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  • Writer's pictureJohn R

Sticky Proboscises and other Sex Toys

It’s not my fault. It’s the hummingbirds. These little feckers are really really quick. Like, stupidly fast. Which is why my nature photography sucks.

They’re fond of Giant Leopard Lily. The Giant Leopard Lily is seven feet tall and has three dozen stalks and dozens of big, drooping, dazzlingly speckled red blossoms and I’m guessing that for a hummingbird it’s like being a kid at a carnival that has a free cotton candy vendor every ten feet. (Side note on the Giant Leopard Lily—the reason that it’s so robust and healthy is that we didn’t plant it and we’ve neglected its care ever since. There’s a teachable moment in there somewhere.)

I have a tripod that’s so full of metal that it rivals the Eads Bridge in substantiality. I have a decent camera and lens, and I shoot at a sensible combination of f-stops and shutter speeds. And I shoot probably a bagillion images at one setting. You’d think the odds of stumbling upon a truly cool image would be fairly high. You’d think.

Obviously the problem is not the photographer. It’s those hummingbirds. They spend about eleven nanoseconds per blossom and they flit from flower to flower with such frenzy that you can’t get anything famed up correctly and by the time you press the shutter they’ve flitted out of frame and you have to look around to spot them and as soon as you refocus they flit away. Then they come back when you’ve finally given up and you’ve retreated to the back patio for an iced beverage at which point they descend en masse on the lily, creating boundless photographic opportunities that you’d think any aspiring nature photographer would certainly shirk a bourbon for. You’d think.

The hummer here is likely a Rufous hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, a common yard bird described on our Fish and Wildlife Department website as “fearless.” They are a welcome contributor to our backyard gestalt with their sizzling wings, shrill chirps, and acrobatic maneuvers. In addition to the Giant Leopard Lily, the hummingbirds are fond of valerian flowers and a few of the other things we have around here that I planted years ago and have forgotten the names of.

Hummingbirds are pollinators. They help ensure that plants grow, promulgate and produce viable seeds—a healthy cycle-of-life process that seems to occur mostly in other people’s gardens. Hummers do this by thrusting their long, narrow bills deep into the heart of a flower in search of nectar. While so thrusted, they get pollen on their proboscises, sticky bits of genetic material that they convey to the next flower, all the while moving in defiance of 1/1000 shutter speeds. Those DNA-rich crumbs are all that’s needed to consummate a little sweat-less flower-sex and voila! Baby plants are born! Some botanical nerds believe that certain plants with tubular blossoms, such as penstemon, columbine, and lilies, owe their very existence to the tireless flitting of hummingbirds.

As it turns out, hummingbirds are not the only animals that flit. Squirrels and especially bees also are irritatingly fast. In that regard, much of nature photography is about patience. Top nature photographers will sit in a blind for weeks with nothing more than a stash of Slim Jims and a catheter just to get the perfect shot of a baboon picking its nose. I’m more of a Twenty-Minutes-of-Anything-and-I’m-Done sort of person with an admiration for photogs who have the patience to bless us with truly glorious nature images (see Bonus below).

Although I might not be able to capture their inflight magic, I do like the sound hummingbirds make as they zip around—like miniature framing saws cutting the air. Few things are as satisfying as lounging on the back patio listening to hummingbirds ripping and buzzing, knowing flower sex is happening and that it all goes on whether you have a camera or not.

Bonus: My friend Dave is a really good nature photographer. His stuff is a joy. Witness his images below of a hummingbird (so jealous) and a yellow crown sparrow. Check out more of Dave's work:

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