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A Focus on the World of Hummingbirds : Husband and Wife Capture Wonders of Tiny Fliers in Photos

Times Staff Writer

With the first glow in the eastern sky in a remote mountain area east of Mazatlan, a man and a woman on a rutted, single-lane dirt road raised powerful binoculars and began meticulously scanning meadows and adjacent forests.

Within minutes, two men with machetes swinging from their belts walked out of the woods, approached one of the Americans, and began cursing her.

“They were very angry. I thought I was done for,” said Esther Quesada Tyrrell, grimacing as she reflected on the ugly scene.

A Timely Blessing

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Quesada Tyrrell, whose parents were born in Mexico, drew back and said the first words that came to her mind: “Que Dios les bendiga.” May God bless you.

It would seem that American officials prowling for marijuana crops in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains don’t bless workers, because the two men fell silent and, in a few seconds, walked down the dirt road without looking back.

Instincts on Target

The men’s instincts were on target. Quesada Tyrrell and her husband Robert were not searching for illicit weeds.

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They were looking for hummingbirds.

Robert Arthur Tyrrell, 38, is one of the world’s foremost hummingbird photographers. His wife Esther Quesada Tyrrell, 36, wrote the text for “Hummingbirds: Their Life and Behavior” (Crown: $35), which Robert illustrated with 235 color photos that stop hummingbirds in flight, no mean feat when flight requires wings flapping 4,680 times a minute, or 78 times every second.

Covers 16 Species

The book deals with 16 hummingbird species that breed in the United States, some of which are also found in Mexico, said Quesada Tyrrell, who was an X-ray technician and then an executive secretary before quitting that job 2 1/2 years ago to become a writer.

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“It’s just a fantastic book,” commented Reed Hainsworth, biology professor at Syracuse University, and a hummingbird expert. “I think the collection they have is probably the best collection of hummingbird photographs that I’ve seen.

“Plus the text that goes with the book is a very serious attempt to try to inform the general public about the biology of the birds. So it’s not just a picture book. It’s a picture book with meaningful text.”

The morning they were mistaken for drug agents in Mexico, the photographer and his wife were pursuing the White-eared hummingbird, a species not often sighted in this country.

Within 15 minutes of the encounter with the machete-bearing workers, hundreds of the birds with emerald green throats and white stripes behind their eyes appeared in the meadow, using it as a “courtship arena.”

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An hour later, Tyrrell had the pictures for which he’d traveled more than 1,000 miles from his home in El Monte.

Tyrrell has been on a lot of hummingbird chases--many of which deteriorated into wild goose chases.

On one trip to Mexico it rained torrents for three days straight, and when Tyrrell finally got set up to take pictures, his custom-designed strobe light “made a huge bang, like a shotgun going off.” The light was kaput, and so was the trip, because without the strobe there was no way to stop the wings of the birds Tyrrell had journeyed 1,200 miles to photograph. He returned to El Monte $1,600 poorer, without a single picture, and discovered the part that had crippled his strobe cost $1.50. Now he carries spares.

Tyrrell saw his first hummingbird 19 years ago in a San Dimas backyard.

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At that time the recent high school graduate, working as a messenger and already an amateur photographer, was a guest of the Glendora Camera Club at a meeting called specifically to photograph hummingbirds.

Tyrrell came away with a “blurry but good” shot of a crimson helmeted Anna’s hummingbird which, at 3 1/2 to 4 inches long, is California’s largest hummingbird.

Earned His Degree

By 1975 he had completed a stint in the Army, earned a degree in photography from L.A. Trade-Tech, and become a professional photographer.

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Then, on a sunny spring morning in El Monte, as he walked through his father’s vegetable garden on the way to get a lawn mower, Tyrrell “saw a silhouette against the sky. It was an intriguing, little tiny bird, like a clothes pin.”

He bought a feeder, borrowed photo equipment from his boss, and for weeks sat for 2 1/2 hours a day, starting at 6 a.m., taking pictures of hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are tiny, iridescent, acrobatic creatures that can fly backwards and upside down. But they are not particularly cooperative photo subjects, so it is fortunate that Tyrrell has the patience of a rock. “I’ve seen him search an entire mountain for a Scarlet Penstemon because when you find those flowers you’re likely to find hummingbirds nearby feeding on them,” remarked Quesada Tyrrell. “I don’t know anyone else on earth that would search that way.”

“I like to use my patience to get results that others can’t get,” said the photographer who once knocked on more than 300 doors in Big Bend, Tex., asking incredulous residents if they’d spotted any amethyst-throated Lucifer hummingbirds lately. None had, and despite his tenacity, Tyrrell came home again without a photo, and yet another $1,000 poorer.

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For a long time, all the patience in the world didn’t help Tyrrell get perfect pictures. Until 1978, the high speed movement of hummingbird wings often resulted in slightly blurred images.

High-Tech Help

So Quesada Tyrrell contacted Harold E. Edgerton, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who in 1931 perfected the modern strobe flash unit.

Edgerton offered advice, and Tyrrell took it. But nothing happened.

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“We had been struggling with his advice and got only failure, failure, failure after failure,” recalled Quesada Tyrrell, her voice rising in frustration at the memory.

Finally, Edgerton sent them his own strobe equipment.

“I remember, it arrived on a rainy day when we were ready to quit,” said Quesada Tyrrell.

With the Edgerton strobe unit--since returned and replaced by a similar unit Tyrrell had made--Tyrrell’s hummingbird photos became crisp. No more blurs.

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Edgerton, who in 1938 took the famous strobe photo of a drop of milk making a crown shaped splash on the surface of a container of milk, is enthusiastic about Tyrrell’s work.

He called the book’s photos “terrific, tremendous, absolutely tremendous . . . his pictures are about the best of hummingbirds I’ve ever seen. He’s done a magnificent job.”

She Studied Anatomy

While Tyrrell was becoming a superb hummingbird photographer, his wife was becoming an expert on the anatomy and history of the world’s smallest birds.

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“At first all I knew about birds was they sat in trees and sang,” Quesada Tyrrell laughed. “So I started with A for anatomy and began reading books.” By her own count, she read a couple of hundred.

Her text for the hummingbird book is detailed, and illustrated with drawings by artist Denise De Grazia as well as her husband’s photos.

Some of Quesada Tyrrell’s most interesting knowledge never found its way into the book. For example, the Empress Eugenia, wife of Napoleon III who ruled France in the middle of the 19th Century, “was just wild about hummingbird fans” made of hummingbird feathers with a stuffed hummingbird in the center. And in Mexico hummingbirds are love charms; hold one in your hand and it will draw the object of your passion to you. Since live hummingbirds don’t lend themselves to being held, mercados offer dead ones sewn into little bags made of silk-like material. The less affluent lovelorn can pick through dead hummingbirds stuffed sardine-like into old coffee cans till they come across one that suits them.

Natural Fighters

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Hummingbirds will fight among themselves for hours, pecking, clawing, even butting their chests together in the air until their claws lock and they fall to the ground, still locked to one another, Quesada Tyrrell noted, adding that “Aztec legend says warriors who died in battle turned into hummingbirds. It was a very, very great honor to become a hummingbird. The warriors picked the most belligerent creature around them to become.”

Their book, now in its fourth printing, has provided so much satisfaction for Tyrrell and Quesada Tyrrell that they plan on writing and illustrating three more. “We want to do books on hummingbirds of the Caribbean Islands, of Mexico and of South America,” Tyrrell said.

“We’ve done the 16 species of the United States. There are 338 species in all. So we have 322 to go.”


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