I perched on scaffolding, twenty feet above a quiet country road. Across the road, Roaring Creek slipped and slid, curved and churned its way to the Atlantic. Before me sat a Ruby-throated Hummingbird on her nest. I captured photos of Mom incubating the eggs, but photos of her feeding the young escaped me.
That was nearly thirty years ago in wild, wonderful West Virginia. So, when a call came telling me a hummingbird nest had been discovered in a farmhouse yard, and asking if I would like to come—of course! Maybe this time we could capture Mom feeding the little ones.
Bethany and I, Cheryl and Adrian were about to leave in pursuit of zebra swallowtail butterflies. We had been given a tip on where they could be found, and we wanted photos. Back in the day when my brother and I collected insects, we never found a zebra swallowtail. Exploring for them was going to be special. We hoped to add that species to our photographic collection—and now this call!
The nest was easy to include in our jaunt, as we were going to soon be passing by it anyway. Nolan and Ruth met us and showed us where it was—in an atlas cedar, scarcely higher than my head. What a lovely, photogenic spot. No scaffolding needed this time. The texture of the needles made a superb frame. A natural “hole” in the vegetation gave us a clear angle into the nest. This find was a winner!
We decided the lighting might be better for photos in the morning, so we left.
“Yes, you can park there. If anyone says anything to you, tell them Ranger Jake said you could.”
Soon we were back in the “forbidden” spot. Only registered campers were to use the area, and we were not camping. However, there was plenty of room for both them and us.
We started down a trail. Tent site after tent site…it just did not seem right to me. We turned around and retraced our steps.
“I think the trail we want is this one,” I said.
“I’m not so sure,” came a reply.
Soon we emerged into a small clearing with a patch of wildflowers that looked promising. Butterflies flitted about. Suddenly three zebra swallowtails lifted in unison—yes, we had found the right spot.
From blossom to blossom the butterflies fluttered. Bees buzzed. Cameras hummed. Delightful it was, to finally “capture” some zebra swallowtails. But try as I might, I could not get the camera on one while its wings were stretched wide.
Butterflies are cold-blooded, and they regulate body temperature by either opening their wings to the sun, or by closing their wings and/or perching in the shade. This day was hot, at least during the time we were at the flower patch. Maybe we will have to try earlier in the morning when the temperatures are cooler if we want to capture them with their wings open.
Cheryl and I perched on chairs under the shade of a beech tree. Leafy limbs tucked in around our cameras, providing them with a bit of cover. Nearby, flashes sat mounted on stands—we were ready.
The minutes ticked by. When would she come…would she come?
Hummingbirds seem quite tame when they come to feeders or flowers. They are easy to train to perch on your finger while taking a drink. But when the nest has babies, it seems Mom goes into wary mode. She perches somewhere nearby and takes in whatever is going on. I suspect she considers the cardinal, the wren, the robin, the crow, and decides if they are a threat—certainly the two soaring eagles weren’t. I suspect she looks down at the dog and wishes he would go take a nap. And I suspect she wondered what the camera gear was all about….
Suddenly with a whir and hum, Mrs. Ruby-throat was near the nest…hovering…looking left and looking right…and then darting in to the nest. Gaping mouths popped up. With vigorous jabs, Mom Hummer poked her beak deep into a grand canyon. Jab, jab, jab she went, regurgitating bugs and nectar from her crop. Then to the second open mouth and jab, jab, jab again.
Then she was off. She buzzed over to make a close inspection of our flashes and cameras, and then she was gone. Just that quick it was over.
Over the next days Cheryl, Adrian, and I watched this pattern repeat many times. Okay, she didn’t always inspect the camera equipment. She didn’t always hover and look around before darting in to the nest. But she was a diligent mom. She provided for the needs of her little ones—food and protection—all day, every day.
A hummingbird nest is a treat to find. They are about the size of a ping-pong ball, made of spider web strands, and camouflaged with lichens. The spider web strands enable the nest to expand as the young ones grow.
This nest was tucked into an exceptionally photogenic spot, we thought. The low height enabled us to set up equipment on the ground. The neighboring tree provided cover and shade. This made it easy for us to follow along as the little ones grew.
This morning the nest was just plain full. Today is Day 18 for the first bird, and tomorrow will be for the second one. According to the books, these little ones might take their first flight. Or, it might be several days yet. It looked to us like Mom might have been trying to coax them out with her back and forth hovering several feet behind and below the nest.
Hopefully they come back next year and raise families of their own.
P. S. We thought it was over for us, Saturday, when we expected the birds to leave before we could come back. But, this morning both were still in the nest. About nine o’clock the first one left. We expect this last one to leave tomorrow.