Bird (and Animals) around Carnegie Mellon : 2011 Hummingbird Special - YSFLIGHT.COM

All aviation pioneers, including Wright brothers, had one goal: flying freely through the sky like a bird.  Souls of humans dreaming of the sky to conquer gave us wings ever to soar.  This phrase is from the lyric of the U.S. Air Force song with slight modification, by the way.  But, one aviation pioneers, Igor Sikorsky - a.k.a. the father of helicopters, may have been dreaming of flying like a Hummingbird.  All other birds looks like the origin of airplanes.  But, this particular bird, a Hummingbird, gives me an impression of the origin of helicopters.  Of course, the way it flies only looks similar to the helicopters.  It hovers and even flies backward.  The mechanism of flying is totally different from rotor wings though.

A Hummingbird is always flattering its wings while in the air.  It never stops its wings to glide.  It changes its course so rapidly as if the law of inertia didn't apply to this bird.  It flies like a Zoshi.  Well, you may not know what Zoshi is unless you spent a lot of coins to play Xevious in 1980s.

Zoshi from Xevious

I first spotted a Hummingbird in the U.S. when I visited Newport Beach CA for International Meshing Roundtable.  I saw numerous Hummingbirds feeding on the flowers in the garden of the conference hotel.  I regretted I didn't bring my SLR camera with tele-photo lens there.  Next time was at the Pittsburgh National Aviary.  I don't remember exactly when it was, but I saw one Hummingbird flying in a cage (a big cage.)  I thought they were always keeping a Hummingbird, but I didn't see one next time I visited there.  I also saw some in San Diego for another conference, but that time I didn't have time and good weather for taking pictures of Hummingbirds.  I didn't have right equipment then anyway.  I was thinking Hummingbirds were birds of southern states and didn't think I had a chance to see one in Pittsburgh in the wild.

I noticed that Hummingbirds are actually seen in Pittsburgh in 2006.  When I was walking in Schenley Park, I spotted one feeding on a flower near a creek.  With instinct, I aimed at the bird and took a picture.  I was able to capture the bird within the frame, but that was not at all a clear crisp picture.  I felt it was like a miracle to spot a bird of southern states in Pittsburgh.

This was the only time I saw the bird in that year.  I couldn't tell if this flower was the bird's favorite or I just happened to see a bird randomly picked this flower then.  Of course I now know this orange Jewel Weed is Hummingbirds' favorite, but I simply couldn't know then.  I should have looked up on the Internet, but searching on the Internet simply didn't come to my mind. 

Since then, I occasionally spotted a bird in Schenley Park, but didn't have an opportunity to take a good picture until 2009.  I spotted a bird feeding on a purple flower when I was walking to CMU through Schenley park.  I was within the perfect distance for aiming at the flower without surprising the bird.  Not really for close-up picture though.  I aimed at the bird and shot a few frames.  I was able to take a picture of a bird with green feather shining under the direct sun light.

This picture was taken when I first spotted a Hummingbird in Schenley park. (2006)

First somewhat successful shot. (2009)

Actually I saw a bird feeding on the same flower more than once.  This success gave me a wrong impression that Hummingbirds like this purple flower.  I was looking for this purple flower mostly through 2009.

Last year, I saw a Hummingbird traveling flower to flower of orange Jewel Weeds.  I stayed there for a while and saw Hummingbirds coming to the same bunch of Jewel Weeds one after another.  Or maybe the same bird repeated coming to the same bunch.  I learned what flower to look at.  But, it was already mid August.  Pittsburgh got cooler by the end of August, and Hummingbirds flew back to the southern states.  I had only two weeks to see them.

Spotted a Hummingbird feeding on an orange Jewel Weed (2010)

This year, from what I learned last year, I was keeping eye on orange Jewel Weeds since early summer.  I spotted the first Hummingbird late July feeding on the orange Jewel Weed flowers.  My quest for the best Hummingbird photo began.  I was standing at the feeding spot two hours or so on every nice clear day.

Spotted a Hummingbird!

Due to travel fatigue?  This bird fell asleep on a nearby branch.

Internet search tells you how to take a good picture of a Hummingbird.  However, most of them suggest to use a Hummingbird feeder to lure a bird to your camera range.  But, if you try to take a picture of a Hummingbird feeding in the wild, it gets a lot more difficult.  First of all, there are so many flowers.  You never know to which flower the bird comes next.  I had to stay hours until the bird comes to the flower within your camera range.  I had a lot of work to do including my research, consultation, preparation for teaching for the fall semester, etc.  I spent some hours early in the morning and later at night to take care of them.  I could use lunch break plus the time I squeezed out by overtime work that adds up to about 2 hours per day.  During the weekends, I stayed there over five hours a day a few times.  In fact, I will be happy to stay outside an airport to take pictures of airplanes all day and happy to stay in a park to take pictures of birds all day if I am allowed to do so.  Photography is about patience.

I learned a lot of things about this small bird while I was standing still waiting for the bird.  This bird is fierce despite its small size.  It has its own territory, (at least it thinks it is), and if another Hummingbird flies into the territory, it pecks the invader out of the territory.  The problem is, the one coming in to another bird's territory is also thinking that it is in its own territory.  So, naturally, two birds start fighting.  Two birds flattering their wings in high frequency and fighting in the air was really like a dogfight of two helicopters.  The problem for me was that when  bird flies in to a bunch near myself, I was hoping the bird comes close to the good distance from my camera.  But, very often another bird flew in and started dogfighting and both flew away.  I hoped both two birds got along with each other and came to the flower together then I had double the chance of photography.  In fact, when they started dogfighting, they didn't care about a human.  Many times, two birds flew inches away from me leaving the echo of their low-tone flattering, or humming, noise.  During the peak season, I saw up to three birds in a dogfight.

It kicks out not only fellow (?) Hummingbirds, but also other birds like Gold Finches and Robins, which are a lot bigger than a Hummingbird.  Gold Finches were small enough to be scared by the Hummingbird's intimidation.  I saw many times a Hummingbird pursuing a Gold Finch out of its claimed territory.  Robins apparently were big enough and just ignored a Hummingbird flying around.  On the other hand, I saw a Hummingbird pursued by a moth.  Yes, the bird was chased by an insect.

Battle over the territory.  It would be a super shot if I could focus on the one in the air.

As long as I didn't move, the bird came very close.  The bird many times was feeding on a flower inches away, and I could hear its signature humming noise.  Actually a few times the bird may have mistaken my towel hanging on my belt as a bird invading its territory, and flew close to my towel and tried to scare it off.  The bird was hovering within an inch, but I knew if I moved my camera, the bird was going to fly away.  All I could do was standing still and watching the bird hovering on my waist.  I wondered if I could use this aggressive attitude to lure a bird near the robotic (hanged by a wire) Hummingbird to take a good photography.  The humming noise was similar to the propeller noise of a C-130 cargo airplane.

I was thinking that Hummingbirds didn't sing.  It doesn't actually.  But, I realized it had voice.  It sounds like "chop, chop" to me.  When it is fighting, it makes noise like "zeee zzz". (It is difficult to express with alphabets.)  Actually, it could be easier to search for a Hummingbird video in YouTube.  I think there were two reasons why I didn't notice the voice last year.  One reason was it was already mid August when I found the spot.  Insects were making big noise by then, and I couldn't hear the voice well.  And, the voice is very similar to the voice of chipmunks.  Probably I heard the voice of a Hummingbird, but I might have thought that was of a chipmunk.

Stopped on a nearby branch, and flashing its tongue.

For the first several days after spotting the bird at the feeding site, I was trying to chase the bird directly when it comes to the flowers.  But, Hummingbirds were too fast to keep up with, and I changed the strategy.  Instead of chasing the bird, I make a guess on the flower that the bird comes next and pre-focus on the flower and wait.  With the new strategy, I was able to get a bird in the camera frame much more often than before.

The quality of the picture, however, was not so good.  It turned out that the bird pushes the flower quite a bit when it pushes its bill into the flower.  I'm using 400mm focal length.  With 2x cropping factor of my Olympus E-30, it is equivalent to 800mm of the traditional film camera.  The target is just 4 to 6ft away.  With F8.0, the focusing depth becomes less than an inch.  It means that if the distance to the target shifts by half an inch, the target is no longer focused.  Pre-focusing didn't work.

So I modified the strategy a little bit.  If the camera is totally off focus, it takes a second or more to gain focus on the target.  A second is long enough for the bird to come and fly away.  But, if the camera is slightly off focus of the target, it takes just a fraction of second to re-focus.  If I focus on the flower and wait, the camera can easily regain focus on the bird when it comes to the flower.  The new strategy worked like this: I focus on a flower that the bird may come next by aiming at the flower and pushing the shutter button half way and then release the shutter button.  When the bird comes in to the frame, I aim at the bird straight and push the shutter button all the way.  With AF-S mode (I think AF-S is the common terminology among major camera brands), the shutter goes off as soon as the camera gains the focus on the target.

This strategy worked.  This strategy gave me pretty good pictures.

These two pictures were quite successful!

But, just aiming at one flower and waiting was not so efficient.  Instead of targeting only one flower, I picked a few flowers that could give a nice clear shot and prepared to direct the camera to any one of these when a bird comes close to one.

Another successful shot.

The face appears dark.  I wanted to have an eye of the bird clear crisp on the picture, but it was too dark to see.  Then I realized I was forgetting the very basic of the photography.  I should have kept the sun behind.  In fact, I was only looking at the brightness of the flower.  The material of the flower is semi-transparent, and even when the sun was shining from the other side, it appeared bright.  I thought the bird should also appear bright if the flower looks bright.  It turned out I was having the sun behind the bird.  Since then I tried to be careful  so that I always have the sun behind me.

A little better, but the bird was off center

And, too many times I ended up with keeping the flower at the center and missed the bird to the side.  I started aiming a little off the flower.

With the new modified strategy, I was able to capture the definitive shot.

This was a definitive shot.  Slightly over exposure.  But, if I lowered the exposure compensation, I would have missed the facial features.

This one was a sort of target of opportunity.  I noticed a bird coming from behind with the humming noise.  I was able to turn without scaring off the bird and got this shot.

But, once I started getting good pictures, I wanted to get even better pictures.  The problem was that the face of the bird was too often hid by its own wing.  If the wing was vibrating with a almost constant angular velocity, I should have an equal probability of getting a picture with wings fully forward and fully backward.  But, I obviously had more pictures with wings fully forward.  Because the wings were fully forward, even when the camera was able to focus on the target, the face was hidden by the wings.  I thought that the angular velocity of the vibration is not constant and maybe the bird keeps the wings fully forward position longer than fully backward position.  I searched on YouTube to see a high-speed video of a Hummingbird and found it.  But, the angular velocity of the wings looked constant.  My variable angular velocity theory didn't seem to be true.

Conclusion: Hummingbirds in Pittsburgh are all shy.

It's not supposed to be true.  My guess is it is something to do with the auto-focus characteristics of my E-30 digital SLR.  When the wings are fully forward, the green feather is most visible to the camera.  Inside feather is all white and may not appear significant to the camera.  Probably the camera sees the fiber of the green feather and thinks it focused on the subject and then let the shutter go off.

Is this Hummingbird shy?

Then, to capture the face of the bird, I need to pick a flower so that I look down rather than look up.  But, this was not easy.  Jewel Weed gets very tall.  In fact, taller than myself.  Many of the flowers were hanging high.  Probably, higher places gets more sun light.  That's why.  If the bird comes to a high flower, I had no choice but aiming high.

Before I tried aiming at lower flowers, there came a storm.  A big one.  On August 19, two waves of extreme storms, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, hit Pittsburgh area.  The morning storm was not too severe, but the afternoon storm was an extreme.  Four people were drowned to death.

I came back to the Hummingbird feeding site the next day to find the place sustained a severe damage.  A lot of Jewel Weeds fell by the strong current.  The creek is usually less than an inch deep.  But, the plant damage indicated that the water probably was more than two feet deep.  Substantial amount of soil was washed away.  I hope that the remaining flowers leave enough seeds to grow the next generation in the next season to attract Hummingbirds to the same site.

Fallen Jewel Weeds

Actually some of the fallen Jewel Weeds raised some branches and popped some flowers within a week from the flood.  Wild plants are tough.

Toward the end of August, the frequency of Hummingbird sighting was gradually declining.  And I have seen for the first time in this season a male Hummingbird on August 25th and 26th once on each day.  Probably, the birds are getting ready to travel back to southern states.  The Hummingbird season in Pittsburgh is close to the end.

August 25, 2011.  The bird came to an ideal flower.

Now I have a better strategy that I will use in the next season, which are:

  • Instead of chasing the bird directly, stay ahead of the bird.  Find a good flower that the bird may come next. Focus on that flower and wait.
  • Remember the voice of Hummingbirds, and find an approaching Hummingbird by the voice.  If I forget, I will go for YouTube to remember it.
  • Don't keep the flower center.  Focus on the flower and then shift the camera a little off the flower so that the bird comes to the center.
  • Don't zoom too much if I want to take a moment when the bird stepped back from the flower.
  • Don't forget the basics.  Keep the sun behind.  Don't be fooled by the brightness of a flower.  The material of a Jewel Weed flower is semi-transparent.
  • Look for the bird late July to early August.  Flowers galore, and little insect noise.
  • Find an ideal flower.  The flower should face backward to the camera.  If I can see the front side of the flower, I can only see the back of the bird.
  • If possible, find a lower flower to aim at.
  • Turn off camera sleep mode.  Lose battery.  Don't lose a chance.
  • ISO 800 for direct sun light.  ISO 1600 when it is cloudy.  Maybe you can use higher ISO if you are using a new generation digital camera with a high sensitivity sensor.  If you have luxury of time to process RAW image, you should go for it.

So long Hummingbirds.  I will see you next year.