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?
Great report. You are the best!
1. how do you photograph fast birds in flight?
2. have your camera always on ISO 3200 or ISO automatically limited to ISO 3200?
3. with A mode and always a large aperture that is only possible?
4. with S mode and always on 1/640 or 1/2000 for example?
5. with P mode? But I think rather not…right?
Hi Toni, thank you so much for your kind comment. You can find the answers to your questions in my article here: photographylife.com/…ght. In short, I mostly shoot on M mode with Auto ISO. In open terrain with more or less constant light, I often use full manual mode. I choose the shutter speed according to the speed of the bird. The smaller the bird, the faster the time. Hummingbirds break this rule a bit as they are often almost stationary in the air.
Great photos, Libor – as always!
Yes, Andes are beatiful mainly for this abundance of greenery and animal life at such high altitudes. This is so much different from European mountains.
As for trekking through páramo, what we mostly experienced were thick clouds being blown by a strong wind. And with the clouds came quick and intense showers (not good for photographic equipment or human body at this altitude and low temperature) as well as rapidly changing lighting conditions. I will not even mention the mud/swamps everywhere – these mountains are moist and wet, that is for sure. Which is why I can only admire your dedication to remain stationary for several hours to get “that” photo ;)
Granted, my visit to Andes was in the late spring (that is in the southern hemisphere which is “our” autumn, of course) which is what one should expect at this time of year.
The Andes are beautiful even when the weather is nasty. Some of my best memories are when I was doing research at these altitudes. I slept in a tent, was hungry, and drank water from puddles when there was nothing else to drink. Sometimes the páramo was so wet that the ground beneath me bounced like a trampoline.
This is what traveling with a camera somewhat took away from me. It was quite foggy and cold when I shot Buffy Helmetcrest, but it was still quite comfortable. Waiting for a photo opportunity is actually incredibly relaxing. It’s no doubt one of the reasons why wildlife photography is so popular. In today’s hectic world, it’s refreshing to just stare into the mist. I bet you feel the same way, Marcin.
Yes, I find photographing incredibly relaxing. And I do like remote and secluded spots that are not overcrowded (well, at least not yet). Places like high in the mountains where there is no cellular phone coverage are a rare in these times that is why they are so valuable.
But photography is my hobby, I don’t do it for living. It is not always that I can afford to spend several hours in one place to get a photo and it is not always that I want to. From time to time I will if I am very focused on something. But I do know what it takes to stay in some nasty conditions that is why I wrote that.
Libor, great photos! The Buffy is on my list. Your photos are the first that I have seen that show the color below the beak. Your suggestions on shutter speed will be helpful. Thanks for the article.
Thanks Carl, I’m so glad I could show you something less conventional. The little problem with Helmetcrest is that if you take a side shot, the color of their beard isn’t obvious. You have to shoot them frontally. A lot of hummingbirds have the same thing. Their beauty is simply designed for face-to-face observation.
Thanks for this fascinating article, Libor. This is a new species for me … thanks for the introduction. Beautiful photos!
It’s been a pleasure, Rob. Thanks for watching. This really isn’t a mainstream hummingbird.
Lovely little bird I have not heard of before and appreciate the fascinating detail about its habitat. I for one think your effort was worthwhile, thank-you. Surprised you got such sharp photos with a shutter speed no higher than 1/640 – I would have expected to need 1/1600 or more for hummingbirds though I suppose that would have negated the wing blur which adds to the effect.
Thanks for your comment, Giles. You’re right that shutter speeds around 1/1600 are a safe bet. But in this case it was possible to go lower. For one thing, it was desirable because of the light conditions, and for another, this species doesn’t beat its wings that fast. When it hangs on a flower, it uses its wings more for stabilization. Another trick is that when the wings are completely in front or behind, the wing speed is almost zero for a moment. This can be used to your advantage.