The Majesty Of Anna's Love, Part 1 - The Discovery Of An Anna's Hummingbird Nest

February 21, 2015  •  2 Comments

The Majesty Of Anna's Love, Part 1 - The Discovery Of An Anna's Hummingbird Nest

 

Photographed by John Morey Photography

 

I’ve always been a big fan of hummingbirds, and perhaps most of my admiration comes from the idea that it is practically impossible to describe them without vocalizing the long’est’ list of the ‘most’ justifiable superlatives that end with the letters ‘est’ or begin with the word ‘most’ – seemingly required to give proper credit to these birds for any number of traits and behaviors.  Over 300 species exist worldwide, all of them in the Americas, with only about a dozen common to Arizona. And currently in the Arizonan Sonora desert, while it might still be winter elsewhere, in the world of the Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte Anna), spring has sprung; with nesting and rearing of fledglings fully underway.

Thanks for joining me on this four-part blog series about the nesting and rearing behavior of the Anna’s Hummingbird in the Arizona Southwest.  For the first time in my life, it is my pleasure to have the opportunity to visit, witness, and re-visit over and over these special behaviors of the hummingbird that most people never get the joy of experiencing for themselves. Part 1 will explain how I came about this opportunity, mixed with general and specific facts about breeding, nest building, and incubating.  Part 2 will specifically look at the feeding activities up until the time the babies begin to fledge.  Part 3, of course is all about the act of fledging, and always more feeding.  Part 4, assuming everyone involved gets through this, will summarize the entire rearing process with final thoughts, Including another look at the now empty nest, and hopefully including a follow up on the youngster’s time after leaving the nest. And for you other photographer’s out there, in Part 4 I will also share the photographic compositional and technical details in my choices of how to approach and capture each the of visits, as well as all the challenges I had to overcome.

Through my personal observations, compared against accepted documented information, I will share with you the joys I’ve had while delving deeper into the subject knowledge for my own benefit, mixed with multiple visits to the nest to privately observe and document through my own photography…I hope you enjoy my sharing.

 

About Anna’s Hummingbirds in General:

"No language can express the power, and beauty, and heroism, and majesty of a mother’s love. It shrinks not where man cowers, and grows stronger where man faints, and over wastes of worldly fortunes sends the radiance of its quenchless fidelity like a star." ~ Edwin Hubbell Chapin

Hummingbirds generally are a solitary bird and don’t live or travel in flocks, which is maybe a clue about why I like them so much.  Usually when you see multiple in area, they are not working together, but rather highly territorial, as males protect courtship territory and females protect nesting territories, while both also eagerly defend feeding territories.

The Anna’s Hummingbird was named after Anna Massena, Duchess of Rivoli, a European noblewoman in Italy during the 19th century. They measure roughly 4 inches in length and only about 4 grams or so in weight.  The males are iridescent green on top and grey below with iridescent crimson rose coloring prominent on the forehead and throat.  This colorful throat patch is called the gorget (pronounced “gor-jet”). As typical in much of the animal kingdom, the females generally lack this extreme color and iridescence, save for the hint of a few colored feathers on the gorget.

The Anna’s is usually a resident of the Pacific slopes in California, with many making a very short migration visiting the Sonora Desert in winter.  I suspect some may live here all year, and besides living in the desert scrub and riparian lands, they are often most easily found around lots of residential areas, where feeders and exotic flowering plants are much more abundant.

The description above provides most of us with our common view and experience of these magnificent little birds – darting around with amazing aerial feats abusing flowers or feeders for nectar, and chasing others away from their bounties.  Those who observe them further may get the occasional pleasure of actually seeing them stop for a moment, sitting still on a branch or twig over a nice vantage point, although never seeming truly relaxed.  For those even more tuned into their ways, like myself, they often can be heard from a distance before they are seen, either in the humming buzz of their wings flapping at a rate of 80 times per second, or from  their distant and sharp chirp-click-sounds quickly repeating, which seem to pierce through many other louder and droning sounds.

From this recent nesting and rearing encounter, I have found my senses even more sharply honed to the point I can distinguish one hummer species over another. The Anna’s song of squeaks and buzzes is louder and more “musical” than most and give a “war cry” consisting of a rapid series of buzzes when they chase intruders from their area. In my multiple visits to this particular Anna’s nest, I’ve heard the following sounds so much, they seemingly ring in my head days later, each time I recall my moments with the bird. Courtesy of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, here is a 60 second audio clip of what a very active Anna’s Hummingbird sounds like:

<click to listen> The Sounds Of An Anna's Hummingbird

In fact right now as I write this, I am sitting at my computer, in the second story of my Tempe home, listening to a different nearby Anna’s, cruising around outside foraging food for her own young ones somewhere nearby.  Mind you, the window is only slightly cracked, and is 20 feet on the other side of the room from where I am sitting, it is a windy day outside, and I have the TV on as background noise, with the computer’s cooling fan obnoxiously going at maximum while I process a time-lapse animation from my shoot yesterday.  I kid you not, I’ve heard her so distinctly at times today that I have had to stop and get up and walk outside to try and find her, to no avail.  That’s fine. I don’t need to see every nest out there, because of the marvelous opportunity afforded to me in my friend’s backyard a few miles away.

Photographed by Pam Barnhart, Pam Barnhart Photography.

 

While you all are not invited over for your own look, for those who would like to attempt to observe a near identical example of Nature’s miracles, it is my understanding that there is an active Anna’s nest at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden right now, although the precise location will require your own sharpened skills…or maybe you can just ask a volunteer. I will share with you an image from a friend of mine, Pam Barnhart Photography, who recently caught a picture of the nest over at the garden.

I’ll get in more detail a little later about the breeding, nest building, and incubation, but for now let’s get back to this experience and the opportunity presented to me.

 

About This Particular Opportunity:

Photographed by Kevin O'Malley On Monday, February 16th, 2015, my friend Kevin O’Malley posted two pictures to Facebook of a hummingbird nest, and the mother hummer, in the grapefruit tree of his back yard.  Kevin is like a lot of people who have lived here in the Sonora desert for most of their lives, or at least a long time.  What I mean is he likes to spend time in his backyard when the weather is nice, and through occasional accidental observation has heard a hummingbird’s wings as they cruise by, and/or witnessed them dart quickly around abusing flowers for their nectar, before finally speeding off somewhere as quickly as they arrived. No matter how often the frequency of sightings are for me is, it is darn impossible when these moments happen to not suddenly stop what I am doing, and watch the brief encounter with a hint of joyful feeling and amazement. My friend Kevin is no exception, and so when I saw his exceptional cell-phone shots with the comment “Kinda of a trip”, I had to fully agree.  Immediately I thought to myself that for Kevin to get that close, with those angles, this nest was a unique opportunity for someone like myself to examine personally. I made a mental note that I need to chat with Kevin soon.

Two days later on Wednesday I finally ran into Kevin and immediately started asking him questions about the little miracle and practically inviting myself over.  He agreed to let me visit the next day, on Thursday, February 19th.  I honestly really didn’t have the time, because I was supposed to be packing for a trip the next evening, but I knew if I didn’t make the time, I would regret it…and so begins my complete distraction for the following 3+ weeks.

The next day I raced home from work to meet up with Kevin, and followed him over to his house.  It was already 5pm and there was maybe an hour of decent light left, so my hopes for good photos were quickly waning.  Also, having never been there before, I really had no idea what the environment would be like, or what kind of room and space I might have to work with, or which pieces of my equipment I would need.  I reduced all expectations I had and hoped that I would come out of this visit with at least just a couple of shots, and lot more visual knowledge of the scene for next time, if there is one.

Upon our arrival, she was not in the nest, so I could take a couple of moments to survey the scene without stressing her out, and the eyes of the two babies still hadn’t opened yet, so I stayed quiet and disturbed nothing.  I was pleased to find the nest so well hidden, yet simultaneously having at least two decent perspectives I could work with, but I needed to get something setup quickly as the sun seemed like it was sprinting to the horizon.  Since I was still so close to the nest and didn’t want to wait a long time for her to warm up to me, I figured I would need to setup the camera for a time lapse, and then excuse myself to the far other side of the yard as quickly as possible.  In the end, my ability to time lapse was compromised by a malfunction, but I was still able to get a few shots, reasonable for a first time scouting visit.  While I was there, I was able to catch her sitting on her nest keeping the newborns warm, as well as her periodically leaving and coming back with their next feeding.

Since I arrived late to this little party, and missed the breeding, nest building, and incubation period, I will recount for you general information readily available about the process, as well as discuss how incredibly impressed I am with the construction of the nest – this little girl sure is one of the most capable creatures I’ve met, and I think you will see why.

 

Breeding Habits Of This Anna’s Hummingbird:

Breeding season for the Anna’s Hummingbird is nearly half a year from start to finish.  Starting in December, males arrive early to establish territories with good food sources, and females arrive a few weeks later to establish separate territories and begin nest construction. Like females of nearly any species, mating should not occur until a nest has been properly established, thus the female Anna’s will not be very amorous until she builds the nest by herself.  Once the basics for continued survival are achieved (shelter, food, and water), she is now ready to think about accepting the male’s advances.

During the courting ritual, the male will hover in front of the female, then rise high above, pausing to sing for her in his sharp chirping warble, and dive back down towards the female making a loud, almost explosive, popping noise.  Apparently this works, and for his part the male’s role is simple – fertilize and move on to the next.  With extreme exceptions, this holds true.  Of course many of us human-kind might think poorly of this fella for his love-and-leave style or lack of interest in the rest of the process, but Nature has a way of design that keeps her in business, and this is no exception – It just wouldn’t do to have a brightly and iridescently colored male possibly leading watchful predators to the nest location of his only off-spring. In fact, if a male hummingbird comes around, the female hummingbird will consider his brightly colored feathers a threat that will attract predators and will chase him away.  Nature knows best.

Photographed by Kevin O'Malley - Nest when babies where 2 days old (2/16/15)See the two fine haired rows on each baby going down the center of the back? See how that nest from above looks like a coconut shell?

By late January or early February, typically two pea-sized plain white eggs are produced.  Interestingly however the eggs are typically not laid at the same exact time, often with up to 24 hours between eggs, and sometimes while she is still finishing up the final touches on the nest.  This does not change the timeline though, as both eggs if successful will hatch on the same time, because she really won’t start incubating much until both eggs are laid.  Then in the case of Anna’s Hummingbird, the eggs will incubate for about 15-18 days in the nest, with the female dedicated to their care and constant temperature of 96 degrees. She will of course occasionally leave to find food for herself or more material for nest final touches, and climate temperatures if unusually cold can cause some delay, so the more often she is away and not on the nest, the more the 2+ week time period can extend.

When the babies are first born, they are pretty much mostly a black-hairless head with a tiny body, with just a bump where the beak will be. Once the hatch is over, she will immediately start a first feeding, as well as clean up the nest from the egg shells. They are essentially naked, save for two rows of tiny down feathers down their backs, and pretty much skip a soft downy-like stage seen is so many other bird species.  Despite being fairly tolerant to temperature fluctuations at this stage, the mother Anna will spend most of her time keeping them warm by sitting on the nest for the first 8 or 9 days, until she moves out of the nest.

Based on my conversations with Kevin and comparing the available documented information and historical weather reports, we roughly drew out the following schedule of things as it probably went down with this family, and how the remaining schedule will also play out, for planning my future visits.

 

12/25/14 – Mother hummer arrives and starts scoping things out for a food supply and a nest location.

1/15/15 – Nest location is finally selected and construction begins…Now where are those spiders?

1/28/15 – Mom lays the first egg and continues nest finishing touches.

1/29/15 – Mom lays the second egg and incubation begins.

2/14/15 – Both eggs hatch – Happy Birthday and Valentine’s Day all wrapped up into one!

2/16/15 – 2 days. Kevin notices the nest with near hairless baby-slugs and eyes still developing.

2/19/15 – 5 days. 1st visit. Babies twice the size but still below edge of nest. Mom keeps them warm.

2/26/15 – 12 days. 2nd visit. Babies fill nest snuggly. Heads and back visible. Mom sleeps elsewhere.

3/1/15 – 15 days. 3rd visit. Feathers half plumed and semi-active in nest. Starting to exercise.

3/4/15 – 18 days. 4th visit. Estimated fully feathered and semi-actively exercising.

3/7/15 – 3 weeks old! 5th visit. Estimated mini-flying sessions and/or starting to leave nest.

 

Much More About the Nest:

For this “part 1” writing, I have to say that the real star of the show is the nest, and how expertly and thoughtfully it was constructed by the female.  It is truly amazing when you see the nest for the first time…or the second and third times too!  It is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot crazy bird nests in my life.

Let’s start with the size.  Predictably, it is small.  Especially tiny when you consider what is going to occur in the following weeks.  The nest is roughly 3 inches in size, maybe slightly more.  Clearly it is not as a big as the female, for her 4 inch size fits in it, but only when beak and tail feathers extend beyond the edges, and her head is visible above the edge’s horizon.  This is fine for her before and during egg incubation, but after the eggs hatch she will quickly run out of room in a matter of about 8 days...more about this the rearing in the upcoming “part 2”.

The nest construction, while extremely unique compared to other bird families, is pretty much the same from one Anna to the next, except for minor local differences in some of the twig and branch material used.  Each is exactly circular, small in diameter comparable to a tangerine, and from the side or below is extremely well camouflaged.  The camouflage is a result of her decorating the exterior with lichens, mosses, fragments of bark, leaves, etc.  But none of that makes the nest really unique, nor does it help promote true success of rearing and fledging of the babies.  There is a missing key ingredient to her success and without it perhaps near impossible to successfully raise a clutch. The really big surprises to those observing a nest for the first time is tertiary:  How the nest location is secured in place, how it is camouflaged, and how the nest is weaved and lined on the inside.  What is the primary component? Enter the spider…

Photographed by John Morey Photography - Nest when babies where 5 days old (2/19/15)See the spider web silk strands going from the nest to the branch? See how the external decorations are attached with same spider silk? See how it is used to weave in the soft interior lining?

 

Did you know that the female hummingbird uses spider silk in all aspects of the nest building?  It is near impossible for a nest to be successful without spider silk. This is the trick, and whether there is a natural symbiotic relationship between the hummer and the spider, I can’t say, but most of the spiders I’ve chatted with are not talking.  So far, I don’t know of a symbiotic relationship, so I’m assuming that the spiders just take their lumps.

Photographed by John Morey Photography - Nest when babies where 5 days old (2/19/15)See the spider web silk strands going from the nest to the branch? See how the external decorations are attached with same spider silk? See how it is used to weave in the soft interior lining?

 

To build the nest, Anna’s Hummingbird must gather a significantly large amount of spider silk, an extremely strong thread.  The threads are used to bind the various materials she uses to securely construct the nest.  The spider silk is initially used to help secure the main supports of the nest to the tree branches, so that even in strong winds the nest will hold, as long as the branch holds.  Next, she will bind various soft materials, such as seed down, fuzzy leaf hairs, strands from fern fronds, fine roots from grasses, wool, feathers, hairs, etc. to form the body and soft lining of the nest.  When looking down into the nest from above, all the thick white material inside surrounded by various brown small twigs and fibers on the exterior make the nest look like a miniature coconut shell cut in half.  Scroll back up and look at Kevin's cell phone pic of the nest, with the two newborns...see what I mean? Lastly, she will also use the sticky strong silk to attach the final camouflage decorations to the nest exterior and continued maintenance.

However while similar in composition and design, the placement of one Anna’s nest vs. another is all over the map of innovative places.  From suspended between horizontal branches, or right at the fork of where smaller branches diverge, or in the pit a tree’s trunk where major branches split, to others suspended from material hanging above.  Last year, in the same location as where I am currently photographing this little miracle, a nest was built under an outdoor patio ceiling, secured by mere one or two wire remnants hanging down, from an old ceiling fan that was removed years ago.  Sadly that nest didn’t make it through the season, but this year’s nest seems to be constructed in a slightly more stable place – except for hanging just 6 feet above and over the edge of a swimming pool; but in my research it seems to be of little matter to the hummingbird what the nest is suspended over.  Just like most little birds that might fall out of a nest, it is usually a one way deadly trip regardless of where it lands, and hummers being the supreme aerial artist of maneuvers, they are not scared of that.

 

What Are The Chances This Will All Work Out?

Photographed by John Morey Photography - Nest when babies where 5 days old (2/19/15) Photographed by John Morey Photography - Nest when babies where 5 days old (2/19/15) Photographed by John Morey Photography - Nest when babies where 5 days old (2/19/15)

 

Female hummers are fierce defenders of the nest, and will readily if needed attack hawks, snakes, or any other animal that ventures too near, including other hummers.  While she has not attacked me, she has told me off once or twice and I have no doubt she would attack if I messed with the nest itself. For all their effort and expertise, chances are actually not very favorable for these babies to survive to adulthood in less controlled areas.  Accidents happen to the egg or baby, very bad weather, and of course predation.  In one study specific to the Anna’s Hummingbird, 85 nests produced 68 eggs, of which 42 hatched, and only 23 survived to be fledglings.  However the Sonora Desert Museum, who has worked hard to create the right environment, has boasted much better success, with past reports of 114 nests built, 186 eggs laid, 116 hatched, and 102 fledged. So far I’ve seen the babies through their first 15 days, I can tell you that this little girl and her babies are beating the odds.  However, I am cautiously optimistic, as I believe the most dangerous perils are yet to come.  Accidents while learning to fledge could easily allow one or both to drown in the pool below, for example.  Time will tell, and I hope you tune in for additional updates and continued blog posts about this event.

 

Stay tuned for my next installment:

The Majesty Of Anna’s Love, Part 2 – The Feeding Of An Anna’s Hummingbird Nest

 

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed.

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Comments

2.JEANNE STONE(non-registered)
Love your shots and what a great article you have written! These are the most amazing little birds. Love watching them at our cabin, although I have never seen one of their nests!
1.Pat Nelson(non-registered)
I found this post interesting for several reasons. First, to see the position of the two "slug babies". Some years ago I got to witness a hummer (not sure which kind) nest just outside the window at a B&B in the countryside west of Tucson. The owner told us the babies always started out facing in the same direction, but then rotated when they got bigger. As for spider webs, I don't know if this is true for all spiders, but I learned that the large Garden spider rebuilds her web every night -- so perhaps the hummer you see has a symbiotic relationship with local spiders to save them the work of deconstruction.
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