Filming a Hummingbird Nest

By Sachin Aggarwal

My life is all about travel, and the COVID-19 pandemic brought a sudden halt to all my travel plans – Costa Rica, Botswana for work (birding trips) and personal travel trips to Ecuador and Peru.

However, the change also brought our twin girls back home from college – much to their chagrin and our pleasure! We also have more time now to try our hand at some new things like organic gardening in our backyard using permaculture practices.

This story is about an adventure that started off during our everyday evening walks in the neighborhood, which have been a regular feature that we look forward to after being home most of the day. We Austinites are so fortunate to live in a city in the midst of so much greenery which gives the sense of living in a forest.

Two weeks ago we were walking our regular route, which takes us up and down neighborhood streets and past many wonderful live oaks. We crossed some low hanging oak branches with several moss balls. One of the moss balls caught my eye because it seemed more conical than round.

Photo courtesy of Sachin Aggarwal.

I stopped, went back a few feet, and examined the moss ball more closely. My eyes widened as I saw two sticks coming out of two fuzzy balls. Awestruck to say the least, I had stumbled upon a nest with two nestlings. The sticks were the beaks pointed upwards. The nest was the smallest and the most beautiful I had ever seen. It seemed so much a part of the branch and was decorated with bits of lichen all over it.

I had never seen a nest like this before and my heart was full of joy like a boy scout on his first adventure. I looked on the internet to confirm what I suspected to be a hummingbird nest. We have two hummingbird feeders in our backyard and have been enjoying the company of the hummingbirds every year for the last several years. To stumble upon this hummingbird nest was such an incredible treat! I think they have one of the most beautiful nests.

Surprisingly, the nest was at the end of a branch right at the sidewalk at about eye level. I set up my scope in our front yard from where I could see the activity at the nest, but since it was about 200 feet away and the view was not the best, I decided to take my camping chair and set up on the sidewalk about 50 feet away so as not to disturb the nest and enjoy this most wonderful experience through my binoculars.

I am sure people driving by were wondering what this fellow was doing sitting on a camping chair on the sidewalk with binoculars, peeping into what could have been mistaken as a neighbor’s house. But I was not planning on giving up on witnessing the amazing phenomenon of hummingbirds nesting.

Photo courtesy of Sachin Aggarwal.

I enjoyed watching the chicks while they waited for the mother to return. The most fun, however, was watching the activity when the mother returned to feed them. The nestlings, like all other bird species, would get all excited! They did not have loud squeaks like those that wren chicks have. It was so nice watching the mother feeding them nectar that she had labored to collect over the last 10 – 12 minutes. The hummingbird adult female raises the chicks alone so it was only the mom that fed the chicks. It was simply fascinating to watch.

After watching all this activity for some time, it dawned upon me that it would be great if I could capture these precious moments on a video using the movie feature of my DSLR camera and my scope tripod.

My tripod is not very tall, so I had to figure out a way of setting the camera up in a way that I could get a good view of the nest. I convinced my daughter to help me carry an assortment of things across the street in the vicinity of the nest. We had the camera, the tripod, two chairs and a step stool.

We placed the chair some distance away so as to not disturb the nest and its residents, and then placed the small chair on top of the dining chair and then the tripod on top of the small chair. That day I got some new appreciation for what it takes for a crew to rig up the cameras when shooting for BBC Earth or Nat Geo!

I finally stepped on the wooden stool to be able to see through the camera’s view finder. I zoomed in and focused on the nest before changing the camera setting to video mode and starting the video. Phew! I was happy to get the camera rolling. I had no idea what kind of footage I would get and so I walked away and sat down 100 feet away hoping that my precarious setup would not get blown over by the breeze that had started to pick up.

All went well, and I was happy to get our dining chair back in the house before my wife noticed it was missing. Turned out that she was as excited as me about the hummingbirds and I need not have worried about that to begin with.

I could hardly wait to put the video SD card into my laptop to see what the camera had captured. The first few minutes were the chicks waiting patiently but that changed when the mommy hummingbird showed up. There was a yellow spot on the beak and I thought, Black-chinned hummingbirds don’t have yellow spots on their long thin beaks! And then it struck me – it was yellow pollen from a flower! Duh!

It was wonderful to watch the beauty of a hummingbird feeding its chicks on a high resolution video zoomed into the nest. I repeated the video setup every two days and was able to create a video of several clips over 6 days showing the quick growth from small nestlings to ready-to-fly fledglings. On the 7th day the little ones had fledged.

Lucky are those who have happened across a live hummingbird nest because it really is a very special birding experience!