A Humming August

Published 09/15/2018

After moving to a new place in early July, pretty much the first thing I did was set up some bird feeders in the approximately 15x15 feet backyard. This was then followed up with a copious amount of plants and flowers that certain birds like and are attracted to.

Even in the small space, this actually worked pretty well, and I had a number of finches, cardinals, mourning doves, bluejays, some woodpeckers, one overzealous cat, and after a couple weeks, a hummingbird! 

Despite all of this however, I had done very little photography this summer, between some travel for my PhD, the move itself, and nearly endless rain on the East Coast. Even my camera trap had done poorly (although I did get this Fox Kit in late July) due to the unusual monsoon season we experienced, as well as the sudden departure of one of my lighting units from this world (RIP). 

When the weather was nice, I tried to photograph the female Ruby-Throated hummingbird that was visiting, but between the lack of light and the mosquitos I didn't have much luck and figured there had to be a better way.

Of course there was (or else I wouldn't be writing this blog post...), and it was the same idea as the camera trap work -- balancing low-powered external light with ambient lighting. For hummingbirds, this means using low-powered flashes (approximately the same power as an Instax mini) so that you can freeze the birds wings as it flies, hovers, and feeds. Using multiple flashes, as I did here, lets you fill in the light and helps you avoid a full-on flash look.

For all of these photos I used a D500, a 300mm f4 PF VR (a lens which I reviewed when I photographed Puffins in flight in June of this year), and a 1.4 TC III. Using a focal length of 420mm allowed me to experiment with different backgrounds relatively easily. From a lighting point of view, I used Nikon 2 SB-28s set at 1/64 with varying zooms. Pretty much all these shots were taken at 1/250 f/11 to f/16 and ISO 400 to ISO 1000. All shots were processing Nikon's Capture NX-D and Adobe Photoshop CC 2018.

I wasn't entirely optimistic that this would work, but actually within about 10 minutes of setting up the resident female Ruby-Throat visited and was more than cooperative, striking her first pose as shown below.

From here I was able to experiment with some different backgrounds. 

Below you can see some pollen on top of her head. 

This actually became somewhat typical.

Okay well off to a good start. However, I didn't plant all those flowers for nothing! Thankfully it didn't take her long to find and feed from the flowers when I put them next to the hummingbird feeder. This potted flower ended up being very successful since there were multiple different flowers on it which added some variety. 

From there, the hummingbird just had to strike various poses throughout the month.

In all these shots, I particularly like when you can see the clenched feet, like above and below.

While hummingbirds are pretty territorial things, she couldn't completely chase away all the competition. This wasp gave her fits for a couple days.

And this juvenile male was able to sneak in. Although he was looking rough enough that maybe she took pity on him.

Besides this poor guy, I was able to get a couple male hummingbirds at the tail end of the season, but they were only vagrants and didn't stay for more than a day. Some of them, like the one below, were kind enough to strike a pose.

I also picked up some Snapdragon flowers which are difficult for people to open, but hummingbirds can navigate them with ease. Here, you can see her actually pushing the top of the flower open in order to get at the nectar inside the flower. 

We also planted some other flowers to attract hummingbirds, one of which was the butterfly bush. This photo below is probably my favorite one. I really wanted a picture of her working on a flower from under it, and I loved how the flower curved over her here. For this shot I used the same setting as the above in hovering shot, but moved my camera back a bit to have more room for the flower. Note a bit of pollen on her head here again.

All in all it was a great end of migration month with these hummingbirds, and I'm already excited for next May when they'll return. I already have some ideas for shots I want to try, but for now, I'm pretty content with this set. You can see more in my specific Hummingbird Gallery as well. Feel free to follow me on flickr or contact me with questions!

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