Snakes (not so) alive!

One of my personal rules is to never shoot from the car. For great photos, you have to get as close as possible and you can’t do that while sitting in your vehicle. But there’s an exception to every rule and recently I used my car to get a shot that I probably couldn’t get otherwise.

A few weeks ago, I got a call from Dolores Munro of Lodi who said she had an unusual photo opportunity for me. She told me that for several years she has hung several rubber snakes along her front porch to scare away the woodpeckers to keep them from ruining the redwood posts and beams of the porch.

Munro said the tactic has been mostly successful until this year when she noticed that a hummingbird had built a nest on one of the snakes. Soon after it was built her son looked in and saw that there were two tiny eggs which eventually hatched and the chicks grew until they were almost bursting out of the nest. She passed the information along to me and invited me to come and photograph the unusual scene whether she was home or not.

Munro wasn’t at her rural Lodi home when I went to visit the next day. I walked up to the porch to take a look. Sure enough, about four fake snakes hung from a beam that ran the length of the porch. On the tail end of one them was a tiny nest with two chicks huddling in it.

I thought it was pretty remarkable that these hummingbirds, who don’t have the greatest reputation for fierceness, were brave and smart enough to see through Munro’s ruse. Moreover, from the single central string that the snake hung from made the fake reptile slowly twist and spin at he slightest breeze. The birds had to recognize that it wasn’t real even though it occasionally moved.

I got a few shots of the nest and chicks from several angles. I liked the background of the painted siding of the house. It required me to stand in the front yard under in the hot sun but the darker snake and birds stood out against the lighter backdrop.

I thought that getting a shot of the chicks and a parent hummingbird together would make a better, more storytelling shot, so I waited. And waited. And waited. I was there for about a half-hour or so and still no adult birds were in sight. It was beginning to dawn on me that my presence might be scaring them off when I turned my head and saw something flitting about out of the corner of my eye.

A small hummingbird, not much bigger than the chicks themselves, was hovering near a crepe myrtle tree about 6 to 8 feet behind me. It darted about and then flew out of sight. I moved over to a nearby vine-covered arched arbor hoping that it provide enough cover to hide me.

The hummingbird returned again but only momentarily before flying away. I decided to change tactics and I tucked myself into to a small alcove at the front doorway in an attempt to conceal myself enough to hopefully get off a shot or two before being noticed. No dice. I short order the bird found me and whizzed back and forth in front of me about 6 feet away. It was if it was trying to intimidate me, well as much as a hummingbird can.

That vantage point was obviously a bust so I moved onto the driveway which circled in front of the house. There was no cover there, but I thought that the added distance would do the trick. But no luck. The hummingbird would again fly up to reconnoiter, this time a little closer to the nest, but still it would fly away. What I needed was a duck blind.

Duck blinds are used by hunters to conceal themselves from their quarry so they can get close enough to shoot them. Although I had a much more benign shooting in mind, a duck blind isn’t something one carries in their back pocket. I looked around for something that I could move but was still big enough to hide behind. There was nothing short of uprooting a tree and as inviting and accommodating as Munro was, I doubt that she would appreciate me tearing up her landscaping.

Then it hit me. My car was parked about 10 yards away from me. I could use it as my hiding spot. I got into the car and pulled slowly up to where I was standing earlier. A 400mm lens helped me close the extra distance. I pointed the camera out the window and waited. It was only a few minutes before the hummingbird returned. It zipped around a bit to make sure I wasn’t around and then flew right up to the nest and fed is young. I was able to fire off several frames before it flew off.

My everyday gear, which includes a camera, a wide angle lens, a telephoto lens and a flash, is enough to cover most of the assignments I go to but this one required a little something extra. What I needed to capture the hummingbirds were a Nikon D3s camera, a 400mm telephoto lens augmented with a 1.7 tele-extender (increasing the lens’ effective focal length to 650mm) and a monopod (to help hold the camera and lens steady) and a 2004 Toyota Corolla.

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