Capturing Hummingbirds on Film

(This first Buffalo News column was published on April 8, 1991.)

A Bee Hummingbird

The smallest bird in the world

      Start small, they say.  If so, what better topic for a first column than hummingbirds, the tiniest members of the bird world?  The ruby-throated hummingbird, our only regular local species, will not arrive for another three or four weeks; but ably representing it and the other 338 members of this strictly New World family will be Esther and Robert Tyrrell, who will present the annual Hayes Lecture at the Buffalo Museum of Science at 3:00 p.m. this coming Sunday, April 14.  Mrs. Tyrrell’s talk, “Hummingbirds: Jewels of the Jungle,” will describe the adventures of this husband-wife team in the swamps and forests of the Caribbean seeking out all sixteen species that occur there.  To illustrate her talk, she will show her husband’s beautiful stroboscopic photographs of these exquisite birds.  Among them is the world’s tiniest bird, the bee hummingbird, whose picture by Robert Tyrrell accompanies this column.

      Anyone who has seen some of their color pictures in the Tyrrells’ two books or in the National Geographic and other magazines will readily agree that they are incomparable.  They follow an honorable tradition of hummingbird strobe photographs developed by Harold Edgerton of MIT in the 1930s and extended as a hobby by former DuPont president Crawford Greenewalt.  We all recognize Edgerton’s stop-action strobe shots of golf swings and bullets smashing through light bulbs, but fewer realize that he also used this technique to freeze the 4800 wing beats per minute flight of these pennyweight birds.  Greenewalt improved and now Tyrrell has essentially perfected this technique. The Tyrrellslong term goal is to capture on film by this means every hummingbird species.

      I am especially sensitive to the difficulty of photographing hummingbirds, because as youngsters Tom Killip and I found one of their thumbnail-sized nests and tried to take pictures of the incubating female.  The bird's minute size forced us to get so close that, even with flash, we never could get its body and its long bill both in focus at the same time.  Clearly the photographic techniques of the Tyrrells have solved such problems, but their solutions require packing 400 pounds of equipment into some of the most inhospitable settings imaginable.

      Until last year my only hummingbird observations were of ruby-throats here and broad-tailed hummingbirds on visits to Colorado and Utah.  (The broad-tail is the only noisy North American hummer, its tail feathers whirring as it swoops about.)  But then last fall one of the west coast species appeared at a feeder — one of those red sugar water dispensers — in Grimsby, Ontario.  After a long wait several of us saw this bird for a few seconds: an immature or adult female, either a rufous or an Allen’s hummingbird; in this plumage it is impossible to distinguish between them in the field.  Mrs. Tyrrell tells me that, although this is a quite remarkable record, her wide correspondence indicates that many hummingbird species are extending their ranges.  Could this be a positive effect of global warming?

      How this hummingbird could remain in Canada until early December, almost two months after the departure of the last ruby-throat, was also explained to me by Mrs. Tyrrell. To survive cold nights these birds fluff up their feathers to provide insulation and then lower their body temperature, thus inducing a torpor or semi-hibernation that reduces their metabolism by a factor of fifty.  In this torpor a hummingbird is often thought to have died and is picked up by an observer, who is then astounded when body heat “resurrects” the tiny bird.

      The Tyrrells consider themselves scientific amateurs, but if they are it is in the fine tradition of Osa and Martin Johnson.  I urge you to join them on Sunday afternoon to share some of their vast knowledge and experience.  There is a small charge only for museum non-members.-- Gerry Rising