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Friday, September 4, 2009

Sugar, Oh Hummy Hummy

Edited on 7 Sept - added a video clip at the end of the post.

Since the mugging experience in Bogota, we have decided to follow some travelers' practice of spending just one or two days in the major cities in South America where dangers and annoyances are more rampant than in the outskirts, or simply bypassing them altogether. A Canadian couple we met in Popayan (Colombia) did just that and have been enjoying a trouble-free trip in South America for the past 7 months.

However, we were prepared to spend a wary 5 days waiting time out in Quito while our visa application for Bolivia got processed by the Bolivian embassy located in the Ecuadorian capital. Travelers we met coming from Quito had related a plethora of stories about muggings, pickpocket thefts on crowded buses and the scam in high fashion right now - deliberately spilling sauces over your clothes and either nicking your valuables while you're all frantic and distressed over your sticky new alpaca-wool sweater; or helpfully leading you to a non-existent toilet where an accomplice is waiting to mug you. How low can you get, really.

When the same Canadian couple enlightened us about the hummingbirds in Mindo, we decided to submit our visa application immediately upon arrival in Quito on a Monday, and make a quick getaway to Mindo for the rest of the week, returning only on Friday to collect our visas.

I love hummingbirds! If you scour our blog for pictures of us at the beach or waterfall (okay, so I've provided the links to the posts, to save you from scouring. You can thank me by reading those posts after you're done with this one - if you haven't read them yet *glare*) you will notice the hummingbird tattoo on my back. I had gone to Johnny Two Thumbs expecting to get inked with a marine creature (cos I love scuba diving) but when I saw the hummingbird, I knew that it was The One - albeit the too-short tail in the original design, which the tattoo artist deftly remedied. My sister has a bird tattoo on the exact same spot on her back (sigh, little sisters never outgrow being copycats) but she hates it when people tell her that they like her peacock. Cos it's actually a magnificent powerful phoenix. Well, at least they didn't mistake it for a turkey or a fancy chicken.

For the hummingbirds in Mindo, we changed our travel plans in a heartbeat. If the human heart were to beat at the same rate as that of a hummingbird, we would have made that decision in 1/21 of a second.

If you were a kid in Singapore in the 1980s, you would probably remember a series of encyclopedias (yes, way before Wikipedia was invented, we had to actually manually flip pages to search for information) featuring the Peanuts, called the Charlie Brown's Encyclopedia. Every two weeks (or every month?), a new volume would be launched and my mum would include it in her supermarket run at Cold Storage (yeah, CS had some promotion where you could get the book at a discounted price if you shopped there.) This was when the spiffy Seaview condo at Amber Road used to be Singapore's first Ikea store, and before that, Cold Storage Katong (next to the Seaview Hotel which was rumoured to be haunted. But let us not digress to encounters of the ghostly kind.)

The Charlie Brown's Encyclopedia presented information in the form of questions and answers. In one of the volumes, there was this question: Which animal's heart beats the fastest?

The answer has stuck with me since I was 6 or 7 years old: the hummingbird. A hummingbird's little heart beats 1,260 times per minute (21 times per second!) The human heart seems lethargic in comparison - 60 to 80 beats per minute. The tiny bird's strong little heart has to beat fast enough to pump oxygen and nutrients to it's equally-strong little wings, which flap at a furious rate of 50 to 200 times per second, depending on the species.

This crazy flapping speed is what causes the bird to emit a low humming sound when it flies. Hummingbirds flit around at a speed of up to 50 km/h. The first time I got up close to a hummingbird in Mindo (or rather, it got up close to me, since I wasn't moving all that fast) was at the Mindo Lago resort. Hearing a loud buzzing sound and thinking that it was a giant bumble bee circling my head, I ducked in panic, resisting the urge to swat at it with my floppy hat. I was mightily surprised (a pleasant surprise indeed) to look up and see a little hummingbird busy with its pollination duties in the nearby flowering plants. The hum from it's wings was so loud that the air around me reverberated strongly from the frenzied movement.

We headed for another guesthouse in town, El Descanso, which was said to have a garden swarming with hummingbirds. We had originally planned to stay at El Descanso for this reason but upon arrival, we were given the only room available at the guesthouse - which had no keys to the lock. Disappointed, we had moved immediately to another guesthouse (CasKaffeSu) which had a room (with keys) available and free WiFi. Nevertheless, we decided to check out the al fresco restaurant area in El Descanso for lunch (which they didn't have! Only fruit shakes and hot chocolate) and true enough, it was a hummingbird frenzy in there.

It's really easy to get hummingbirds in Mindo to visit your property. Just hang birdfeeders filled with a watery sugar syrup and the birds will come. It might smack of questionable ethics - since hummingbirds carry the role of pollinators - but we figured that sugar syrup was the equivalent of a free lunch for the birds. (It's nice not to have to work in exchange for food once in a awhile!) When the syrup ran out, they could turn to the many flowers in the garden for that nutritious nectar that they need to keep their energy levels up (a hummingbird must consume approximately half its weight in sugar daily and feeds 5 to 8 times per hour!) and continue their pollinating duties then.

Here's the sweet stuff! Come and get it!

We learnt that hummingbirds are one of the hardest things to photograph - especially when you don't have the right photography equipment for shooting wildlife from a distance. Dan had an easier time with his new Canon SX200 with 12 times zoom (a boon from his old Olympus camera with 4-times zoom!) But with fewer capabilities than a full DSLR, the photos taken at high-shutter speed (to capture the rapid movements of the sugar-pumped birds) on the SX200 turned out too dark. I, on the other hand, could command a better shutter-speed and aperture combination with my DSLR but lacked a good telephoto lens (my earlier pleas to Canon for a good quality telephoto lens had fallen on deaf ears. Sigh.)

So we tried getting nearer to the birds. Which involved:

(a) Pretending to be part of a big plant; or

Going green

(b) Standing as still as a garden ornament (even if there's a darn mosquito sitting on your knuckle and stuffing itself silly on your blood.)

If I keep still enough, the birds may mistake me for the new garden gnome...

At first, the hummingbirds would flee into hiding at any slight movement on our part. But soon, we kept still enough to earn their trust and they returned to feed voraciously at the birdfeeders.

Over the course of the afternoon, we also figured out what camera settings worked best for capturing photos of hummingbirds. For me, I popped the built-in flash unit (I need a separate flash unit - hear ye, hear ye, kind sponsors), pumped up the shutter speed to 1/200, set the auto focus and metering mode to a single central point, and snapped away at the highest resolution possible. With the poor zoom capabilities of my 18-55mm kit lens, the bird still appeared tiny in the photos. But at least the subject turned out sharp and after some (severe) cropping, this was what we got!

Hummingbirds in flight
Mostly shot on my Canon 450D. Images cropped to accentuate the subject.
-Love the extension of the tail feathers and wingtips

Hummingbirds don't sip - they lick at the sugar syrup with their little tongues that flicker more than 10 times per each time they take a 'drink'

It's hard to choose, but I think this is my favourite hummingbird pic. Love the colours, the fanned-out wingtips and the dopey expression

The long-tailed variety. With a short beak! God is fair.

Doing a U-ey

Dannie calls this the 'chair' pose - reminds him of yoga class

Tiny sparkly gem

Whoa! What did they put in my drink?

If you want it, you gotta stick your neck out and get it!

Another one striking the 'chair' pose. But seriously, it shows how fully they extend their little wings.

Caught in mid-flight

Hummingbirds at rest (yes, these maniacs do stop moving around for a few precious seconds!) Even at rest, a hummingbird takes 250 breaths per minute! Photos mostly shot by Dannie with his camera's superb zoom, with minimal cropping of images.

Check out the look of utter concentration

Looks like someone's not feeling too photogenic today

Showing off it's beautiful back feathers

Apparently, hummingbirds can't walk or hop forward. They can only scoot from side to side!

The honey out there is beak lickin' good!

Posing pretty

Your too shiny to blend in with leafy foliage. We can see you!

Just as we were about to leave, this really big blue hummingbird came flapping along, crying loudly for food. It was ravenous, poor thing, because it didn't have lunch. It tried sipping from the birdfeeder but it's tongue was too big for it to lap at the syrup through the feeder's tiny holes. I took great pity on the poor creature and brought it back to the guesthouse with me. And fed it a thick juicy pork chop for dinner. The little birdie loved it!

Can't get to the sugar? Poor thing!

And I love him :)


Michelle said...

wow!~~ Really love the big blue humming bird. How did you manage to get such a clear shot?

I am guessing shutter speed slowed down to 2000/200 and a super wide lens?

:P glad to see you guys enjoying yourselves!


Dannie said...


Oi! What wide-angle lens?? Grrr....

Tracy Su said...

Amazing photos...so erm, does that mean your hummingbird tattoo with the extraordinarily long tail is not THAT realistic, really?

Tee hee...*runs and hides*

junwei said...

Actually, the ones where the body of the hummingbird is sharp, but the wings are a blur, are nicer. It gives the impression of movement.

But in order to get that, I think you have to slow down your shutter speed a bit? Not sure...

Yi Lin said...

Junz - yeah, slower shutter speed could work - but with that, I tend to get a totally blur bird. It's super tricky shooting them. Esp. with the low lighting under all the foliage and their crazy speed! Half the time, cos of the poor zoom and the distance I need to keep from the birds, the birds look like specks on the screen. Then I go a-cropping again after I download the pix. I wld have stayed longer trying to get the perfect shot but we had spent 3-4 hours there already. Dan decided that a video would do better justice - check it on his latest post. Check out the crazy flapping - you can't even see the wings proper!

Trace - haha, if there were a hummingbird with sucha long tail, it'll probably be walking, not flying! My tattoo is as realistic as your PINK COW!! :P

Nick - Nyak, nyak. I have a wide-angle lens. But that's for shooting MOUNTAINS and really big BUILDINGS.

Tracy Su said...

Okay, okay. *Puts hands up*

But my pink cow is realistic once you get under the skin! tasteless remark done (actually they're quite tasty!)

See Khiang said...

Just watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, so here's one more geeky hummingbird fact for you: in flight their fluttering wings apparently move in the pattern of the infinity symbol :)

Is there a teleconverter compatible with your kit lens?

Yi Lin said...

Hmmm, didn't think of getting a teleconverter. But there's a dearth of good camera shops here. Dan is still hunting for a spare batt for his Canon point & shoot! Shall look out for one in the bigger cities - Lima and Buenos Aires. Thanks for the thought.

Infinity symbol? So amazing! I gotta read up more on that. That fact must have escaped me during the movie cos it was soooo loonng. And slow. But good.

TK said...

Dear, I love the humming birds!Have never seen anything so spectacular. Lovely pics.Dad

Dannie said...

Put some feeders in your garden, then advertise in the The Daily Ho-Hum! Then the hummingbirds will come too! :)

Yi Lin said...

Dad - I've a better idea. Let's go back to Ecuador together and we'll show you the hummingbirds! You'll love the Galapagos Islands too - you bring your botanist and biologist friends.

And thanks for leaving a comment! You even have a Blogger account? You're way cool!

Lint said...

Eh since when was my dad so cool!! Got BLOGGER acc now lor!!

I feel a heart-attack comin' just watching the video.

And i didn't copy your tattoo!! It's exactly where i planned to have mine!

Yi Lin said...

The video is good riigghhtt...Okay, okay.. whatever you say abt your fanciful chicken tattoo!

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