Anna’s Paradise: Esquimalt photographer hunts for hummingbirds

A keen ear and a trained eye allow birders to capture intimate moments among nesting hummingbirds

Esquimalt resident Eric Pittman

Esquimalt resident Eric Pittman

It’s just past 8 a.m. and Eric Pittman is right on time to witness a momentous occasion in the bitsy lives of Rabbit and Hatter.

With his video camera trained on the two baby hummingbirds, Pittman records the siblings leaving their nest, then flying right back – their first ventures out into the world.

The babies’ speedy turnaround is something Pittman has never seen go down quite like this.

“It’s very unusual,” he said.

The Esquimalt resident is highly attuned to the intricacies of the birds’ behaviour.

For the past three years, he has spent one to three hours a day documenting the life cycle of Anna’s hummingbirds, in a colony located on what he dubs Hummingbird Hill. He prefers to keep the actual location secret, for fear curious people will disturb the nests.

Most people strolling in the park would be surprised to learn the nests are within easy reach, sometimes as low as chest level – but only if you know what to look for.

They are hidden in plain sight, blending in with the fungus on the branches of trees.

Pittman uses his hearing to zero in on the birds.

A high-pitched peep tells him not only the location of the birds, but also what they’re up to. Whether feeding or fighting, each activity comes with a different sound.

Filming and photographing is a labour of love for Pittman, who calls himself a citizen scientist. He pays the bills by selling windows currently, but he’s fuelled by observing hummingbirds. He hopes to make a documentary, but his footage is also proving useful to a new scientific study looking into the breeding habits of the birds.

“Eric is just unbelievable at finding nests – it’s crazy,” said Alison Moran, the volunteer co-ordinator of the Hummingbird Project, managed by the Rocky Point Bird Observatory.

“When you have someone with that kind of skill set, there is the opportunity to look at what the nesting requirements are, how they’re doing it,” she said. “We’ve learned an awful lot just because we’re able to do the observational study, because we’ve got the guru there.”

The Hummingbird Project was launched in 1997 and encompasses many studies of hummingbird populations in B.C. and Alberta.

In February, the project turned its attention to the resident population of Anna’s hummingbirds in Esquimalt.

Migrating hummingbirds, such as the Rufous, have declined significantly over the past 40 years, said Moran, who lives in Saanich. By contrast, the Anna’s populations on Vancouver Island have grown exponentially since they stopped migrating and put down permanent roots in the 1950s.

“It’s like an atom bomb going off,” she said.

Staying put means the birds don’t have to expend their energy on migration. Instead, they spend their energy having babies and building multiple nests each year.

“Now, interestingly, there is an overlap between where the Rufous have been lost and where the Anna’s have expanded into,” Moran said.

But, she warned, that doesn’t mean the Anna’s are to blame for the decline of migrating species. They could simply be filling a gap created by other forces. The purpose of Moran’s study is to start to understand whether the relationship is causal, or simply correlational.

While Rufous are very sensitive to urbanization, Anna’s are positively impacted by humans, she explained.

“They actually try to breed around us,” she said.

Pittman jokes they lay eggs like chickens.

With his tripod, video camera and camera tucked in his arms, he scrambles up rocks and crouches through narrow deer paths. As he ducks and weaves, he points out several nests, some in use and some being pilfered by female birds to make their next nest.

Most people who document hummingbird life cycles stop the day the fledgelings leave the nest, Pittman said. But he likes to track them until they are fully weaned. So much happens during this time, he said.

Later that morning, he documents Hatter getting “a beatdown” by another hummingbird.

Young ones often get tough love from their moms, too. She’ll pull on their feathers to throw them off balance and force them to fly, he explained. Mom is eager to encourage self-sufficiency in her young so she can stop feeding them and tend to her next batch of eggs.

Over the years, Pittman has climbed trees to get a better shot, returned fallen eggs to their nest, and even fed a starving baby whose mother was sick.

He said he doesn’t feel paternalistic toward the hummingbirds, that his interest is merely the photographic challenge.

But his care is hard to miss.

“It’s always nice to see them fledge, because then I know they made it out okay.”

rholmen@vicnews.com

Online shout-out to hummingbird fans

• See hundreds of Eric Pittman’s photographs and videos of hummingbirds on his website: hummingbirdsupclose.com. Or find him on Facebook by searching Hummingbirds Up Close.

• Those interested in volunteering to observe hummingbirds at the Esquimalt nesting site can contact hummingbird@rpbo.org for more information. Volunteers must be a member of either the Victoria Natural History Society or the Rocky Point Bird Observatory.

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