When you think of hummingbirds, we usually think of small birds found in the warmer parts of the world. And it’s true that the regions around the equator are home to the vast majority of the more than 360 species of hummingbird. But among these dwarfs of the bird kingdom, you’ll also find a few hardy hummingbirds. Some live in cool regions as far away from the equator as Alaska or the southernmost tip of South America.
But you don’t have to travel far from the equator to find a cool climate. You’ll also notice a significant drop in temperature as you move up in altitude. The continent of South America is crossed from north to south by the vast Andean mountain range. It’s no wonder that several species of hummingbirds have found refuge here, even on the highest slopes of the mountains.
At comparable altitudes in the Rockies or the Alps, you would find little but ice and rock. In the tropical Andes, however, the proximity to the equator supports a lush plant life. Just like in warmer climates, flowering plants support hummingbirds with their nectar in exchange for pollination services.
Life in the mountains is harsh and requires many adaptations from its inhabitants. But for some hummingbird species, conditions are ideal here, at altitudes of about 4,000 meters / 13,000 feet above sea level. The bird that’s the subject of this article – the Buffy Helmetcrest – lives all the way up to the snow line at altitudes above 5000 meters / 16,400 feet.
A quick geography lesson for you. In tropical South America, the forest usually ends at 3500 to 4000 meters above sea level. After that, there’s a 1000-meter band between the forest edge and the snow line, known as the páramo. Another name for it is the high-mountain steppe. The páramo usually has grass, shrubs, and lower trees – or, as in Colombia, plants called Espeletia (“frailejón” in Spanish). These slow-growing plants give the landscape its distinctive character.
Hummingbirds are not easy to photograph even at the best of times, but in an environment like this, the task becomes even more difficult. Any activity is very physically demanding at these altitudes. Sometimes even a slow walk uphill is enough to feel your heart in your throat, and simply handling your camera becomes an ordeal.
When I spend nights in a tent at these altitudes, rolling from side to side in my sleeping bag makes my heart race. To keep energy costs down, Buffy Helmetcrest often clings to flowers while feeding. This reduces the strenuous hovering around the flowers that most hummingbirds do. It also means you are less likely to get photos of the Buffy Helmetcrest hovering in place – although it can be done if you’re patient.
A hummingbird’s life of frenetic activity requires an enormous supply of high-calorie energy in the form of plant nectar and small insects. But in order to get that food, they also have to expend enormous amounts of energy. An energetic, vicious circle. And so, although hummingbirds eat more than their own body weight in a day, they are constantly on the verge of starvation.
It is a physiological challenge for small warm-blooded hummingbirds to even make it through the night. To conserve energy, many of them fall into a state of torpor while they sleep. Their breathing and heart rates drop, which helps them survive until morning. Then, during the day, they must forage to keep their fast metabolism going and prepare their bodies for another long night.
Photographing the endangered Buffy Helmetcrest presents several challenges. This hummingbird is not abundant anywhere, and it inhabits a very small area in Colombia’s Los Nevados National Park, so you have to know exactly where to look for it. A few hundred meters away and you’re out of luck. In fact, that’s true for most tropical birds.
Photographing in the páramo is not easy either. Water, so essential to this ecosystem, is usually in the form of dense fog – not great for photography of small, distant subjects. In fact, all the photos in this article were taken in fog. I spent a good part of the day in the field waiting (in vain) for the wind to blow the fog away. Instead, I had to use some powerful post-processing tools to recover the contrast of these scenes.
You’re at over 4000m, you’re cold, the wind is blowing thick fog over the páramo, and you’re trying to catch a glimpse of this tiny mountain specialist between the silhouettes of the Frailejónes. You’ve traveled halfway around the world to try for these photos.
After a long wait, it suddenly appears right in front of you. Yes, the fog is so thick that it’s hard to find your subject – but your subject is there. This cocktail of anticipation, frustration, and small victories is what I love about wildlife photography. What about you?