Sprites of San Francisco – Anna’s Hummingbird

A high voltage buzz crackled through the air as two diminutive fays sizzled on the wing, like demented dragons, just a few inches above my head. A shrill battle cry sounded from the whirl of wings, beaks and tiny claws. In a second it was over, and the victor returned to his throne to scrutinize his kingdom in preparation for the next skirmish.

I was back in California, and once again found myself in the San Francisco Botanic Gardens. Why? To try for a photograph of the dazzling Anna’s Hummingbird, of course. Anna’s Hummingbird was the first hummer that I saw when I came to the United States. I remember the moment that a little moss green bird transformed itself in front of my eyes, with a split-second flash of metallic pink blaze. It was a breathtaking sight and a moment of beauty that I wanted to capture in a photograph. The bird is beautiful at all times, but the blaze, that only shows when struck by sunlight at the perfect angle, takes it to a new level. Without sunlight this hummingbird’s face has a black or charcoal grey appearance. Add a few droplets of sun and magic occurs.

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Anna’s Hummingbird showing the black blaze

It seems that every time I try to photograph hummers it is under grey skies and drizzle. This means that I’m constantly battling with the camera to get a fast enough shutter speed to capture these glittering speedsters. This day was no different, as a misty rain was either falling or trying to fall all day. But on this day Anna’s hummingbird was out in abundance. In previous visits to the Gardens the constantly angry Anna’s was too high, too fast, too feisty or just not around. It was the molting season, so some of the birds were not at their very best, but still offered a stunning spectacle. With a rain jacket, hat and a lot of patience, I was able to find and photograph a few fine specimens.

I walked the paths of the drizzly Gardens, firing off some shots as an occasional hummer buzzed into range. I got a couple of nice shots of malignant males on their perch, guarding their territory like minuscule iridescent rottweilers with wings. As I walked on I was seeing hummingbirds everywhere. I snapped a few females and young males, but I wasn’t getting any closer to capturing the pink blaze. A young male gave me a glimpse of a pink throat as it zipped between tiny lilac heads of sage.

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I set my shutter speed as low as I could as I wanted to capture the blurred wingbeat. This is my way of remembering extraordinary speed and energy as well as the hum as the bird zips from flower to flower. Perhaps the attraction of these birds is how they stimulate our senses. The vivid colours, the vibratory hum of the wings, the scent of the oozing flowers that are almost an extension of the bird itself. It isn’t at all clear whether the flower was designed for the bird or the bird for the flower. Perhaps they are part of the same thing but sometimes separated by air.

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Anna’s Hummingbird, like all hummers, is as small as it is beautiful. A full grown adult bird does not exceed 10 cm (4 inches) in length and the lightning fast wings span only 12 cm (4.7 inches). 100 years ago, this common hummer of the West Coast lived only in northern Baja California and southern part of California. As humans developed a taste for exotic plant species in our parks and gardens, Anna’s hummingbird spread north following the gardening trend. They can now be found as far north as the southern end of British Columbia.

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So, who is the Anna after whom this vibrant little bird was named? Part of French society in the 1800s, Anna of Belle Massena, Duchess of Rivoli, Princess of Essling was the wife of Prince François Messena, a nobleman with a keen interest in birds and a friend of John James Audubon.

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The Empress Eugenie (with the purple bow), surrounded by her ladies in waiting, by Franz Winterhalter (1855). Anna d’Essling is the one in the pink dress.

The Prince kept a collection of stuffed birds, including many thus far unidentified birds. One of these unidentified birds was a tiny hummingbird from Baja California. Rene P. Lesson, a French naturalist, named the hummingbird in the collection after Anna.

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Was the flower designed for the bird or the bird designed for the flower?

I continued walking the Garden trails and snapped several metallic sprites supping nectar from wax drop flower heads. The day was drawing to a close and the light was getting too low to work in the darker areas of the Garden. I knew that there was an open area with some low flowering plants that might give me the best chance of working with the last of the light. I had seen hummingbirds in this area close to the entrance of the Gardens when I arrived, so I headed over to see what I could find.

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Female Anna’s Hummingbird

As I approached I could hear the high-pitched twitter of an Anna’s. I sat on a low wall and aimed my lens at a cluster of flowers. I sat so still and quiet that a Scrub jay buried an acorn beside me. A hummer zoomed into view and I machine gunned a few shots. The drizzle continued but the sky brightened a little. The photos were usable, so I got comfortable, deciding to finish the day in this spot. An adult male buzzed the area and was soon in aerial combat with an adversary. These attacks are always way too fast for me to put in to pixels. The two fighters vanished, and a moment of silence fell over the flower patch. At that moment a single shard of sunlight punctured the clouds, spotlighting the flower patch. I adjusted the camera and lifted the lens as a hummer flashed into the view finder. An adult male hovered in the beam of light as it scanned the flowery pick-n-mix. As I pressed the shutter release he presented a gift to me; a reward for my patience. My viewfinder fluoresced with pyrotechnic pink as the stabbing blade of sunlight ignited Anna’s hummingbird’s blaze. As fast as he appeared, like rose lightening he was gone. I looked at the couple of shots I had captured as the shard of sunlight faded in the closing clouds. I switched off the camera and set off for my hotel. I had been given enough.

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Anna’s Hummingbird in full flare

A few weeks later I was on vacation, driving along Big Sur. I stopped to get a scenery shot of the magnificent Pacific coastline. As I walked back to the car I heard a familiar sound. There was a young Anna’s Hummingbird on a perch, surveying his territory. I could not resist a lens switch for a shot of his surly face, with pollen speckled beak against a terracotta backdrop.

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Anna’s Hummingbird perched in front of a terracotta wall

Like a moth to the flame, I know I’ll be drawn back to the Botanic Gardens and the pink flare of Anna’s Hummingbird the next time I am in San Francisco. Camera or no camera there is something special about being in the presence of this remarkable little angry bird.

Followers of this blog will know that Hummingbirds are a favourite bird of mine. My first ever Incidental Naturalist blog post was San Francisco; Hummingbirds in the City and I’ve written about the jewels of the air in Panama in Coffee With Hummingbirds.

Join the conversation below. Have you seen hummingbirds? What is your experience of the feisty Anna’s Hummingbird? 👇👇👇

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David

I am a wildlife blogger and world traveler, using images & stories to inspire wild connections.

86 Comments

  1. Kerri Martin

    Beautiful story and photos! I have never seen an Anna’s hummingbird but have some experience with Rufous and Calliope as they are most common in Alberta. I love watching and photographing them 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  2. They are the most exquisite creatures! Am so amazed at that hue of pyrotechnic pink – such flamboyance. Coming from the eastern hemisphere, we have our little sunbirds but i was really lucky to spend time in Trinidad, Asa Wright especially sipping coffee on the hummingbird deck. What an incredible display of these extraordinary aerialists. And once i came across a couple of photographers staked out over some red Chaconia flowers up Tucker Valley, we hike up the mountain and back and 4 hours later they were still there waiting with bated breath for a treasured shot of a scarlet coquette 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • That is fantastic! Photographing hummingbirds is definitely work for patient people. It is hard enough to do in a botanic gardens with a large hummer population. I can’t imagine how hard it must be out in the wild when looking for one rare specimen. I guess you must put all your bets on one flower and hope that the bird and the light cooperate. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! I think some of my best hummingbird photos were taken in Panama, albeit in the rain. I hope to get to Costa Rica some day to try for them there. The trick is to find the sweetest flower. 🙂

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  3. Oh I so admire your patience! But I can see how it rewards you. All the shots are great – really evocative of their fragility and speed, but the one that captured the ruby head it truly fabulous.
    I know I don’t really have the equipment to capture hummers, but more important than that I don’t have the patience.
    Alison

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Alison! 🙏 I have the attention span of a mosquito for most things in life. I seem to be able to nudge that up to goldfish levels when there are hummingbirds around. The hummingbird’s beauty is a gift to a photographer, but they don’t give up those throat flashes without a fight. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for visiting and taking the time to leave a comment. These extraordinary birds certainly point to how much of life on earth remains a mystery to us. I believe that we know much less than we think we know. I’m thrilled to receive a comment from a fellow person of Thurrock, even though I am currently living so far away. 😊

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  4. This was beautifully written! Given the “not best lighting” for that day, the shots came out magnificently. There are some flowers near my house that pop up during early spring, and I always seem to spot a hummingbird shoot past me. Wonderful little creatures aren’t they? ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Gorgeous images, and I appreciated the well-written context! Mostly ruby-throated and broad-tailed where I live in the Colorado foothills. We had a very late spring snow this year and it was a treat to see a ruby-throated male working the ice-crusted feeder, though my heart went out to the little guy. Given the energy they expend, I imagine they haven’t much of a survival buffer when it comes to unexpected cold and snow.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Cate! In those conditions that is when hummers really do benefit from feeders. They can survive but they need to keep feeding and the margins are slim in their energy spend to food intake ratio. Good job on getting them through the cold snap!

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    • I’m a huge fan of sunbirds. I regularly tracked down the different species in Asia and encountered the Olive-backed in Queensland. I wish I had been more committed to photography back then. That said, as much as I love them, there is something special about the hummingbirds. 🧚‍♂️ Hope all is well with you, Jane. It is good to see you finding time to get out in nature and share your walks with us. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

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