A couple weeks ago, I spent about a week working on a small project, photographing Anna’s hummingbird chicks on the nest, as they grew up. It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a photo shoot walkthrough, so I’ll do so with the hummingbird nest, sharing what I saw as the chicks grew up, and the details of how I photographed them.
Please do keep in mind that my narrative about these hummingbirds is conjecture wherein I interpret what I observed, and is not necessarily established fact.
The nest was in a popular location, about eight feet off the road, in front of the ranger station, at the Palo Alto Baylands. Thus, it was a well known nest. It was even marked with a sign about six feet in front of the nest, telling you not to get closer.
I started photographing these hummingbirds when the elder of the two chicks was about fifteen days old, and the younger was presumably about thirteen days old. Anna’s hummingbirds tend to lay two eggs most of the time, and tend to lay them about two days apart. Anna’s hummingbird chicks usually fledge when they are between eighteen and twenty-one days old.
Around two weeks old is about the right time to start photographing the chicks on the nest, for my tastes and purposes. Very young hummingbirds are too small to photograph where they’ll be large in the picture, without using a close up lens from perhaps a foot away – which would be interferentially close. Furthermore, they’re so small that they can’t even be seen over the edge of their tiny nests. Newborn hummingbirds are featherless; their eyes are closed, and they don’t move much. Around two weeks old, they’re large enough for their heads to rise above the edge of the nest; their feathers are noticeably starting to come in; and they’re more aware and more active.
Here’s what they looked like at that age.
I photographed them from about seven feet away. There was only a clear view of them from the direction of the road. Since they were only about eight feet off the tarmac, I had to be fairly close, in order to avoid standing (with tripod, camera, lens, flash, cable release, and the whole set-up) in the middle of a a moderately well used road. The far side of the road would have been too far away for worthwhile photos, in my opinion, and my view would likely have been blocked by passing traffic at critical moments. These hummingbirds nested just off the road on one side, and just off a footpath on the other side, with a Summer camp full of loud, rambunctious kids at the ranger station yard immediately behind the footpath. The birds were very habituated to human presence, making it possible for me to shoot this close, while they behaved normally.
I used my 300 mm f/4 lens, because it has a minimum focusing distance of just under five feet, while my 600 f/4 has a minimum focusing distance of about 17 feet – which would have forced me to shoot from the middle of the street. Even at only about seven feet away, I used a 2x teleconverterr on my 300 mm lens; thus shooting with the equivalent of a 600 f/8 lens. I used the teleconverter because the chicks and the nest are so small. How small? Small enough that people would walk up to me and ask me what I was photographing, when the nest was right in front of us, not much further than arm’s reach. When I’d answer “a hummingbird nest”, most of them asked, “Where?” When I pointed out where, most of them would say, “I don’t see it.” The nest was that small.
In my estimation, there was only a very small area which was ideally suited to shoot the nest from. If too far to the left, the nest started to be blocked by foliage in the way. If too far to the right, very bright tones in the background, in the direction of the ranger station, gave the pictures an undesirable look. And, as already explained, the road limited how far back I wanted to get. The best spot to shoot the nest was a patch of ground less than three by three feet. I did fairly little moving around or changing angles and positions, with this little project. Capturing the story of the hummingbirds growing up necessarily had more to do with capturing notable moments and behaviors than with using varied angles, positions, and juxtapositions for interpretive effect.
Unfortunately, the ideal spot to photograph the chicks was directly below several black-crowned night heron nests and snowy egret nests. There were frequent “showers” of bird poop filtering down through the leaves onto everything, and my gear and I got directly hit with the full brunt on four separate occasions. That’s the price of being a nature photographer, sometimes. I like to imagine the pictures were worth it.
You can see a fine spray of bird poop coming down, in some of the pictures, such as this one.
I’ve photographed several other hummingbird nests over the years. This particular nest was the best for photographing of any I’ve ever seen. This was due to several factors.
1) The nest could be photographed with an unobstructed view;
2) The nest was just below eye level;
3) It was possible to get close to the nest;
4) The nest afforded a variety of lighting conditions – full sun in the early morning, mixed light and shadow in the mid morning, full shade in the late morning and onward, and diffuse light when the foggy marine layer came in;
5) This mother fed the chicks more frequently than other hummingbird mothers I’ve seen, feeding the chicks sometimes as often as eight minute intervals, and never (from what I saw) much more than about half-hour intervals;
6) The nest was built on top of a wonderfully photogenic seed pod;
7) The nest was made “the old fashioned way” (i.e., made out of spider webs, pine needles, sticks, lichens, feathers, etc. – all natural materials), while other nests I’ve found have incorporated such things as bits of brightly colored polyethylene tarps, fishing line, and various other unaesthetic bits of garbage.
Here’s an example of a different Anna’s hummingbird nest, with the more typical and photographically problematic obstructed view.
And here’s an example of a yet different Anna’s hummingbird nest, with ugly bits bits of man-made junk built into it.
Since the situation seemed good, I decided to come as much as I could (six days out of the eight days from when I started until the chicks fledged), and try to make as much as I could of the opportunity. As I mentioned in the Red-Tailed Hawk Photo Shoot Walkthrough, great nature photography opportunities often suddenly end due to unpredictable reasons. I could come back, the next day, to find the chicks eaten by herons, egrets, crows, gulls, raccoons, or various other predators. Or perhaps a kid at the Summer camp might take the nest. Or a strong wind could knock it down. And furthermore, such prime opportunities may be very rare – it may be years, if ever, before I have a crack at another hummingbird nest as photogenic as this one. So, I struck while the iron was hot.
My hope was to photograph the chicks as they grew up, until they fledged. I wanted to get lots of details, along the way, showing behaviors and developmental stages. And, of course, I wanted to take artful photos, when possible, as well as documentary.
Part of doing a photo shoot of this kind is clearly articulating to yourself what you want, and what you don’t want, and then keeping all of that in mind, as the situations unfold. For example, one shot that I told myself I wanted was a chick flicking its tongue, with the tongue well lit up in the direct sun, highlighted against a darkly shaded background (as will be shown, further below). One thing I told myself I wanted to avoid was taking shots where shadows from foliage were falling right across the chicks’s eyes.
Ironically, I ended up going the opposite direction – specifically seeking out a perfect shot of a shadow falling across a chick’s eye, just to create an illustration for you, Dear Readers. Here it is:
The shadow-across-the-eye picture, above, also illustrates something else I tried to mindfully avoid: large, bright, distracting areas in the background.
Yet another thing I tried to avoid, when possible, was convergence between the second chick, in the background, with the chick in the foreground, in a way that looked confusing or strange. So, I might try to avoid shots with the background bird’s beak sticking out from the foreground bird’s body in strange places, like this…
…and strive to get photographs more like this one, instead.
Of course, I threw all such stuff out the window, when necessary in order to capture significant shots, however they happened to occur.
OK, let’s get on with the story:
The chicks got what rest they could while their mother was out getting food. They had a tremendous amount of growth to accomplish between when they hatched from an egg about the size of a pea, weighing a fraction of a gram, and when they were nearly adult sized and nearly fully developed, three weeks or less later. Here they are, getting some rest. You can see in this picture that their beaks were still rather short, their feathers were just starting to come in, and they still had bald pinkish patches on their chest and other areas. The tips of their wing feathers (visible in this picture below and to the camera left of the front chick’s eye, pressed against the front of the nest) were just starting to poke through the sheaths. Hard to believe they’d be ready to fledge in about a week from this, isn’t it?
At this point, by the way, they were in rather dark shade, and I was shooting at a mere 1/100th of a second, at ISO 1600, at an aperture of f/10. This allowed me enough light, and just enough depth of field for the nearer chick (even though the farther chick was only a fraction of an inch behind the nearer one). I was uncomfortable with using such a low shutter speed, because hummingbirds move very fast, and I didn’t want motion blur, when their mother came in to feed them. As it turned out, I managed to successfully time the right instant during the feeding, when the mother and chicks were still. (See the second picture down from this.)
Here’s the mother returning from a feeding foray. Here, her belly is full of some flower nectar, and a lot of small insects, to regurgitate for her chicks. On the return to the nest, the mother stopped at several perches, carefully checking that the coast was clear, before coming in to feed. She didn’t want to alert predators to the nest and chicks. This was likely a constant worry for her, since there were black-crowned night heron nests and snowy egret nests almost directly above, just fifteen or so feet away. Pictured here, she’s on a perch, looking for predators, before making a final approach to feed the chicks.
As she approached, her two hungry chicks became much more lively, fully opening their eyes, and lifting their heads. The feedings were fairly quick. The mother regurgitated down each chick’s throat for about five to ten seconds.
The next day, the chicks had noticeably longer beaks, though the beaks still had a lot of the yellow coloration (adult beaks are black), and the beaks still had a noticeable remnant of the hooked tip (called an “egg tooth”) the chicks used to peck their way out of their eggs. Their feathering had filled out dramatically, covering their skin much more. Whereas the previous day, just the very tips of their primary, secondary, and tertial wing feathers poked through the sheaths (those white tubes on the wings), this day the tips of the wings were poking out of the sheaths far enough that they were starting to unfurl. The chicks were much more wakeful and aware. They now sat up, open eyed, and opened their mouths and begged for food (called “gaping”).
At this point, the elder chick was starting to lift its stubby and bare wings a little. I wish I could have made a better picture of this, but I had to take what I could get, when it happened.
Here’s the mother feeding the elder chick. I shot this at f/10, hoping to keep the birds sharp, while keeping the background noticeably softer, separated from the birds, and less visually confusing. I used a shutter speed of 1/1,250th of a second, to try to prevent motion blur. That might seem like a very fast shutter speed, but it’s actually still fairly borderline, for capturing these extremely fast moving animals. To choose my exposure (before the mother came in) I spot metered on the brightest parts of the nest, and figured the brightest parts of the mother’s white neck feathers would be slightly brighter than that. I pre-focused on the chick’s face, just before the mother came to feed. I knew I’d have to adjust the focus further, from there, when the mother arrived and they moved around – but pre-focusing gave me a close starting point, so that ensuing adjustments would be small and quick to make.
Two days later, the elder chick had lost its baby-like appearance, to my eye. It was still clearly sub-adult, but seemingly more adolescent than infant. The beak was getting darker, losing the egg tooth, and was now perhaps two thirds as long its mother’s. Its feathering covered its body fairly well in all but a few spots, and no longer looked scraggly. The bits of fluffy baby down now stood out sharply from the adult feathers. The elder chick was now so large that it tended to sit on the nest, rather than in the nest. It was also much more alert and aware of its surroundings, especially paying attention to the activities of the egrets and herons nesting above.
Here’s a family portrait, with the chicks begging their mother for food. You can see that the elder chick, which was nearer to the camera, was getting almost as large as its mother. You can also see that the younger chick was noticeably less developed – smaller, with a shorter beak and patchier feathers.
The next day, various behaviors were becoming much more prominent, with the elder chick.
These increased behaviors included wing stretches -
- and tongue flicking -
- and preening -
- and a little bit of experimental wing flapping. At this point, it was perhaps more like wing waving.
Two days later, the chicks were so large that they not only sat on top of the nest, rather than in the nest, they also spent most of their time facing opposite directions, apparently to stay out out of each other’s way.
At this stage, the younger chick often seemed to mimic the elder sibling.
The chicks seemed to get along well with each other. Besides mimicking each other, they occasionally seemed to nuzzle and snuggle each other. I didn’t see them fight with each other at all. They didn’t seem to compete for food or space or anything else. Perhaps this was due to their mother keeping them well fed, or due to their age differences. Whatever the reason, they were not antagonistic toward each other, as far as I could tell. This is in stark contrast with many other species of birds, where sibling rivalry is often deadly. For example, at one point while photographing the hummingbird nest, I heard a “thud” behind me. Turning around, I saw a black-crowned night heron chick had fallen from the nest above, and died instantly on impact. This was likely due to a sibling ejecting it from the nest. In fact, I had seen three other dead black-crowned night heron chicks on the ground nearby, on a previous morning.
Back to the Anna’s chicks – the elder chick now ventured out to the edge of the nest, and perched there. As well it should. The chick was now ~21 days old, and about ready to fly off.
This chick seemed eager to fly, and repeatedly stood on the edge of the nest and flapped its wings furiously. Unfortunately for me, it did this while facing away from me; thus my pictures were less than ideal. Perhaps it was because its mother had been on that branch when encouraging the chick to fly, or because the chick was facing toward a direction with something to fly to, rather than the open road in my direction. Whatever the reason, the elder chick always flapped facing away from me.
I was hoping to see and photograph the elder chick leaving the nest. Alas, it was not to be. The chick flew away in the evening, after I left. The next day, I saw it flying around the tree tops, following its mother.
The day after the elder chick left the nest, the younger chick was about 20 days old. The mother seemed more eager to rush this second chick to fly than with the first chick. Meanwhile, the second chick seemed less eager.
Another regular viewer of this nest told me that she’d seen the mother removing some of the nest material, the previous night. I didn’t witness this, but I could see that there were missing patches in some spots, from what had previously been there. This could perhaps be a way to make the nest less welcoming for the chick, to induce it to leave the nest.
To my eye, the chick did not yet appear developed enough to fly. For example, here’s what its wing development looked like, at this point.
But mother knows best.
The mother’s next strategy to compel the chick to move out seemed to be flying in, then – rather than immediately feeding the chick, as in the past – briefly waiting a couple inches away, calling the chick to come (out of the nest) to her.
The chick didn’t budge. So, the mother leaned in and fed the chick. However, the mother fed the chick from a somewhat more sideways position, while standing on the branch, rather than directly downward, while standing on the edge of the nest, as in the pictures, above. Apparently the chick (now nearly as large as its mother) was getting too tall for the mother to feed straight down from the edge of the nest.
The mother’s apparent next step to compel the chick to fly was to pluck away the chick’s down feathers. Presumably, this was a sign that the chick was now able to thermoregulate itself as an adult, without the additional insulation, and also a sign that the chick now needed to be more aerodynamic (since it was about time to start flying).
The chick occasionally fluttered its wings a bit, that day, but it just didn’t yet have what it takes to fly.
The next day (when the younger chick was about twenty-one days old) seemed more promising for flying away from the nest. The chick had a much more adult look, now.
The chick was now getting quite large. When it fully sat up, it looked outlandishly oversized for its little nest.
The chick became much more exploratory, watching everything going on around the nest, reaching out for everything within touching distance of the nest, and – most of all – tasting everything nearby. I’d guess that this was part of the learning process for a chick about to fly to learn what’s food and what isn’t.
Like its elder sibling had, the chick now spent a lot of time preening its feathers.
After preening, it also spent much of its time stretching its wings. Although some small patches of bare, pink skin still showed through at the bases of the wings, the chick looked (to my eye) ready to start flying.
Now, when the mother would come in to feed the chick -
- she’d sometimes stick around for a few moments after feeding, and press right down on top of her chick while flapping her wings. Perhaps this was teaching the chick. Perhaps it was nudging the chick’s flying instincts to kick in. Perhaps both, or neither.
Energized with a belly full of regurgitated insects and nectar, and perhaps incited by its mother’s example, the chick diligently practiced flapping its wings shortly after each feeding. Like a toddler learning to walk, the first tries were a little wobbly.
Soon the chick learned how to stabilize itself, keeping its head and body steady while only its wings moved. It stood on the edge of the nest for long flapping practice sessions, while rotating about.
I was thrilled to watch the chick learning to fly. I was eager to see it lift off the nest for the first time, and I excitedly anticipated its maiden flight. That didn’t work out. The weather was getting darker and gloomier as the day progressed. I was already at my camera’s maximum ISO and my lens’s maximum aperture, and was having to lower my shutter speeds slower than 1/100th of a second. (I could’ve used flash, of course. In fact, other photographers on the scene for the fly off were using flash; and I even had a flash on my camera. However, I didn’t like the look, and chose to avoid using the flash.) And then the clouds became even darker, and pouring rain began. I left. That was the last I saw of the chick, which presumably flew away some time that day.
Witnessing and photographing these chicks growing up was deeply moving for me, as well as informative. I hope this photo essay conveyed some of that to you, too.
Thanks for reading this.
Anna’s Hummingbird Mother and Chicks (Calypte anna), Palo Alto Baylands, Palo Alto, California
All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.