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

June 02, 2015  •  1 Comment

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

Photographed by John Morey Photography As you may know, I’ve always been a big fan of little hummingbirds, and after spending three weeks of watching and filming these newborn Anna’s Hummingbirds be fed near continuously, and double or quintuple in size with each visit, I became an even bigger fan of these even littler birds.

Currently in the Arizonan Sonora desert, starting as early as February, and often repeated multiple times all the way into May and June, 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 Part 2 of this 3-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 was 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 fully experiencing for themselves.

Part 1 this past February, I explained how I came about this opportunity, mixed with general and specific facts about breeding, nest building, and incubating. If you missed that, no worries, because you can catch up now at: http://johnmoreyphotography.com/blog/2015/3/the-majesty-of-annas-love-part-1---the-discovery-of-an-anna-s-hummingbird-nest.  Or if you did read that, it was several months ago, so let me recap at a high level. My friend Kevin found his Anna’s Hummingbird nest in the grapefruit tree of his back yard precariously built in a branch extending over one end of his swimming pool.  It was not an ideal location, especially later when the babies began to fledge.  He found the nest on February 16th, about 1 or 2 days after the babies were born, and based upon our research and observations we concluded that the entire sequence of events for this little family happened as follows:

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. Nearly fully feathered and semi-actively exercising regularly.

3/7/15 & 3/8/15 – 3 weeks old! 5th and 6th visit. Mini-flying practice sessions and starting to leave nest.

3/9/15 - 7th visit - Empty Nest Syndrome kicks in as I bid them farewell.

Photographed by John Morey Photography In my first visit, which I covered in Part 1, I was able to catch a few shots of the nest, the mother keeping the babies warm periodically, as well as a few shots of the babies – completely dormant, except for when their beaks seemed to automatically open above the nest’s horizon edge for their feedings. One of the most interesting parts was the complexity and perfection of the nest itself.

In today’s part 2, I will specifically look at the feeding activities up until the time to fledge, which encompasses about 3 weeks of observation and nearly 3/4ths of a terabyte of data, from 2/19/15 through 3/7/15, when feeding, feeding, and more feeding (and a great deal of pooping) is the order of the hour, at least 3 times per hour.  While most of this time period also includes fledging preparations for flight, I will avoid getting into those particular aspects as much as I can, until part 3, about the act of fledging.

Originally I planned for a Part 4, to summarize the entire rearing process with final thoughts, along with a another look at the empty and still near-pristine nest, along with a follow up on Mother's and the youngster’s time after leaving the nest. I've since changed my mind about that due to too many competing projects for my time, so the series will end at part 3, and will include those observations. I also indicated it would include the photographic compositional and technical details in my choices of how to approach and capture each of the visits, as well as all the challenges I had to overcome, but I will leave that for those with interest to message me directly.

Okay, before I jump back into the timeline of my continued opportunity with this nest, let’s cover some additional factoids about this stage of the process – "Care and feeding".

Caring For Anna’s Hummingbird:

Photography by Kevin O'Malley, 1 or 2 days after the hatch. Upon hatching, the chicks are all head, nearly featherless, save for two thin lines of hairs going down the back.  They look like little dark-skinned slugs, blind and totally helpless.  Immediately after hatching she will feed them for the first time.  Besides feeding, she needs to keep them warm against the elements for at least the first week or so, up until about nine days, when they start to develop tiny pin-like feathers making them look like prickly balls, and are better able to withstand cooler nights by keeping each other more snuggly-warm.  By that point their size will dominate the nest and mother has to now move out to perches nearby for the rest of the rearing.  But up until the time she moves out, including all the way back to the beginning of the start of egg incubation, she had to herself endure the suspension of “torpid” behavior.

Hummingbirds at night typically enter a state of "torpor" to conserve energy, otherwise described as temporary or semi-hibernation.  However during incubation and the first nine days after hatch, possibly longer, Mom avoids a state of torpor so that she can maintain the needed warmth required of her offspring.  Not only does she need to feed these babies for what they demand, but now her body also requires much more energy.

Feeding Anna’s Hummingbird:

The mother-bird’s first feeding of the offspring almost seems like an impossible task.  My viewing started five days into their life (on 2/19/15), and the feeding I saw at that time seemed nearly impossible at that point, so it is hard to imagine the very first feeding.  She so confidently sticks her needle-like bill so far down the baby’s throat it is hard not to imagine that she does not harm them somehow. Of course at this point, it is only about a quarter or less of her bill going into them, but for their size that still seems like too much.  Yet despite how it looks, she knows what she is doing.

The food she feeds to the babies is different than just regular regurgitated hummingbird nectar.  In a sustained diet while developing, these babies can’t handle pure nectar the same way she does, and they need a lot more protein in it, otherwise face the risk of being crippled or dead.  Mother drinks nectar, from both feeders and flowers, but also spends considerable time eating small bugs, to supply them with protein, amino acids, and other varied nutrients needed for proper development.  In fact, the Anna’s Hummingbird tends to already have the largest protein diet out of all of the hummer species, so she is very skilled in this foraging. I’m certain those poor spiders who donated their silk are probably donating more than that, if you know what I mean (if you don’t know what I mean, you better go check out Part 1 about the spiders and hummer nest building).  Mother will feed these two babies roughly every 20 minutes on average.

When mother comes back to the nest to feed, the babies know to instinctually raise their open mouths, merely by feeling the slight wind of their mother’s wings over them during landing.  Depending where the baby is in the timeline, the mother’s bill in the beginning may only insert a fifth or a quarter of the length down into the baby’s crop, but by the end of the 3 plus weeks, not only does her full bill insert, but then even further, to the point you have to wonder if mom and her near ready-to-fly babies might now accidentally poke each other’s eyes out simultaneously with their open bills; reminding me of scissors fighting each other

Slow motion video clip showing mother bird passing a gooey mixture of slurry bug nectar. Once the mother’s bill is all the way into the baby’s crop, she passes the regurgitated slurry mixture of partially digested insects and nectar inside the crop, through a set of motions that at first glance sort of looks like a fairly violent act.  When mother-hummer performs this act, you can visually see her throat pumping the food out of her bill in an up and down fast action, as if sewing a garment.  So much food is passed and so often, that in the first week or so the near-featherless crop of the babies distends from the neck, like a huge mal-formed tumor.  In this video clip, I slowed it down and zoomed in considerably, to allow you to observe not only the pumping and swelling action of her throat and the baby’s bobbing head actions, but also to catch a real glimpse of what exactly she is passing – a slurry, colorless, goo-substance, with little chunks of bugs being passed as well.

More About My Continued Opportunity And Actual Experience:

With all the information from above now out of the way, I will share my actual experience of watching these birds eat and poop from each of my visits, #1 through #5.  I think I’ve talked about my 1st visit enough (5 days old), so without many additional thoughts, here are some photographs from that visit to recap mother’s return to the nest and feeding:

Photographed by John Morey Photography Photographed by John Morey Photography Photographed by John Morey Photography

In my 2nd visit, on 2/26/15, the babies were now 12 days old.  They were significantly larger than my last visit, filling the nest very snuggly with absolutely no room for mother, other than to perch on the side of the nest during feedings.  The babies now always had their heads and the tops of their backs visible over the horizon edge of the nest, so hopefully my focusing could be a little more accurate than previous attempts. I was also able to get started in the afternoon about an hour earlier than before, so I would have better lighting conditions.  Their eyes were now formed fully, but they also rarely opened still, so I felt no risk of stressing out the babies as I set up my cameras closer this time, which worked out very well while mom was out on a “fast-food” run.

Because of my need to stay far away from the nest so she would approach and continually feed without stress, I simply drank beer with Kevin on the other side of the yard, and had to trust it would all work out. When I got home later is when I could finally look at what I got.  The shoot went much better than the first time, with video that reminded me of something I might see on the Discovery channel or Nat Geo.  The time-lapse stills I shot really nailed the focus and correct depth, as well. I was so happy, but less about catching the events to share with others, and more about the joy of just being able to watch such intimate details of such awesome moments in Nature.

Their beaks were much bigger holes now, and mother-bird now made her entire bill disappear down each baby’s throat, all the way to the hilt, so to speak.  The babies were much stronger than before and much more lively for the food, making the feeding events look even more violent, as they jerked their necks and heads repeatedly up and down, with near blinding speed filling their crops.  Despite being more active and much stronger, their eyes still rarely opened, and they were still mostly just dark skin still with lots of little pin cushion-like waxy-feather-sheaths starting to form and bits of fuzz here and there.  I knew that the next big changes over the coming week were going to be in feather growth, and starting to soak in their surroundings with increasingly open eyes.  I was going to need to start visiting more frequently, and more cautiously.

For my 3rd visit, on 3/1/15, a mere 3 days later, I setup again. On this particular visit, the furry slugs with small beaks seen just three days before were now twice their size again! What were previously small and standard-shaped triangular beaks, typical of most baby birds, had transformed considerably, seemingly becoming skinnier and nearly twice as long as before.  Additionally, what three-days before was just fuzzy babies, were now resembling something much more familiar to a pin-cushion, save for the parts of their full crops, distending from their throaty-chests revealing some skin between the pins. I set up nearly the same way as last time with same lenses, but this time switched the camera bodies, because I felt I would have better success, due to the technological differences in auto-focus architecture, as well as a more effective use of my crop sensor camera vs. my full sensor camera.  I also ran about half as much time-lapse as before, with one camera periodically switching back and forth between time-lapse and video modes.  The more time I spent there, the more that video felt right to properly document the events, especially as the slight nuances of their movement increased over time.

For my 4th and 5th visits, three days later again from 3rd visit, and then 2 days again after that,  I was again amazed by their rapid development.  The major pin-cushions from last visit had transformed again to nearly full feathered, with a few pins left under the wings and on the crowns of their heads; which two days later were completely feathered and actually looking like real birds.  At this point, my biggest amazement is how these two quickly growing birds were both practically bulging and spilling out of the nest. The feedings during both of these visits seemed to decrease in frequency from previous visits, with longer periods of time with mother away, yet when the feedings did happen, they were massive in scale to the point that the babies were now learning to refuse mother when they couldn't take anymore. There were two additional things I began to notice during these two visits.

One was that I began to see mom show up for feedings sometimes with nest material stuck on her beak, yet she was no longer altering this nest.  Seeing that, coupled with periodic observations of mom flirting with a male bird across the street in another house's front yard, I began to understand that there was a distinct possibility that a second nest was being built elsewhere. In Part 1 through research, I described the act of courtship between male and female, although I had never watched it myself.  But what I had only previously understood conceptually was now periodically being shown to me by watching her visits to the male bird's Palo Verde tree.  I watched her tiny profile sitting in the bare Palo Verde branches against the sky, while her new suitor flew in front of her, hovered for a moment, and then darted straight up in the air nearly 50 feet until I could not perceive him anymore. With my eyes straining to watch him, he then darted straight down at her, finishing in a J-shaped move and vocalizing a very loud and sharp CLICK.

The other thing I noticed is that one baby, the smaller of the two, was starting to get the majority of feedings, while the larger of the two often refused mother.  I had been toying with the idea of names for each, but up until this point I could not really distinguish one from the other.  I began to call the larger, less interested and more active bird "Big Brother", and his needy and smaller sibling trying to catch up as "Little Sister". After visit #5, I knew that time was almost up.  I was convinced "Big Brother" might leave the nest soon, so from now on I would visit daily...

Visit #6, the following day, was a happy and sad visit.  Upon arrival, I slowly crept around the tree to get into viewing position, knowing that these babies are now very active and will be leaving very soon.  As the nest came into view, Big Brother was half perched on the side of the nest, while Little Sister continued to sit.  Clearly he had been practicing flying and landing, and now stood on the edge very still watching me.  For 5 minutes he watched me setup as usual, but at extremely slow and non-confrontational speeds. I was so pleased with myself that I got setup without upsetting him.  I crept away from the nest once I was ready to take position and start shooting, but from that safe distance as I turned to look again before pressing play, he decided not to wait on me. Big Brother took his final test flight, leaving Little Sister behind, and never returning again.

I was so delighted to watch the moment and be present to it, yet wished I could have hit play about 5 seconds sooner.   I will discuss this particular event in more detail in Part 3, since it was a fledgling-related, but at this point I wasn't sure if Little Sister would leave in another five minutes, or the next morning, or the next afternoon, so I would now visit even more often until she took her flight.  Little Sister however was not in a rush, and she contently sat there the rest of the evening, again in the early morning when I returned, and again that following afternoon when I returned again.  This girl had a good thing going, and momma fed her heartily and often.  While this video sequence is a bit longer, combining both visits 6 and 7, it really shows off just how big the Little Sister is right before leaving the nest. It suddenly makes you wonder how in the heck there were two birds in that nest just moments before. If watching all five minutes is too much, skip to the last bit to see Little Sisters very last feeding.

What Goes In Must Come Out, Right?

In closing of Part 2, please forgive me, but just like any other aspect of life on this planet, “shit happens”.  Disposing of “their business” and keeping the area sanitized is super important, especially when you consider there are two very hungry babies stuffed in a nest that is no bigger on the inside diameter than a quarter, and its depth from inside nest-bottom to top edge is less than that.  But hooray, toilet training, like so many other instincts of this bird, comes built in and ready to trigger.  Even from their smallest slug-like size with eyes still developing, the babies will go to great extent to dispose their wastes over the edge of the nest, leaving its cotton-like soft interior almost pristine.  Their rear ends rise high up over the edge of the nest and then they let it fly…honestly it seems like their best muscle at this point might be their rear-ends.  Once I started viewing this behavior for myself, I suddenly understood why I was seeing so much bird-poop in the oddest places…On the underside of a cock-eyed leaf to the side and above, or on a leaf that was in a pure vertical orientation, parallel with the nest – 5, 6, 7, 8 or more inches away!  Yet, only one or two small stains were actually on the nest edge, presumably from their earliest attempts. In this short video clip that is a compilation of all "movements" recorded during my entire time on location, you can see an example of the dirtiness outside of the nest on the leaves, as well as the actual action of the baby birds (5 days old and beyond) when disposing.

Stay tuned for my next installment:

The Majesty Of Anna’s Love, Part 3 – The Fledging Of An Anna’s Hummingbird Nest

 

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Comments

1.Judy Graham(non-registered)
Great blog, John Morey! Love the videos and reading your commentary. Feels like I was right there!
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