Friday, July 29, 2022

Hummingbirds and Royal Catchfly


A female American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) with a bill full of plant down. The vegan "wild canaries" are late nesters, with July and August peak breeding months. This one was building a nest in a nearby thicket. The colorful males do not assist. They are too busy chasing one another and delivering their impressive sky songs. While so engaged, the male arcs lazily about with slow shallow wing beats, all the while gushing forth an exceptionally ebullient song.

I photographed that goldfinch at Huffman Prairie during a visit on July 22. The 100-acre prairie is at its colorful peak from mid0July into August, and one of the botanical showstoppers is Royal Catchfly (Silene regia). This statuesque prairie plant attracts a very special little bird, and my main mission was to shoot them at catchfly plants.

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) approaches a Royal Catchfly. It is thought to be the catchfly's only effective pollinator. The brilliant red flowers are irresistible to hummingbirds, and the sprites swarm Huffman Prairie at this season. Battles over catchfly are frequent. More than a few times I would have a hummingbird in my sights, ready to snap away, when another hummer would roar in and punk my subject. A speedy aerial chase would ensue, with the combatants sometimes spiraling high into the air.

I arrived not long after dawn, and it didn't take long to spot a hummingbird. My modus operandi here is to find a nice patch of catchfly, with at least a few unobstructed exceptionally tall catchflies towering above the snarl of colorful prairie wildflowers. One does not normally have to wait long for photo ops in such a situation. Shooting hummingbirds visiting the red-flowered catchflies wasn't too tough on this day, but I had a more challenging goal in mind.

Mission accomplished! A Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits the flowers of a very rare pink or salmon-colored form of Royal Catchfly. This variant is exceedingly scarce, and even at Huffman Prairie with all its catchfly, probably only 1 percent or less of the plants are this form.

To expand upon my tactics outlined above, I try to find a large, pink-flowered catchfly surrounded by typical, red-flowered plants. Such a situation offers the best of both worlds. I will likely snag images of the birds at red flowers and may get the opportunity to shoot them at the rare form as well. And luck was with me on this day, and I got both types of shots.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES: I shot these images with my Canon 800mm f/5.6 on the Canon R5 mirrorless body, mounted on a Gitzo tripod with Wimberly head. The R5 has made such tasks easier. Its Auto Intelligence focusing feature grabs moving subjects with astonishing rapidity and locks onto them. Even fast-moving hummingbirds. The big lens allows for a fairly expansive swath of habitat to be covered. I can work out to around 30-40 feet in any direction and even at the outer reaches of my sphere, get usable images. As hummingbirds are nearly fearless, they will sometimes come into plants well within my lens's minimum focus of 19 feet. Sometimes birds will come within 5 feet! Occasionally a hummingbird will roar in and hover about eye level and remain there for a few seconds, staring at me. I suppose they are trying to figure out what the large biped with the funny gizmo is doing in their prairie.

Anyway, flash is key when shooting hummingbirds as it helps freeze movement and causes the birds' feather iridescence to pop. I use a Canon 600mm speedlite and a Better Beamer flash extender. The fresnel lens of the latter can throw usable light out about as far as I can shoot the hummers. I learned of a new peril involving fresnel lenses on this day. At one point I small an acrid burning odor. As there is a gun range in the distance, I thought it might be the smell of discharged firearms drifting over. No. I had left my camera rig pointing so the sun was shining right through the fresnel lens. Like a magnifying glass it greatly amplified the sun's rays causing my lens's camouflage lens coat to start smoldering. Easy fix: just remember not to align the Better Beamer with the sun.

Camera settings were mostly ISO 800 to 100, 1/4000 shutter speed, and f/8. The flash must be set to high-speed sync mode, of course, to allow it to function at shutter speeds beyond the sync speed of 1/200. The trade-off of going faster than sync speed is a great drop-off in light output from the flash. Enter the Better Beamer. Its light amplification allows one to throw the light far afield and hit distant objects.

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