Back in the day or whenever, when we used to read real newspapers and magazines, there always seemed to be articles titled ” The Gardener’s Notebook” or whatever, it seems to me that we should continue that concept, the Spill needs a gardeners column. So here’s what occurred to me as I sat in my garden enjoying the late afternoon sun this evening.
There’s dozens, at least lots, of hummingbirds all constantly hitting on all the flowers in bloom. I love hummingbirds, I’ve had several situations where one has hovered within a few inches of my face staring directly into my eyes. That’s scary. a 2″ sharply pointed beak hovering directly in front of your nose, that takes nerve to sustain, but it’s happened several times, they’re very curious and seemingly friendly. I’ve never had an experience anything like that with any other type of bird, hummers seem to want to be friendly. Whenever this has happened I’ve tried slowly raising my finger in front of me in hopes that one would alight, but alas, no luck yet. Another common occurrence is when I’m watering the flowerbeds and I have the hose on a mist, the hummingbirds will come and frolic right in front of me in the spray, I’m creating an aerial birdbath, they seem to love it. Jamaica has two species of hummingbirds that are unique to the island, Jamaicans call ’em ‘doctor birds’ because of the long tail feathers, the western end of the island has black tailed hummers and in the east they’re red tailed.
But the ultimate hummingbird experience is what I’ve discovered is a mating ritual and I’ve seen it several times. We used to live in Southern California in a second floor apartment with a deck that opened out from the living room, I had dozens of flowering potted plants on that deck. One day a hummingbird buzzed around my head and then shot up to at at least a hundred feet and he hovered there. Suddenly he went into a vertical dive and plummeted down towards me, at the last instant he swerved over my shoulder flying within inches of my ear, I can still recall the sound of his wings buzzing at a thousand rpm. Talk about scary. I thought he was attacking me until some years later I read that this was a common mating ritual and then I noticed another bird with much drabber foliage sitting on a nearby branch. Since we’ve moved to northern California I’ve had that same experience several times though never as close as that first time.
I used to work at a university and one day a friend who worked in the student union called me to say that there was a hummingbird building a nest in a tree right outside the main entrance. I went to look and sure enough there was a nest on a thin branch about 8ft up. It was about as big as a hens egg and created from all sorts fluffy material held together with hummingbird saliva; there were several eggs in it. I gathered my equipment and set up a tripod about 15ft away, on it I installed a fairly powerful strobe pointing directly at the nest with a 30ft sync cord hanging from it, all I needed to do to shoot was to connect my Nikon to the sync cord and I could shoot from anywhere around the nest with guaranteed exposure. Over several weeks I went daily and from a stepladder and a telephoto lens I photographed the mother bird flying in and out and feeding her chicks, as they grew I’d see their heads poking over the side of the nest awaiting their mother. One day I got a call from my friend, that morning when she’d come to work she saw the mother bird lying dead on the concrete, we released that she’d flown directly into the huge plate glass windows adjacent to the door and had broken her neck! I didn’t know what to do about the chicks except to call the local Audubon society, I did so but I felt awful about it, totally useless, I’m not sure that they were able to save the chicks.
Hummingbirds are very hard to photograph, at least they used to be, this is because their wings beat so fast [100+ beats per second] that you need a shutter speed of over 1/500th second to capture them, or else use a strobe which has a flash duration of over a thousandth of a second
As I sat watching the hummingbirds today there was also a flock of California Quail with a new brood of chicks who’ve taken up residence in my garden, I’ll tell you about them next time.