Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's
Wildlife Photography

Trip Report:
Arizona Hummingbird Photo Tour and Workshop 2009



Broad-billed Hummingbird male, Broad-tailed Hummingbird male, Black-chinned Hummingbird male,
Broad-billed Hummingbird male, Magnificent Hummingbird male, Broad-tailed Hummingbird male


How can you not love hummingbirds? Comprising the largest family of birds in the Western Hemisphere they are the only birds that, as a group, are capable of hovering, flying backwards, and just generally looking like living helicopters. This is one of our most popular photo tours, and although we've been doing this shoot nearly continuously for almost twenty years, we simply never get tired of it.

One reason is the action. It never seems to stop. While our average number of 'hits' at one of our photo setups is one bird per twenty minutes, based on nearly twenty years of data, this year's average was much better than this .... usually about a bird every ten minutes, on average. This means, as an average, that some sets had a bird nearly every few minutes, while another feeder had less activity but this year virtually all of our SIX photo sets were busy most of the time.

For our participants, this hummingbird photo tour offers unparalleled opportunities, as our participants rotate through six different hummingbird photo sets using our high speed flash equipment. Each of our sets comprise four flash heads to provide a variety of different but very natural lighting styles, and require nothing more of the participants than to plug in a hot-shoe adapter on to their camera to trigger our flashes. We changed the backgrounds often so that the birds, and the lighting, always looked a bit different and varied, and the results ... as you can see from the images above, speak for themselves.

Once again, I must first thank Bogen for their generous support in supplying us with extra Bogen Magic Arms, Articulating Arms, and Lightstands, which we used in a huge variety of different applications. I must also thank Bill Forbes, the inventor and distributor of the PhotoTrap and the owner of The Pond, for all of his help. Clay Wimberley, of Wimberley tripod heads, was also very supportive with Plamps and macro clamps we used for our hummingbird sets and our personal macro photography.

But the hummingbird photo tour offers so much more than just hummingbirds, as we set up two different natural light setups for woodpeckers, jays, titmice, turkeys, nuthatches, grosbeaks, siskins, and goldfinches. At the Pond at Elephant Head, everyone had at least one opportunity to photograph at Bill Forbes's wonderful blinds situated in front of his small desert water hole where as many as forty different species may be photographed. I didn't get to shoot there this year, but Mary did, and on her day with one of our participants they recorded 24 species in the four hours they shot! Those species included Gambel's quail, roadrunner, cardinals, pyrrhuloxias, lazuli buntings, curve-billed thrashers, three species of orioles, five species of sparrows, cowbirds, doves, and more. As much as the hummingbird shooting was enjoyed, everyone felt their visit to the Pond was one of their best highlights.


At our natural light feeder and elevated pond we had black-head grosbeaks, a rare male rose-breasted grosbeaks, Mexican jays,
white-breasted nuthatches, bridled titmice, Bewick's wrens, and Merriam's wild turkeys visit often.



The wild turkeys were almost a nuisance, pecking at their reflection on the bumper of my truck! The uncommon Arizona woodpecker
showed up nearly daily at our suet logs, and it was extremely tame.


More birds ... Acorn and ladder-backed woodpeckers, Gambel quail chicks and mom.

Another highlight is, of course, Mary Ann's cooking. Mary provided gourmet-style lunches each day, and three dinners, keeping her extremely busy but our participants very well fed. Although Mary goes over the top here, often serving baked salmon or lemon chicken or home-made sphagetti, my favorite meal is our last one -- a cookout usually held outdoors where we enjoyed a recap of the week's shooting. Bill and Lynn Forbes drove up from Elephant Head each time to share in our final evening, making the evening complete.

This year we had an incredible variety of weather. While Mary's complete packing list might appear excessive -- advising heavy jackets, hats, and gloves for Arizona! -- participants in several of the shoots discovered she wasn't kidding. The lower mountain reaches of southern Arizona in April and early May can be cold, and indeed on several mornings our pond setup had a thick layer of ice that lasted until almost noon! We had some hot spells, too, and during our last week the temperature in Tucson rose to nearly 100 degrees, although our site in Madera Canyon is always at least 10 degrees cooler, and being dry, the temperature was actually quite pleasant.

 


Personally, I did very little hummingbird photography this year, for after nearly twenty years I think I have a fairly extensive collection. Instead, I devoted myself to other projects in my free time, and some of these projects will be developed into offerings as we improve and expand some of the traditional hummingbird shoots. At Bill Forbes's Pond a variety of bats visit the water hole each evening, including one of North America's most dramatic and handsome species, the large Pallid Bat. I made several trips in the evening to attempt to catch the bats as they skimmed the pond or dipped to drink, and I was fairly successful, so much so that we'll probably be offering a special Bats and Hummingbird combined shoot next year that will include the Pond.


Two views of the Pallid Bat as it came to drink at The Pond, and a nectar-feeding Lesser long-nosed bat visiting one of our
hummingbird feeders at night! I was especially excited about getting this bat since we're usually driving home by the time these
bats return to the canyon. Feeding on a variety of night-blooming flowers, including saguaro cactus, we're mystified as to what
the bats are feeding upon at this time of year (other than our sugar water) since few large flowering cactus were present nearby.

Using Bill's video camera on 'nightshot' mode, I discovered that the stream behind our cabin had a variety of bats as well, and for the last eight days of our time in Madera Canyon I manned several cameras, using Bill's PhotoTrapper to catch at least five different species. This proved to be incredibly fun and frustrating, too,


Big brown bats and at least four other species I've still to identify visited the pool behind my room, and although I haven't identified the bats at The Pond yet, at least four different species besides the Pallid Bat were swooping about there as well. Fortunately, by using the PhotoTrap I could set up the cameras and flashes and go to bed, letting the magic of the PhotoTrap do its work, capturing the images while I slept! While this may sound too easy, it's not, as I still had to work out where I thought the bats would fly, prefocus on the spot where I hoped they'd be when the camera fired (there's always an annoying lag time involved), and getting the exposure and focus and composition just right. While I got a lot of winners that I was excited about, I had plenty of heart-breakers, too, as bats were cut off out of the frame or flying too slow or too fast in relation to the lag time of the camera.

 

 

I've always had an interest in reptiles and with the heat this year I probably had my best luck in seeing, photographing, and/or catching various species, done so under the very expensive out-of-state hunting license that is required. One evening, while driving a road known for an uncommonly but highly prized species I spotted the snake and pulled to a stop. Another vehicle, coming down the hillside towards me, must have spotted the snake too, and drove up fast, no doubt with the hope of scooping the snake out from under me. Later, by the way, the owner of the vehicle claimed he was only trying to stop me from running over the snake ... I don't think so, as you'll soon see. I got out of my truck and ran up to the snake, and the driver of the SUV screeched to a halt and practically dove out of his car, rushing towards the snake. My first thought, in seeing him do this, was 'that's not very sporting of him' and my next thought was 'if he wants it that bad, he can have it.' Still, I reached down to grab the snake while the other guy lunged, and then dove back towards his SUV which he had failed to put into PARK when he jumped out! His SUV was rolling downhill towards my truck and he got to the wheel just in time to turn his SUV enough to avoid a head-on collision. Instead, he hit my bumper, giving it a little dent while his bumper collapsed and the fender around it crumbled into pieces. Don't mess with a Silverado! I was a bit annoyed, especially when I thought about it later and realized that had I been in a different spot, and not watching, I could have been crushed between the two vehicles. I caught the snake, and decided to keep it, and I wondered how he'd explain his trashed vehicle to his significant other -- especially since he missed the snake, too!

I did a fair amount of driving the roads at dusk watching for snakes, and I can tell you, it is tragic how many are killed by cars. The largest lyre snake I ever saw, a thirty-incher, was freshly killed on the road just south of our lodge, and I rescued at least six different species from sure death as I cruised about. One evening, a friend and I looking for a species of rattlesnake came upon one minutes after some misguided intolerant murderer smashed a soft-ball sized rock across the back of the black-tailed rattlesnake we were seeking just minutes before we arrived. We saw the snake, and jumped out all excited to have seen it, only to have our spirits crash when we saw the bloody rock and the gaping hole nearly cutting the still living snake in two. As I write this I'm shaking my head -- how can people do things like this?

With my friend Dave Northcott and Bill Forbes I worked on striking Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes striking. This type of work is exciting, and although it looks dangerous, following common sense safety procedures it is not, provided one is careful. Although in this shot the snake is nearly fully extended, with almost half its body length involved in the strike, I captured some other, more unusual images. In one, the diamondback was striking with such force that the snake is literally completely off the ground. Rattlers are supposed to strike about one-third their body length but as this image shows, at least half is involved in the strike. In some other shots I've caught a rattler with its body almost fully extended, almost 4/5ths of its entire body length. Imagine coming across a 5 foot long rattler and having it strike, flashing out for nearly 4 feet!

For the record, I've photographed scores, if not hundreds, of rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes and I've never had a close call --- except for some real learning experiences when I was a young teenager and just learning about the capabilities of venomous snakes. I've never been bitten and never will, unless I'm just as unlucky as anyone else hiking or climbing and encountering a snake, by accident, that bites me. I don't expect that to ever happen!

In addition to our hummingbird shoots we also conducted two Arizona Digital Complete Nature Photo Courses, and they were a blast. In addition to the teaching of photo skills and some Photoshop, especially how the RAW converter and Bridge works, the participants had a chance to shoot hummers, the canyon, and the wonderful subjects at the Desert Museum. Arizona is so subject-rich that conducting our comprehensive course out there once or twice a year is always a wonderful experience and extremely productive photographically.

If you'd like to see our other years' various Trip Reports, and photos that help to illustrate the story, check out the Home Page and the reports listed there, or click on any of these links:

Hummingbirds 2008
Hummingbirds 2007
Arizona Digital Complete Nature PC 2007
Hummingbird Photo Shoot 2006
Arizona Digital-Complete Nature Photo Course 2006
Hummingbirds 2005
Arizona Digital CNPC- May 2005
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Contact us by e-mail.

info@hoothollow.com

Phone or FAX us at: (717) 543-6423.