The statistics for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are almost as stunning as a close-up look at their iridescent plumage.
Their wings can flap up to 80 times a second. They weigh about 3 grams – a wisp of a bird at a tenth of an ounce. They can go from breakneck speed to a full stop in an instant.
And when they do hang suspended in midair, their wings a blur of motion, the sight is one of nature’s most precious moments. It evaporates as suddenly as it appears, making the encounters all the more intriguing.
The Ruby-throated is one of 300 hummingbird species worldwide, only a few dozen of which are in the U.S. and Canada. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the single species found in the Eastern United States, but it’s plentiful and not particularly shy. So these spectacular hummingbirds are not hard to spot, particularly this time of year.
In late summer, as the hummingbirds are preparing to migrate halfway across the hemisphere, they are in the midst of a feeding frenzy to bulk up for the journey. They consume their entire weight in nectar each day, which the Audubon Society calculated was the equivalent of a human drinking 18 gallons of milk.
We spent the first part of this month in western Massachusetts, watching their captivating performances every chance we could get.
Around my sister Liza and her husband Bill’s home near West Stockbridge, Mass., the hummingbirds operate a miniature circus. They’re constantly darting this way and that, feasting on the nectar from the flowers and fields around the house. They stop at the two feeders that Liza always keeps full. Almost all day long, you can spot the little specks making their rounds from the near-by trees to their various feeding spots.
When it was time for the hummers to migrate last year, Liza says one of the females flew to where she was working in her garden, paused above her and made a slight bow, as if to say thanks for all the sweet drink, but it’s time for me to go.
The Ruby-throated coloring is particularly striking. Both the male and females sport shimmering blue-green feathers across the back, with a light gray underside and blackish wings. The males stand out with their metallic red patch across the throat that has a brilliant, almost neon look depending on the light and position of the bird.
It’s hard to see the intricate coloring with the naked eye, so I spent hours trying to catch them in flight around Liza and Bill’s yard and fields, and to spot them roosting in the trees. They put up with me and my cameras as long as I stayed mostly still. Once in a while, one would come near, then turn this way and that, as if to show their best side.
Indeed, all sides look breathtaking through a 600 millimeter lens that provides these views.
Here’s a gallery of closeups that do, indeed, show off the remarkable attributes of this natural jewel.