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Hummingbird Enthusiast Teaches Photographers to Catch Elusive Subjects

02/26/2018 05:00AM ● By Richard DuPertuis

All A Flutter

March 2018
By Richard DuPertuis
Photos by Elijah Gildea

THE HUMMINGBIRD fascinates people. A tiny flyer seems to appear out of nowhere, hovering impossibly near flower or feeder. All eyes focus on its all-too-brief spectacle, blurred wings holding frozen flight, accented by flashes of color. A wobble forward, a quick sip, then suddenly the bird is gone, zipped away faster than the speed of sight.

“Actually, they fly about 30 mph,” notes Shasta Lake hummingbird enthusiast Elijah Gildea. “Their wings beat about 70 times per second, or 200 while diving.”

One early April morning last year, Gildea hosted in his backyard a photography class specifically aimed at the hummingbird – or at scores of them – pursued by a dozen or so hopefuls with cameras. The plan was to catch a decent image of tiny birds visiting any of nine feeders Gildea had set up to lure them to his students.

“Hummingbirds are creatures of habit,” says Gildea. “They’re famous for remembering the location of their food source. If I move a feeder, they’ll come and flutter around looking for it before going to another one.”

Photography students scattered out into the yard, most taking up watch near a feeder. The wait was short, with some stations visited within minutes by hummingbird flocks comprised of multiple species.

Gildea can list six different types of hummingbirds his students might see in his backyard, including Anna’s, Allen, Rufous, Calliope and Black-Chinned. Referring to his birder friends, he adds, “They didn’t believe me until I showed them the pictures, but I see Costas here. They’re not supposed to be up here, but they are.”

Beginning shutterbugs were content to wait for a bird to perch before pressing the release button; advanced shooters tried to catch their quarry on the wing, panning the sky between feeding stations.

Gildea prowled the yard during the photo class, answering questions, suggesting camera settings. “Lately I’ve tried having a higher F-stop to get more depth,” he says. “A lower F-stop gives you a nice blurred background, but parts of the hummingbird can be out of focus.”

Also circulating among the students was Dwayne Brovan, Crown Camera’s assistant manager. He made sure everyone with a Nikon camera had a chance to shoot with a $1,400 Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 zoom lens he brought from the store. He also tried his luck with the tiny birds zipping around.

“I shot burst of eight, and I got a picture of one on a perch,” he says. “I got one other with some tail feathers. Like any kind of nature photography, if they don’t want to cooperate, it’s hard.”

Shooting them on the wing was the biggest challenge.  Hummingbirds can move up, down, away or straight at you without warning. There wasn’t often time for autofocus. With any luck, one would swoop into a photographer’s pre-set focal field and he or she would hit the 

shutter before it left the frame which, more often than not, it did.

Gildea’s says his love for nature – and for birds in particular – came early in life while growing up in coastal Humboldt County. Later in life, he visited Lake Shasta and discovered bald eagles living there. After moving to Shasta Lake City, he decided to get into some serious photography and contacted Crown Camera in Redding for equipment and classes on how to use it.

He was delighted to find hummingbirds in his backyard, and set up feeders to accommodate them. “When I put up a feeder, more hummingbirds came,” he says. “I put up a second feeder and even more came. It became more and more work.”

But it allowed him access to the six species of tiny visitors, and he learned with growing fascination the details of their lives, such as their acrobatic feats of flight, their fights and their courtship dances. He took photos of it all, and he shared his work with the staff at the camera store, which led to an offer.

“We offer nature photography classes for birds, butterflies,” says Frank Tona, Crown Camera store manager. “When we saw his work, I mean, I wanted to go out and take pictures of hummingbirds like that.”

This year marks Gildea’s fourth annual class taught through Crown. As it was last year, instruction will be broken into two sessions: an evening class Friday at the store for an introduction to the challenge ahead, and the field class in the backyard starting the next morning at dawn.

Gildea’s enthusiasm for hummingbirds recently grew to the point where he plans trips specifically to see more species. “I have traveled to Costa Rica, Mexico and Arizona,” he says. “They have these canyons in Southeast Arizona that are tropical certain times of the year. It’s one of the most popular birding spots in the world.”

He’s looking forward this month to a tour in Columbia, excited especially for a chance to see a hummingbird variety called the rainbow-bearded thornbill. “From its breast all the way up to the top of its head, it’s got a bright orange mohawk,” he says. “I’m also hoping to see 25 other species that are new to me.”

He’s always loved the natural world, stating, “I enjoy documenting nature and being able to share it with others. I just appreciate and respect nature. It amazes me.” •

Elijah Gildea Photography • (530) 356-5388

Sign up for classes Friday, April 20 and Saturday, 

April 21 at Crown Camera, 1365 Market St., Redding

(530) 243-8333

Hours: Weekdays, 8:30 am to 5:30 pm, 

Saturdays, 9 am to 5 pm, Sundays, 11 am to 3 pm