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A Photo Essay

Female (or juvenile) ruby-throated hummingbird — photo my own

We get one kind of hummingbird in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley, only one — the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the Ruby-throated Hummingbird as follows:

“a small hummingbird with a slender, slightly downcurved bill and fairly short wings that don’t reach all the way to the tail when the bird is sitting.”

My definition is slightly different. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is a tiny shimmer of magic, embodied in a two-inch fairy-like creature that has the ability to take my breath away.

If only they let poets write definitions for things.

I started attracting hummingbirds to my yard two years ago. It was the first summer after my daughter died and I’d posted on Facebook about how special hummingbirds were to me. I’d longed to see one. A few days after that post, a friend dropped by with a hummingbird feeder and the rest, as they say, is birding history.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird at my feeder — July 2017, New York

The first hummingbird I saw was a male who showed up around June and became a daily visitor. The image above is one of the first photos I took of a hummingbird.

You can see a bit of his ruby throat in the above photo. The throat is entirely red, but it often appears black as it does in this shot. Females and juveniles have pale throats, which sometimes have a slightly spotted appearance

For that first photo, I used my daughter’s camera, a Canon point-and-shoot with a robust built-in zoom lens. We’d given it to her in January of that year (three months before she died). She’d barely used it. She’d been too sick.

I taught myself how to use the camera which had some rudimentary manual settings. All of the photos in this essay were taken with that camera (a Canon PowerShot sx530) in 2017 and 2018. The hummingbirds were only here in August and September last year, perhaps because we had a very cold spring in New York.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird — August 2018, New York

Ruby-throated hummingbirds have iridescent green feathers. When the light hits them, particularly early morning light, they practically glow. The above photo was taken on my porch while I was sitting about three feet away. My new camera is a powerful beginner’s camera, but the lens isn’t powerful enough to capture birds with any clarity (particularly small birds) unless I’m practically perched on a tree beside them.

At left, a Silhouette of my frequent visitor. At right, a good shot of the green iridescent feathers

Like most hummingbirds, Ruby-throated hummingbirds primarily feed on nectar from flowers or the homemade nectar in feeders. I make my nectar using a mixture of granulated sugar and water (four parts water, one part sugar). It’s completely clear — you don’t need to buy the bright red nectar they sell at stores or use food coloring. The brightly colored feeders are enough to attract the birds and I’ve read that the red-dyes may be harmful to the birds.

Hummingbird nectar recipe: 1/4 cup of granulated sugar, 1 cup water. Heat water for about 45 seconds in the microwave, then add the sugar and stir. Wait about a minute, stir again. Let the nectar cool for a few minutes then serve to your hungry birds.

A male hummingbird sips at my feeder

Most hummingbird feeders are red with yellow flowers punctuating each feeding station. The birds hone in on them almost instantly, but I had to remove the flowers from the above feeder because they were very difficult to clean. As you can see, the male in this picture managed to find the nectar just fine. The flowers in the background are Rose of Sharon bushes, a type of hibiscus. They attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, but bloom late in the summer which is why I hang feeders as early as late April.

It’s important to change the nectar in your feeders frequently during the hot summer months — every other day is ideal. You can refrigerate nectar for up to two weeks (so go ahead and make a big batch).

A male downy woodpecker helps himself to some nectar

Hummingbirds aren’t the only birds with a sweet tooth. Woodpeckers also like to sip on nectar. This downy woodpecker is tiny (for a woodpecker), but heavy when compared to a hummingbird. He’s perched on the feeder, causing it to tip which is helping him reach the nectar. Male downies have a bright red patch on the backs of their heads which the females lack. This bird is likely a juvenile since the red cap isn’t solid.

Female Ruby-Throated hummingbird

Hummingbirds use their tiny feet for perching, but can’t walk or hop like other birds. They use their wings to navigate through their world and have the ability to fly in any direction, even backwards and upside down. In fact, they’re the only birds with the ability to fly backwards. They can beat their wings up to 55 times per second.

A shot of one of my feeders with hibiscus flowers in the background

During the first summer that I attracted hummingbirds to my yard, I tied bright red ribbon to the feeder pole. This helped the hummingbirds locate the feeder since I don’t have a lot of bright flowers in my yard during spring and early summer. Flowering, nectar rich plants such as bee balm, honeysuckle, and hibiscus are examples of flowering plants that attract hummingbirds.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird feasting at a new feeder

As you might imagine, photographing hummingbirds isn’t easy. I’m getting better at it, but my goal is to get more photos of hummingbirds perched in branches or feeding from flowers (as opposed to hovering at my feeders). I also want to get more pictures of males showing off their ruby throats.

Written by

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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