Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to watch three hummingbird mothers go through the process of raising a brood, but each time there were logistics challenges documenting the process. Then, this March, we discovered a nesting female in a palm abutting our front porch. I’ve surmised that she may have been a first-timer, with only a single egg and placement of a shallow insecure nest on a fairly fragile frond. The upshot was that a nighttime gusty early Spring cold front rocked the tiny nest so strongly that by morning the egg had been blown to the ground below, shattering its future.
I selfishly fretted over the lost opportunity to chronicle their family-building. Then on May 7 Cathy noticed a hummingbird frequenting another palm in the same area, and sure enough, we found a sturdy, deep nest located securely on a strong frond, well protected by foliage above and below, and facing directly at our front door! Watching until she vacated the area I quickly got a ladder into position to look into the nest.
Hallelujah! Given a new lease on bird-voyeur life, I set about trying to make the most of the opportunity, setting up the 5D with a 600 mm telephoto alternating with occasional spells of the G16 in macro mode. This turned out to be a technically challenging endeavor, with fronds wafting in and out of the frame and confusing auto-focus enough to make it nearly useless, dim light on the sheltered nest confounding exposures. Depth of field with such a long lens located maybe ten feet from the nest meant that focus was always of the shallowest few inches variety.
Given the hyperthyroid exertions of their flight profiles, hummingbirds need formidable amounts of energy ingestion in the form of flower nectar, tiny insects and such, which translates to much coming and going for food, interspersed with quiet downtime sitting atop the nest to incubate the eggs, ideally kept at 96 F.
I struggled to personalize the experience first with a name for the mother and eventually her brood, receiving several great suggestions from friends following the developments on e-mail. And then one morning I realized that for days I had been stepping out the door in the morning for newspaper retrieval or surf condition checks, smiling at her on the nest, and saying something sappy like “good morning, Sweetie, how’s it going?” The name stuck. I hope she liked it.
Ruby-throated hummingbird incubation is in the range of 14 to 16 days in temperate SoCal. We first discovered the nest with eggs already in place on May 7. On May 18 the first egg hatched, followed two days later by the second.
At breakout, the hatchlings’ eyes are closed and they’re mostly bald, save for a fuzz down their backs akin to Phyllis Diller on a bad hair day, make that any day. Their skin is crenulated, about like mine these days, seven + decades into a gazillion roentgens of solar energy absorption. In fact, new little hummers would be good stand-ins for progeny of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. There, I’m dating myself, and if you don’t know the reference, Google it. Also, at this stage, they are as yet unable to maintain body temperature, so the reptilian association is perhaps even more apt. This creates even more challenge for the Sweeties of the avian world, with the effort to feed herself juxtaposed with the hatchlings’ need for both warmth, and feeding.
Hummingbird hatchlings double their weight in the first five days, and do so twice again within the next few days, so growth is rapid, and Sweetie was constantly inbound and outbound, as well as sitting quietly atop the squirming youngsters. As with mom, their names just came to me out of the blue—Bert and Ernie, in that chronologic order.
This shot reminds me of a helicopter, pitched over and accelerating out of a hover.
Bert, getting pinfeathers, while Ernie is still bald and closed-eyed.
And then there was this moment when I just had to gawk and wonder what Sweetie was thinking as to the kids’ capacity to ingest, or her own, for the matter of that. Grasshopper tenderloin, still twitching and trying to extract itself. Darn near as big as she.
In short order the kids began stuffing the nest, feathers rapidly fattening their bodies, although Ernie still is modeling cornrows—Bo Derek, but no Dudley Moore.
In time they were bulking up enough that it was often one inside the nest, and one hanging around the rim, usually the elder Bert.
Bert, being older and bigger, frequently got first dibs when Sweetie came in on a food delivery, but she was careful to feed Ernie as much. Check out the small bead of regurgitant about to transfer from Sweetie to Bert. Given that pooched out stomach, I expect Sweetie to let go with a 6.5 Richter belch.
Mom, we’re hungry!
As the maturation progressed, Bert, in particular took to frequent self-preening. Whether to fluff up his feathers, or just basic fastidiousness, I can’t say.
However, this behavior seems coincident with the testing of wings. Bert showing his stuff in the next six frames.
His full power pre-takeoff exercise was impressive, but he often collapsed in exhaustion right where he was, Ernie getting squashed by all two ounces of the elder sibling.
A countenance of pure concentration.
Getting very close to turning a high power run-up into breaking those surly bonds of earth
Bert, get back here before mom sees you!
Let me catch my breath. This is so rad, Ernie!
Mom, mom—look what I can do! Ernie, cringing and pretending it didn’t happen on his watch.
Landing gear down. Check. Flare for the touchdown.
And then, the next day, the 10th of June, the inevitable…
Remember, you saw it here, first. Outta here. Look out life, here I come.
A singularly sad state of affairs…
…but at least, Ernie now has room to spread his wings.
The next day we had grandparent (human) responsibilities up in Montrose, CA. Ernie was still solo in the nest when we left in the morning. But by the time we returned at the end of the day, I was heartbroken to learn that I did not get to chronicle his launch to freedom.
In closing, let me share a modest measurement of the scope of this magnificent event, the matriculation from tiny egg to feisty terror of the skies. It should help put our own lives in perspective.