Curious Nature: Tips for capturing a photo of the vibrating wings of a hummingbird (column)

Rick Spitzer
Curious Nature
Broad-tailed hummingbird.
Rick Spitzer | Special to the Daily

We hear them all summer and notice them buzzing by, but even when they stop at a flower or feeder, you may not see the brilliant color of these incredible birds.

These birds are hummingbirds, the smallest birds. They are 2 inches to 5 inches in length and weigh as little as 0.07 ounces. They have very rapid wing-flapping rates, from 12 to 80 beats per second. Speeds in flight can be upwards of 50 mph. Their flight ability to hover in one place to feed on a flower, to fly in all directions and backwards when necessary makes them unique. They can even fly upside down.

To accomplish all that, these small creatures have the highest metabolic rate of all animals and they must eat one to three times their weight in nectar and insects per day. They are always on the edge of starvation.

To get that energy around their bodies, their hearts beat more than 1,000 times per minute. One researcher calculated that if a hummingbird were the size of a human, it would need to consume a can of Coca-Cola every minute.

So how do they make it through the night without starving? They go into a state called torpor each night. That slows down their metabolic rate to 1/15 the normal rate. At night, they are apparently lifeless but come back to life as the day warms.

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There are stories of Native American medicine men who would locate a hummingbird at night, bring it into the village early in the morning and show the tribe a dead bird. They would cup it in their hands and blow warm air in until they could feel the bird move. They would then open their hands to release the live bird, a show of the medicine man’s healing powers.

How does the hummingbird pull the nectar into its mouth? The tongue of a humming bird is forked. When it reaches the nectar in the flower or feeder, the tongue opens. It has grooves at an angle to the tongue. When the tongue is retracted, the grooves trap the nectar. That action happens 20 times per second.

There are three hummingbirds common to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the broad-tailed, rufous and calliope. They arrive each summer after spending winter as far south as southern Mexico. The males of each species are easy to identify, but the females are more difficult, as they do not have the brilliant colors.

The broad-tailed is the most common. The red gorget, or throat, makes it stand out. The males produce a trill as they fly.

The rufous hummingbird is less common and produces a buzz as it flies. This bright orange hummingbird becomes the bully at the feeder when it arrives around the Fourth of July and chases all other birds away.

A hummingbird that is not commonly seen here is the smallest North American hummingbird. That is the calliope. It has a red gorget, but the feathers appear to be a little ragged.

The tiny calliope is incredible when you consider the fact that it flies 2,500 miles to summer breeding grounds in the United States and 2,500 miles back to its wintering grounds in Mexico. Most travel north up the Pacific Coast in the spring and return to Mexico along the Rocky Mountains in the fall.

Colors in hummingbirds can be exceptionally bright, and it is all because of the angle from which it is viewed. How do birds produce such brilliant and iridescent colors? It is not due to pigments in the feathers.

The gorget of the hummingbird is where it is most obvious. Light of specific wavelengths is intensified as some light reflected off the surface of the feathers is combined with light reflected from inside the feather. Hummingbirds often “flash” these colors. When viewed from one angle, the gorget may be black and from another angle bright red or orange.

Photographing these bird can be a challenge. It is easy to get them to a location to photograph, but that is when the challenge begins. A broad-tailed hummingbird flaps its wings 50 to 60 times per second. The wing tips travel from 6 to 8 inches from front to back. A shutter speed of 1/250 second will capture about 2 inches of that travel, which produces blurred, almost invisible wings.

To get around that, 1/250 of a second at f/20 produces a very dark image on a bright, sunny day. By using a powerful electronic flash, the entire exposure on the bird is from that flash.

Many electronic flash units can be set so that they put out a flash duration that is very short. In this case 1/16 power equals 1/15,000 of a second. That almost freezes the wings, but not quite. Here are the details for the photograph of the broad-tailed hummingbird.

Camera: Canon 7D Mark II

Canon 100-400mm lens set to 158mm

Manual exposure mode

1/250 Sec, f/20, ISO 400

Flash: Canon Speedlite 580EX

Manual mode

Power setting at 1/16

Rick Spitzer, of Avon, worked as a science teacher, a supervisory park ranger naturalist, and an IT director. In retirement, wildlife photography is one of his passions. He is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes.”

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