Saturday | April 19, 2014

How to slow down a Hummingbird (with Video)


I may have saved a hummingbird’s life this summer, and if the local Indians were right about their mystical nature, that’s got to count for something! The unusual episode began one morning as I walked from my house into the garage. Suddenly, a small dark object flew towards me, accompanied by a low buzzing sound. My first impression was that of an unusually large moth, or even a bat. But as I leapt back I realized it was a Ruby-Throated hummingbird, and quite a tired one at that. Somehow, it had become trapped in my garage the evening before (probably while in search of food or shelter), and was now so exhausted that it could barely stay aloft. Its clumsy attempts at landings on box tops and shelves were pathetic, and when it did fly it kept heading towards the ceiling looking for an exit that didn’t exist. I had no idea what was going on in its little birdbrain, or why it ignored the obvious escape route when I opened the garage doors, but I knew it was in danger of hurting itself.

If you’ve studied the amazing aerial capabilities of the hummingbird as much as I have, you’ll know there’s nothing more pathetic than a hummingbird that can’t figure out which way is up, or in this case, out. For years I’ve tried to get the perfect photo of these elusive creatures in flight or next to a colorful flower. But on dozens of occasions I’ve also been entertained by hummingbirds performing UFO-style acrobatics in dogfights with each other as they jockeyed for pole position around my hummingbird feeder, or hovered within inches of my face trying to figure out whether I was a friend or foe. I’ve seen these creatures move from zero to who-knows-how fast in the blink of an eye, dive at up to 60mph, stop on a dime and hold their position as if standing on air, turn their colors off and on to attract mates, and rotate their wings in a circle so they can fly backwards, up, down, and even sideways. No wonder they fascinate me and anyone else who’s visiting my house during the summer months.
I grew up only a few miles from where I live now, and had as close to a Tom Sawyer childhood as anyone I know. But despite the time I spent in the woods, I rarely spotted a hummingbird. Oh, I knew they were around, having discovered many of their abandoned nests while climbing trees or building tree forts, but it wasn’t till I hung up a hummingbird feeder that I learned how common they are in my area.

On a side note, hummingbirds are only found in the Western Hemisphere (the Americas), with 343 known species. In Australia, there’s a close-relative know as the Sunbird, which is more of a cross between a normal bird and a hummingbird when it comes to size, flying capabilities, and wing speed (proof of parallel evolution at work?)

Back to my story: finding a hummingbird struggling to get out of my garage was enough to put a temporary hold on my work plans (and since I’m my own boss it didn’t take long to get approval). But even I didn’t know how catch a hummingbird without hurting it. After all, these critters barely weigh as much as a quarter and are so delicate that a butterfly net could conceivably cause wing or body damage. As I tried to figure that out, I noticed how sluggish the hummingbird was acting, despite having a few minutes to rest on a wire holding up my garage door guide rails. When it did fly, it moved at about the same speed as a regular sparrow, and the sound from its wings was more like that of a fan set to its slowest speed versus its highest. Suddenly, it dawned on me that the bird wasn’t just tired from failed attempts to get out, it was running out of gas and probably starving!  Sure, most other birds in this situation could survive a day or more on their fat reserves, but a hummingbird needs a constant supply of energy to keep its heart beating at up to 1,260 times a sec, and it wings beating at up to 60 flaps a sec. Normally, it gathers most of that energy from sweet flower nectar, visiting as many as 1,000 flowers a day, or frequenting a hummingbird feeder, where the “nectar” is a mix of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water (talk about nature’s version of a sugar addict!).

In order to give my distressed hummer the fix it desperately craved, I took the feeder from my front porch and hung it on a support column about 8 feet off the ground in the garage. I knew the hummingbird would eventually recognize it, and hoped that once it got its blood sugar back to normal levels, it would figure out how to leave the garage without my help. I left the doors and windows open and took off for the office.

Two hours later I returned to find the hummingbird sitting on the feeder, obviously less stressed out—having consumed about ½ an inch of sugar water. To put that into perspective, on a busy summer day the feeder level drops about 1 inch, so either this hummingbird was really pigging out, or some of his friends had visited the garage while I was away. The good news is that a few minutes later he cleared out of the garage, and suffered no long-term effects of his incarceration. From that day on till mid-September (when they all start to migrate south), that same bird was a regular visitor to my feeder—and let me get closer than normal to capture photos and videos of it. Hopefully, he’ll enjoy his winter stay in South America and return here in April with more friends.

Casio EX-F1, a hummingbird lover’s best friend?

The above hummingbird-rescue experience taught me that one way to slow down a hummingbird was to starve it. Fortunately, I discovered a better way to get great pictures of one in flight. For years I tried to get a shot of hummingbird that captured its unique abilities. But whether using film or digital cameras, my best shots failed to capture little more than split-second moments in a hummingbirds life. (While I used a few of those to illustrate a story titled:  “How to Photograph Hummingbirds” for Popular Photography Magazine nearly 10 years ago, I never framed any since they didn’t really capture the essence of a hummingbird’s unique flight capabilities.) Shooting them with a normal video camera was another useless exercise, as they often moved so fast that the mere 30fps speed of video couldn’t keep up and they would blur across the screen. However, while developing content for a seminar I was teaching about the high speed photo capabilities of the Casio EX-F1 and FH20 digital cameras, I think I stumbled upon the perfect tool for capturing both high res still photos and dramatic slow motion movies of hummingbirds in flight.

In case you didn’t know, the Casio EX-F1 features the ability to capture up to 60 six pixel images at 60 frames per second. You can store all 60 at once after capture, or choose the ones you want saved. There’s also a function that continually fills the buffer and can records up to 30 images taken before you pressed the fully pressed the shutter along with 30 frames after, basically giving you a fullproof ½ second window to capture action after it happens. Another function triggers the shutter automatically when something moves into a frame, allowing you to set up a tripod-mounted camera, manually focus it along the flight path near a hummingbird feeder, and go check your email or have a cup of coffee. If a hummingbird comes in for its sugar fix, you’ll be greeted by a screen on your return that asks you whether to store all images or select the ones you want. Combined with the 30 shot before and after mode, it’s nearly impossible miss capturing up to 60 images at a time of a hummingbird in flight as it approaches the feeder. (Note, moving objects in the background also set off the trigger.)

Thanks to these functions and the EX-F1’s powerful 12X f/2.7 lens, I captured more sharp photos of hummingbirds in flight in a few days than I had in 10 years! (see 30 frame sequence here). Among them were my best, but they still didn’t reveal anything about how quickly and precisely these birds move through the air. It took the camera’s high speed video modes to do that! (See video above). My favorite is the 30-300fps mode, which when activated starts recording 30fps of video (normal speed for TV playback) at 400×320 pixels per frame. Then, at the touch of a button, it switches to 300fps and then back again when you press the button a second time. When movies captured at 300fps are played back on a computer or TV, a second of action that occurred in real time is stretched out to 10 seconds in the movie. In addition, typical camera movements or operator shake gets smoothed out, and even video shot during a fast panning action while following a hummingbird looks like it’s taken on a tripod or with a steadycam.
Now I can’t wait for the return of the hummingbirds in April. Wonder if my garage friend will show up again?

About Author

Michael J. McNamara
Michael J. McNamara

Michael J. McNamara is the Editor in Chief of the McNamara Report, Principal Analyst at In-Depth Focus Labs & Studio, and Photographer at McPhoto Video.