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Selasphorus Hummingbirds in Southern California

January 29, 2015
Less green on the back of this Allen's Hummingbird(R. Ehler 1/25/15)

Less green on the back of this Allen’s Hummingbird
(R. Ehler 1/25/15)

Lots of green on the back of this Allen's Hummingbird(J. Waterman 1/25/15)

Lots of green on the back of this Allen’s Hummingbird
(J. Waterman 1/25/15)

This could be a photo quiz, but isn’t.  Instead, I’ll use these two photos of a Selasphorus hummingbird to make a comment. Local birders often refer to these rufous-flanked (-tailed, -backed, etc.) hummers as Selasphorus because 1) that’s their genus, and 2) they’re often impossible to tell apart in the field, especially the two most common in SoCal, Rufous and Allen’s. [Broad-tailed prefers the Rockies, while Volcano, Scintillant and Glow-throated are only in Central America.] There are differences between these two in their vocalizations, courtship displays and central tail feathers if you can witness them. Both males have rufous flanks and overlap considerably in the amount of green on the back. Allen’s subspecies sedantarius is resident along our coast, while both Rufous and Allen’s subspecies sasin migrate through to northern nesting grounds. Except during migration, any local selasphorus is likely to be an Allen’s. [Just to complicate things, Rufous begin migrating north as early as late January.] The point is that they are very hard to tell apart. I sent these two pictures to Kimball Garrett, bird collection manager at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County, as I wasn’t certain the “smaller-appearing” left (or first) bird wasn’t a Rufous. He replied, “Yes, both adult male Allen’s….Notice how the extent of visible green on the back varies with the [viewing] angle — this has tripped up lots of observers….Allen’s can appear to have very little green above if viewed from the sides (as there is rufous lateral and posterior to the green); I think a lot of late fall/early winter claims of Rufous are from inadequate views of typical male Allen’s.” These two photos might be of the same individual Allen’s – viewing angles, feather position and lighting differences play tricks on our eyes – but I strongly doubt it. Many thanks to Randy & Joyce for the photos.

[NOTE: This comment was originally part of the “Malibu Lagoon Trip Report: 25 January, 2015” blog.]   [Chuck Almdale]

  1. February 7, 2015 10:25 am

    If any one would like to see my humble efforts to photograph the hummingbirds found in my backyard (in Pacific Palisades) feeding on some of our wildflowers please go to my flickr site listed below.

    Rufous Male & Calliandra californica 928flp



    • Chukar permalink*
      February 9, 2015 1:02 pm

      Dave: That’s a nice collection of photos. Would you describe your camera, camera setup, etc.? I’m curious as you’ve gotten a very nice stop-motion on the wings.


      • February 12, 2015 10:34 am

        When photographing hummingbirds, I wanted to maximize depth of field and stop wing motion. To accomplish this I use three flash units set at 1/16 power which effectively illuminate the object for a mere a ten-thousandth of a second. The flashes also provide enough light so that I can set the f-stop to 18 and ISO to 200. I’m using Nikon equipment but Canon (and others) probably have similar equipment.

        Here are the specifics. I use a wireless speedlight commander (SU-800), three or four autofocus speedlight flash units (SB-700 and SB-910), the 300 mm Nikkor 2.8 lens, and a D800 series (36 megapixel) camera body. There are other details which I have not included here for the sake of brevity. One way to master the art of hummingbird photography is to invest in a photo-workshop. Below are two that I have taken and strongly recommend. The first is in the Canadian Rockies.

        Barbara and John Gerlach are great people and do a wonderful job. You supply a camera and lens and they supply everything else. You will end up with hundreds if not thousands of great photos of Rufous, Black-chinned, and Calliope hummingbirds. Another good workshop is in Arizona.

        This is put on by the Friends of Arizona Highways and the photographer is Bruce Taubert. Bruce really goes out of his way to help you understand the process and again you only need to bring a camera and lens.


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