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.


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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