show up first, with the females coming by a few weeks later.

A male ruby-throated hummingbird shows off the iridescent jewel-toned feathers that give the species its name.

I set out my feeders in mid to late March--just in case someone shows up unfashionably early, but I usually don't see the birds until a week or two into April. Hummingbird websites will tell you that if you put the feeders out early enough--and make sure they are clean and full--you may get a few birds to stop by and perhaps stay in the area, instead of continuing their migration and heading further north.

This female shows the  more subtle colors of her gender.

Attracting attention
I've also learned that hummingbirds are somewhat picky about the feeders they like. My husband bought me a beautiful brass and glass feeder, but the birds flew by it like my dad driving by McDonald's on the way to Le Bec Fin--with nary a show of interest. I tried putting fake flowers on it, and painting the feeder ports bright red, but even though our first hummingbird visitor was interested enough to try to feed from those two dimensional images on the umbrella, no hummers took the slightest interest in my pretty feeder.

A little bit of research later, and I found a bright red, somewhat tacky-looking feeder made by Perky Pet. (I have since found these in many places both online and in brick-and-mortar stores.) The reviews were nothing short of spectacular. Not only did this feeder attract the birds, but it was easy to clean because the nectar container was made of glass--an important quality as hummingbird nectar is an ideal medium for mold, and thus the feeders have to be regularly cleaned out. And it featured perches at each of its feeder ports, which supposedly makes it even more attractive; like getting a seat at a table instead of standing at the bar, it means the birds don't have to use as much energy when they eat. And tiny hummingbirds are all about energy efficiency.
Against my aesthetic and artistic sense, I bought the Tacky Feeder; the reviews held true, and the hummers love it.

A male rests on a perch of the Tacky Feeder, the evening sun turning his ruby throat amber.

On a lark (bird pun!), I also invested in a few window feeders that seemed to have the same qualities as the plastic one, yet were a quite a bit more aesthetically pleasing. Made by Holland Hill, and incorporating simple test tubes (which appealed to my inner scientist), these feeders also attracted the birds, though they seemed to provide a second-rate feeding experience, because the hummers would nearly always start at Tacky Feeder and only come to the window feeders if the food had gone bad or missing, or if another hummer was already feeding there.

A male hovers as he decides whether to dine on a Holland Hill window feeder.

The benefit to me and my family, though, was that the window feeders brought the birds up close and personal, and we could watch them from just a few feet away. And the Holland Hill feeders were simple, pretty, well designed--and easy to clean and fill.

A female demonstrates the benefits of a perch: a relaxed meal.

One might think that with four perches on Tacky Feeder, four birds could easily feed in kumbayah harmony. But, alas, the pretty feathers on these adorable teensy birdies are window dressing on fierce and quite territorial creatures.

I only saw this only once: two birds at the feeder simultaneously. Because they were on opposite sides of the feeder, I don't think they saw each other at first. The guy on the left seems to be stretching his neck out in realization that someone was breaking the rules.
Bird dogfighting
Often, in between drinks at the Tacky Feeder bar, a bird would sit on top of the shepherd's hook from which the feeder hung. The hummer would chase any and all other fliers away, proclaiming this as his--or her--feeder.  I'd watch in fascination as the birds would zip and zoom through the air, dive bombing each other and literally battling with their beaks as they flew. You could hear the humming of their wings and the clacking of their beaks as they fought in flight. The victor would return to sit atop the shepherd's hook. The vanquished would sit on a tiny branch in my maple tree, planning his or her next attack.

Though I wasn't able to catch a hummer sitting on top of the shepherd's hook, this one may have been heading there. Maybe next year, I'll catch one on guard duty.

The photographer in me really wanted to try to capture these fast-moving birds, and throughout the season, I would keep my camera close by. Necessities for this endeavor included a telephoto zoom lens, a very fast shutter speed, a continuous shooting setting, a steady arm--and lots of patience.

This bird's tail feathers are spread in an effort to slow down as it comes in for a landing.

Hummingbird wings beat so fast that many of the pictures I took were either out of focus, or the blur of the wings covered up the faces or bodies of the birds. I took hundreds of photos, choosing a few
favorites for this post.

Having just landed, this hummingbirds wings slowed down enough for me to capture them in the image.

Here we are now in mid October, and I think the last of the hummers have passed by on their way south; I haven't seen one in about two weeks. It's time to take the feeders down, clean them for the winter and put them away--until next spring when I look forward to when these bright aerialists return to the mountaintop.

Caught mid-flight, a hummer sails away.


  1. Amazing pictures! --Melissa & Samantha

  2. Thanks, Melissa & Samantha. Glad you enjoy the hummers as much as I do. I'll have more hummingbird photos in a future post.