Photographer Follows Hummingbirds From Alaska to Argentina

'It’s hard not to be charmed by a wild animal that’s unafraid of us.'

Golden-tailed sapphire (Chrysuronia oenone)
Golden-tailed sapphire (Chrysuronia oenone).

Jon Dunn

There's something utterly enthralling about hummingbirds. With their obvious beauty and graceful acrobatics, these tiny birds with their iridescent feathers can be quite compelling.

Nature writer, photographer, and wildlife tour guide Jon Dunn is so fascinated by hummingbirds that he followed them from Alaska to South America. In his new book, "The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds," he shares beautiful images, as well as the interesting role hummingbirds played throughout history.

Dunn faced at least one species that may be extinct in his lifetime, as he writes about the threats these birds face: climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species.

Dunn talked to Treehugger about why people love these charming birds and how they are full of surprises.

Treehugger: Why are people so fascinated with hummingbirds? Whether you are a bird lover or not, it’s hard not to be charmed by hummingbirds.

Jon Dunn: I’ve given this a lot of thought in the course of researching The Glitter in the Green. Wherever I went on my travels, I met people who found hummingbirds compelling and, often, had a personal connection or story about them that they wanted to share. I don’t think any other bird family captures our collective imagination in quite the same way and has done for many years—they feature in history and mythology over the course of centuries.

I think it goes beyond their obvious aesthetic appeal—many species appear fearless in our presence, whether they’re visiting feeders in our yards or flowers in the wild. It’s hard not to be charmed by a wild animal that’s unafraid of us.  

Black-throated mango (Anthracothorax nigricollis)
Black-throated mango (Anthracothorax nigricollis).

Jon Dunn

As a natural history writer and photographer, why were you compelled to go in search of hummingbirds around their habitat?

I’m unashamedly in thrall to so much of the natural world—it’s shaped the course of my adult life. At the earliest opportunity, I moved to the remote Shetland Islands to live surrounded by spectacular wildlife. From the smallest marine mollusks to the great whales, I find it all fascinating. That said, I’m a really visual person, and revel in color and form. Wildflowers, but especially orchids, are a lifelong obsession; as are butterflies.

I’ve been a birder since I was old enough to pick up a pair of binoculars, but a visit to the London Natural History Museum as a child sowed a seed that, in time, would germinate in my hummingbird quest—I saw some taxidermy hummingbirds and realized that there were birds somewhere out there in the world that were utterly unlike the birds in our English garden. Birds of incomparable metallic, iridescent plumage. It was only a matter of time before I would seize the opportunity to see them in the wild. 

What were some of the more interesting (and farthest) places your travels took you?

That’s such a difficult question to answer, as I can say hand on heart that I found every country and different habitat I visited wonderful in its own unique way. And that’s to say nothing of the kind people I met on my travels—I made a lot of new friends in faraway places. But of the places I visited, the sheer, lush, abounding biodiversity of all kinds of life in the Andes in Colombia and Ecuador was a revelation to a European naturalist—we’ve fabulous wildlife in Europe, but so much of it exists in pockets of habitat on the fringes of developed land nowadays, and it’s a shadow of what it must once have been.

One place, however, does stand out for me—that’s Isla Robinson Crusoe, hundreds of miles out into the Pacific Ocean off the Chilean coast. It’s an island freighted with history and romance, being the temporary 18th century home to castaway British sailor Alexander Selkirk, inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s literary hero. It’s also home to an endemic hummingbird found there and nowhere else in the world—and a particularly beautiful species even by hummingbirds’ high standards. Getting to Isla Robinson Crusoe is an adventure in itself, but once there I fell hard for the place. I think islands must be in my blood… 

Marvelous spatuletail (Loddigesia mirabilis)
Marvelous spatuletail (Loddigesia mirabilis).

Jon Dunn

Which hummingbird species did you find the most riveting? Was it because of the way they looked or because of their habitats or behaviors?

There were some species I confidently expected to have hummingbird wow factor—Bee Hummingbirds in Cuba, the smallest birds in the world, were always going to punch above their metaphorical weight, though I was still pleasantly surprised by just how tiny they are in the flesh—seeing hummingbirds startled by the arrival of a dragonfly bigger than them brought home just how small they really are. Others, species with the most sumptuous plumage, like the Velvet-purple Coronets of Ecuador, were beautiful beyond compare.

There were, however, three species that made a particular impact upon me, for very different reasons. In Colombia, trekking on horseback high in the Andes to see Dusky Starfrontlet, a species only found in the mid-20th century and then lost to science for decades until it was rediscovered in 2004, was both an adventure in itself but also loaded with the romance of the lost hummingbirds’ story. In Peru, when I set eyes upon the improbable plumage of a male Marvellous Spatuletail, I found for the first time that a bird was literally, as well as metaphorically, jaw-dropping and breath-taking.

Best of all, but most poignantly, was seeing those Juan Fernández Firecrowns on Isla Robinson Crusoe—in the week I spent on the island, I was fortunate enough to see a male bird performing a courtship flight in front of a female. It was a bittersweet experience: Due to a host of historically introduced alien species, their habitat is under immense pressure, and their numbers are dwindling. Just 400 birds remain on the island. I had the chastening realization, as I watched them, that this was a hummingbird that could well be extinct within my lifetime. That’s a hard moment of clarity to take on board when you’ve just looked a hummingbird in the eye.   

You’ve researched hummingbirds extensively for your book. What place have they had in art and folklore? What important figures in history have been moved by hummingbirds?

Perhaps inevitably, with so many hummingbirds being both beautiful and fearless, they’ve caught our collective imaginations for centuries. The Aztecs, and many other Native Americans, featured hummingbirds in their beliefs. They’ve been widely renowned as either messengers or embodiments of the gods. Some representations of them defy ready explanation—how do we explain the enormous hummingbird geoglyph carved into the floor of the Nazca Desert in Peru?

But other artistic interpretations of them are clearly inspired by their beauty – Pablo Neruda’s evocative poem Ode to the Hummingbird is a favorite. I particularly like the slightly darker, more thoughtful representations of them—another poem, The Hummingbird, by D.H.Lawrence, infers they represent change, and serve as a warning to us—we are warned not to be complacent about our place in the world. Similarly, Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird poses so many questions about the nature of love and our relationship with the natural world.

 White-bellied woodstar (Chaetocercus mulsant)
White-bellied woodstar (Chaetocercus mulsant).

Jon Dunn

What threats do some hummingbird species face today? Which ones are in most danger?

I fear I will repeat an all-too-familiar litany here, but hummingbirds—and the habitats they depend upon, and the myriad other species they share those habitats with—face the familiar three horsemen of the apocalypse: climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species. That’s a gross over-simplification, of course, but they’re the main problems as I see them. We can distill that down to a causal effect—economic development, and its veneration by governments, drives much of the pressure what’s left of the wild world is now under.

I saw so much that was inspiring and enthralling during my journey into the hummingbirds’ world—but also saw and learned of so much that gave grave cause for concern. Many hummingbird species are found only in incredibly niche and small ranges—in one small discrete corner of the Andes or one isolated island. Lose them there, and they’re gone forever. I could, unfortunately, pick any number of such species that are poised on a knife-edge.  

What is one entertaining fact (or two) about hummingbirds that you think most people don’t know?

I love that Anna’s Hummingbirds, a familiar enough species in the U.S., attain an average velocity of 385 body lengths per second when diving in their display flights, the highest known length-specific velocity attained by any vertebrate, and endure a gravitational force of 9G when they pull up from that dive. I’d always thought of Peregrine Falcons as the masters of the skies, but the tiny Anna’s confounded me. Hummingbirds have a habit of doing that—they’re full of surprises.  

author and photographer Jon Dunn

Jon Dunn

And can you please give us a little background about yourself? Where did you grow up and what do you think spurred your lifetime of love for the natural world and wildlife?

I grew up in the countryside of the English southwest. At various points in my childhood we lived in Somerset on the edges of the former inland sea that’s the Somerset Levels, and in heavily-wooded Dorset—Thomas Hardy country. I was an only child, and there weren’t other kids nearby to make friends with, so I spent a lot of time exploring the countryside on my own. I’d leave the house in the morning with some sandwiches crushed into a knapsack full of collecting pots and jam jars slung over my shoulder, butterfly and pond-dipping nets in my hands, and binoculars around my neck. I wouldn’t come home until dinner time in the evening. I wanted to find and understand everything about the countryside around us. 

At school, when I was a little older, I’d regularly bunk off from lessons and sports to go explore further afield— I’d hitchhike down to the coast to look for rare birds and wildflowers. I know, playing truant’s not a great example to set, but I just couldn’t deny where my interests lay. School wasn’t teaching me the things I wanted to learn.

I read a lot as a kid and loved books about the natural world, especially ones with a narrative—the pioneering conservationist Gerald Durrell was a particular favorite author of mine. I badly wanted to be him – perhaps a strange ambition, back then, but not so much now that conservation is no longer viewed with derision or contempt, at least in some quarters. Books like his were a huge source of inspiration.