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Lecture Notes: how to stop a speeding hummingbird


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About ten years ago, Robert Tyrrell heard there was an Anna's hummingbird nesting at the San Diego Zoo. He had been trying to get a good photograph of a hummingbird for almost two years, and he'd just been given some new equipment, an old-fashioned strobe with an extra-short flash. He'd had plenty of opportunities to shoot the birds at feeders, but this was his first nesting bird, and it was only a two-hour drive from his house.

Unfortunately the bird had made its nest in a branch overhanging a pond. Tyrrell's strobe light was big, heavy, and extremely powerful. To be close enough to the nest, he'd have to stand in the pond, but if he got wet while using the strobe he'd be electrocuted. So at his request, the zoo drained the pond, and Tyrrell got his pictures.

When an editor at National Geographic saw them, she was impressed. She followed up, and in February 1982 the magazine published seven photographs of hummingbirds by Tyrrell. Tyrrell, a former advertising photographer, says that that magazine issue was a turning point--the end of his career in the studio and the start of his career as a hummingbird man. "[National Geographic] had been receiving photos of hummingbirds for 25 years," says Tyrrell's wife, Esther. "These were the first they had published."

Today Tyrrell is probably the world's best hummingbird photographer, one of the few who have been able to freeze the birds' wings on film. He and his wife, who writes about hummingbirds, have traveled to Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Martinique in pursuit of rare species. The two of them have now put together two books on the subject: Hummingbirds: Their Life and Behavior was published in 1985, and the second, on Caribbean species only, is due out sometime this year.

Hummingbirds have always posed a problem for photographers. Their wings beat 80 times a second. Sometimes they hover, but they can also fly forward, backward, up, and down. Their iridescent colors show only when light hits the wings just right; because of the flat, mirrorlike plates in their wings, light coming from most directions simply doesnt reveal the birds' colors.

It was the challenge that hooked Tyrrell. After seeing a hummingbird in a relative's backyard 12 years ago, he had set up his own feeder and started borrowing equipment from work. He'd get up before dawn, when the birds feed the longest, and fill roll after roll of film. But he couldn't get a picture without blurry wings.

He knew that the problem wasnt the film or the camera but the flash: the bird was lit up so long that the film couldn't catch the wings in just one position. He started looking for old-fashioned flash units, big, heavy, high-voltage things that had a shorter flash duration than modern units. He even called old newspapermen, hoping they'd be able to locate old photographers' equipment, but got nothing.

Then Esther Tyrrell called MIT professor Harold Edgerton, a man famous for his high-speed photography and inventor of the first strobe light in 1938. Edgerton gave Tyrrell some advice and a book to read. Tyrrell's pictures got better, but they were still blurry. So Edgerton sent his own strobe--the one he had used 40 years earlier.

Edgerton's equipment had a flash duration of 1/25,000th of a second, one-fifth the length of Tyrrell's studio strobe. Edgerton's used 2,500 volts, compared to Tyrrell's 900-volt model. Edgerton's equipment did the trick.

While Tyrrell was trying to capture the birds on film, Esther started reading up on them. "People would see us taking photos and ask all these questions," she says. She couldn't answer most of them, so she did some research and found that what information there was on hummingbirds was not very accessible: most was in rare books or jargon-filled science journals. The Tyrrells approached Crown Publishers and got a book contract. For a year Esther, who kept her fulltime job as an X-ray technician, spent every night and weekend at the library. Tyrrell did his part with the camera.

The light doesn't scare the birds, Tyrrell says, because the flash is so short and the light isn't very bright. But the possibility of rain does scare the Tyrrells, and they bring tarps and plastic bags into the rain forests to avoid getting the equipment wet.

The biggest scares, however, haven't been from rain, Esther says. In the Martinique jungle, the danger was a poisonous snake called the fer-de-lance. It strikes without provocation, and there's no remedy for its bite. In Puerto Rico, the forest they chose to stake out was home base for a violent nationalist gang, and guides refused to accompany the visitors there. "Every morning, 100 yards from where we were, there was a fresh body," Esther says. In Mexico, the two were setting up equipment in a marijuana field when two men with machetes approached them. Esther said the first Spanish words that came to mind: "God bless vou." The men left, apparently convinced that the Tyrrells weren't drug agents after all.

Even after 12 years of photographing hummingbirds, Tyrrell still throws away 59 of every 60 exposures. (Esther says the number is more like 99 of every 100.) When he was working in the studio, he threw away about 5 percent. According to a Los Angeles Times book reviewer, Tyrrell has "established a new standard for bird photography." What Tyrrell says is "One minute you see this dark bird flying by, and then it turns and the sun hits it and there's this brilliant green or purple jewel."

There are 338 species of hummingbirds in the world, all in the western hemisphere. The Tyrrells have seen and studied 32 of them, and Esther says they'll try to see all of them before they retire. "We figure 20 years," she says. "Maybe longer."

The Tyrrells will give a slide show and lecture this Sunday, March 12, at 1:30 PM at the Field Museum, Roosevelt Road at Lake Shore Drive. Tickets are $6, $4 for members; call 322-8854 to reserve a spot. Hummingbirds: Their Life and Behavior sells for $35 at the Field Museum store.

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