How to Capture Better Hummingbird Photos

Introduction

The purpose of this tutorial is to help you develop a closer bond with your hummingbirds, so that you can comfortably get closer to them in order to photograph them or feed them by hand. There some simple steps that, if followed closely, will enable you to sit among these wonderful birds and potentially become a hummingbird whisperer. People have asked me why I don’t keep the techniques I’ve learned to myself. It’s my view that sharing with others provides a greater reward than trying to “monetize”. Everyone should have an opportunity to experience what I have. There just isn’t anything else in the world that can compare to having the wind from a hummer’s wings caress your neck and ears as they flit about you. Sometimes the initial close encounter can be a bit disconcerting, since the birds move very quickly and their wings have loud hum when they are near. Try not to flinch, as this will scare the birds. But I have never been hit or touched by a hummingbird in flight. They have incredibly quick senses and will very rarely, if ever, touch an unintended stationary object.

Male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird in Flight

Attracting Hummingbirds

The first step in attracting what I’ll call a colony of hummingbirds is to have the right feeder and nectar. I believe this to be critical since we’ve tried many other feeders and nectar recipes without as much success. My partner, Mary, is a wonderful cook. She has experimented with numerous hummingbird nectar recipes and she honed in on a winning recipe that is all natural and nutritious for the birds. We use refined white cane sugar, as the base. We’ve read that unrefined sugars contain toxins that can be injurious to the birds and refined sugar possesses a close approximation to the nectar found in flowers. The only caveat I have is that this nectar recipe is dialed in to the flora present in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. There may be variances in the sugar content and composition of flora in other parts of the country which might necessitate small adjustments in order to achieve an optimal recipe where you reside.

The next step is to acquire an optimal hummingbird feeder. A few years ago, we used plastic feeders, before scientists had started to identify leaching toxicity in plastic containers. It’s not surprising that these feeders did not attract the volumes of hummingbirds that we have now. We use blown glass feeders with red color, in order to attract the hummers. The color red is a natural attractant to hummingbirds.

We have researched the ratio of sugar to water, and multiple sources indicate that the ratio must be between 20% and 40% sugar to water. If you use more sugar, the nectar is too thick for the tiny hummingbird beaks to drink. But our nectar has a special ingredient that seems to make all the difference. In fact, at the height of the hummingbird season, fifty plus hummers were drinking a gallon of nectar each day.

Homemade Hummingbird Nectar

1 part sugar to 3 parts water, for example:

12 cups of water

4 cups sugar

1 handful of fresh or frozen blueberries (optional)

Put the water into a large pot and bring to a boil. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Boil for 5 minutes. Add the blueberries and gently stir - don't break up the blueberries. You just want to steep the blueberries into the nectar, giving it a slight blue hue. It will smell wonderful! Scoop out the blueberries after a few minutes of steeping. Never reuse the blueberries in another batch of nectar - the pulp will leach out of the blueberries and the nectar will be ruined. Keep the used blueberries for making blueberry muffins.

Let the nectar cool completely. Store in the refrigerator. I use half gallon glass juice jugs (cleaned of course) to store the nectar.

Also, keep in mind that on hot summer days the nectar can get very warm and begin fermenting. We clean each feeder daily and refill them in the morning when we awaken. The hummers will be waiting and hovering around the location of the feeders. When you come outside with fresh nectar, they will see you as their source of food. This will help in the bonding process.

Getting Closer to the Hummingbirds

Once you have produced the nectar and placed it in your feeder, or preferably, multiple feeders, the goal is to attract as many hummingbirds as you can. It is very important to have the feeders outside before the hummers arrive from their migration origin. This will establish a feeding source when the hummers arrive. If you have hummers year round, just begin feeding them. When hummers arrive in the springtime, males will usually arrive first and protect the feeding source. This will allow them to court and mate with females when they attempt to approach the feeder. Courtship involves a “dive display” which involves the male making a large u-shaped flight path, in which it reaches very high wing speeds while chirping at the nadir of each flight cycle. When the female is pregnant, I’ve observed that the males will allow those females he’s mated with to feed unchallenged at the feeder.

This is a critical phase, since the more nesting females that are proximal to the feeder, the greater the chance that young hummers will also use your feeder after they leave the nests. Each female will complete up to four breeding cycles in a summer, so if do the math on five nesting hummingbirds, which produce two youngsters in each breeding cycles, that amounts to about fifty hummers that are now feeding at your feeders.

Keep in mind also that hummers will typically have multiple feeding routes, and will develop a preferential area to feed based on the quality of the food source. So having a very good nectar, compared to other sources in the area, will increase the number of hummers feeding at your feeders.

Moving Closer to the Hummingbirds

It is important to note that you must have a fairly large population of hummers in order to begin the process of moving closer to them. If there are only several hummers feeding at your feeder, they will tend to remain elusive. Hummers have a ‘safety in numbers’ behavior, where they become preoccupied in their feeding activity when there are many hummers feeding. This will allow you to move closer without scaring them away.

Once you have a thriving group of 10-40 hummingbirds feeding at your feeders, set up chair or stool 20 feet from the feeders. Sit still with no sudden movements for 20 minutes and allow the hummers to feed undisturbed. The next day, move the chair five feet closer to the feeders and repeat the quiet observation process. If the birds appear afraid or elusive, then back up sit quietly until they begin feeding again. Keep moving closer until the hummers are feeding comfortably with you sitting on your chair around eight feet from the feeder.


Making Contact with Your Hummingbirds

Once you have achieved a state in which your hummers have acclimated to you watching them feed from a distance of eight feet (perhaps 2-4 days), you are now ready to make contact! The way that I make contact is to place one feeder out on the hanger in the morning and allow the hummers to feed for 15 minutes. Make sure that they are feeding actively. Then remove the feeder for 5 minutes. The hummers will be searching around for the feeder and quarreling amongst themselves. 

Hummers in Feeding Frenzy

With the feeder in the palm of your hand, approach the hanger where the feeder would be placed. Holding the feeder as still as possible, and with as little movement as possible, wait for the hummers to begin feeding. If they begin feeding, you have established a trust bond with them, whereby they are comfortable with your proximity. Once the hummingbirds have fed for a few minutes with you holding the feeder, slowly hang the feeder up and slowly retreat. Repeat this type of contact with the feeder in your palm for a few days. They will continue accept you and the trust bond will strengthen.

Hummers Feeding While Holding the Feeder

Building the Bond with Your Hummingbirds

The next stage in building on your initial contact with the hummers, is to get a small single-serve feeder. The next morning, place the large feeder on its hanger and allow the hummers to feed for five minutes. Make sure that they are feeding actively. Then remove the large feeder for 2-3 minutes. The hummers should begin swarming around the location of the large feeder and quarreling amongst themselves. This action will help draw them to the smaller feeder when you re-approach the hanger.

Now take the small single feeder and slowly approach the hanger and place it between your thumb and forefinger and brace your forearm on the railing so that it doesn’t move. If the trust bond is strong, one or two hummers will approach the single feeder and begin feeding. Then more will come. Allow them to feed for several minutes, then retreat and replace the large feeder on the hanger. The goal here is to acclimate the hummers to you without over-exposing yourself to them. You can repeat these steps in late afternoon hours when the hummers begin their evening feeding.

From this point on, you now have hummers feeding from your hand. You know the steps to establish the trust bond with your hummers. You can now begin experimenting with different types of close-contact feeding and begin photographing the hummers from a closer distance to the large feeder.

Photographing Hummingbirds at Close Distance

When setting up to photograph the hummers with a hand held camera, move your chair into position about 6-8 feet away before placing the large feeder out on the hanger in the morning. The hummers should be hovering around the hanger in anticipation of receiving their nectar. Once the feeder has been hung, go back inside and wait for the hummers to establish their feeding activity. Then go outside and sit in the chair without moving and with the camera in your lap. Hummingbirds are camera shy and sometimes the act of bringing the camera to your face will scare them.

Once the hummers are feeding normally with you sitting in the chair, you can begin to move the camera up to your face and push the shutter release. The noise from the shutter release will scare away the hummers in many cases. The goal is to wait until the hummers are pre-occupied with their feeding activity and jostling for position. When the hummers are pre-occupied, they will be less inclined to retreat when the shutter release is pressed. Hummers can react almost instantaneously to the sound of a shutter release and retreat by the time your motor drive has released the second time.

The best way to begin photographing hummers with a handheld camera at close distance is to wait until they are hovering to the left or right of the feeder, and then focus quickly and release your shutter. The hummers likely scatter, but you will have a close up shot and the hummers will return. From this point onward, you can now experiment with the art of capturing hummingbirds at close distance. Congratulations! All of the photos in my hummingbird gallery were captured using these techniques. I invite you to explore my gallery. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me by e-mail.

The Ultimate Trust Between Human and Hummer

Hummers Fighting Over Nectar

Closer Encounters with Hummers