Beyond the BackyardCallaway Gardens

Callaway Gardens Vacation: Part 1 – Hummers!!

Rich and I recently went up to Callaway Gardens for a few days.  Callaway is about an hour southwest of Atlanta, so about a seven-hour drive from Orlando.  The gardens are a great place to relax.  We enjoy hiking during the day (for Rich) and photographing at sunrise and sunset (for me).  Rich realized there’s another advantage to having a smartphone: you can fit lots of books onto the phone, which fits nicely into a pocket to be readily available when your photographer wife sees a bird!! :)

For the next week or so, I will blog about our adventures at Callaway.

We chose August for our trip not because of the sweltering heat, but because of the increased population of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds.  If you look at the bird counts on eBird, the peak time for hummers in Georgia is July-August.  When we first visited Callaway back in August 2008, we were astonished by the number of birds.  We don’t see nearly as many in Florida, so they are a treat for us.

Unfortunately, there were not as many hummers on this trip as there were in August 2008.  We didn’t see any males at all (they do migrate first, so maybe we missed them.)  The males have the beautiful throats (called gorgets) that flash bright red when the sun hits them.  The females and juveniles have spotted throats.  I chuckled when I realized that a bird I’d been photographing for the last fifteen minutes was a little boy…the very bottom feathers of his gorget were starting to turn red, and when he turned his head toward me, a tiny burst of red came my way!

During my previous trips to Callaway, I’ve almost always photographed the hummers on Black and Blue Salvia.  Callaway plants clusters of salvia throughout its gardens, probably in part to feed the hummers, who love to drink its nectar.  On this trip, I wanted some different pictures.  Also, now that I’m more serious about planting a hummingbird garden in my own backyard, I paid more attention to the nectar sources.   While the hummers did seem to favor the Black and Blue Salvia, they also nectared at the following plants:  red salvias (various), purple coneflower, canna lilies, butterfly bush, lantana, okra, pole beans, zinnias, cardinal flowers, Turk’s Cap, and coral honeysuckle.  As a photographer, I most appreciated the coneflower and the butterfly bush, as a single flower had many clusters of nectar ports, allowing me time to focus on the bird before he flew away!

If you visit Callaway and want to photograph hummers, the best places I know to find them are the gardens outside the Day Butterfly Center, the “Victory Garden” cottage in Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden, the clumps of salvias behind the Sibley Horticultural Center, and the bird feeder area at the Callaway Discovery Center.  I’ve seen them throughout the gardens, but those are my favorites.   Hummers start to arrive in Georgia in April, and they leave in September.

The hummers are such fun to watch.  Each time I set up the camera in an area, a curious hummingbird came zooming out to hover in mid-air in front of me to see what I was up to.  I wished that I’d brought a red shirt, as I’ve read that some curious hummers will come right up to you.  Some women have even reported having hummers come “kiss them” when they wear bright red lipstick!

The birds always surprise me with the time they spend sitting in trees.  With wings that beat up to 100 times a second, I don’t often think of these guys as perching birds.  Yet they will nectar for a while, then rest up in a tree, guarding their territory.  (It’s hilarious to watch them run off another hummer that happens into their territory!  Much fussing ensues….)  I’ve seen hummingbird feeders that feature perches under the nectar holes, so as to allow the birds to rest.  I always thought those were kind of silly.  Then I watched the birds at Callaway perching on the stems of the salvia bushes, leaning and doing funny contortions as they tried to nectar on the nearby blossoms without actually having to move.  Well, I guess if I had wings and they beat up to 100 times a second, I’d want little breaks, too!

My mom and I often tease my dad about his dislike for lantana plants.  When he was in the orange grove business, these “weed” plants would take root and be very hard to remove from the orange groves.  But maybe his opinion of the plants will change….every so slightly…once he sees a picture of a hummingbird nectaring on a lantana flower?  Maybe! :)

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Unfortunately, much to our disappointment, the vegetable garden was closed in the evenings for most of our visit.  Evenings are great, not only for the golden light, but because the garden caretakers have gone home and few people remain in the gardens, allowing the many birds of this certified Backyard Habitat to come out to play.  The garden has always been my favorite place to photograph birds at Callaway, and I was very upset to find it closed in the evenings.  When we inquired about the early closure, we were first told that the garden should have remained open, but then a “higher authority” had mandated its early closure.  This is very disappointing for amateur nature photographers who enjoy seeing “lifers” in the garden, such as the Orchard Oriole, Blue Grosbeak, and Summer Tanager that I have photographed there in the past.  (Note:  Callaway does have a policy that photographers are not to sell photographs featuring the gardens without permission.)

Here’s what the hummers and I have to say about the closure of the Vegetable garden: :-p!