National Geographic : 1990 Jun
The World's Smallest Bird Article and photographs by ESTHER and ROBERT TYRRELL MALEMELLISUGAHELENAE, LIFE-SIZE LOGGING through a remote crocodile swamp near Cuba's infamous Bay of Pigs, we were on a trea sure hunt, not for gold but for jewels on the wing. After a year of stalking several of its Carib bean cousins, we had come here to photograph the smallest of the small: the bee hummingbird. Endemic to Cuba, Mellisuga helenae tips the scales at about two grams, less than the weight of a penny (above). Like the 15 other Caribbean hummers we had photographed for our upcoming book, it inhabits some of the most inaccessible regions we've encountered. After years of studying hummingbirds, we can normally spot them in flight. But when we first encountered the "bee," buzzing and hovering nearby, even we were fooled into thinking it was an insect. At an estimated 80 beats per second, the bee hummer's wings move so rapidly that the naked eye cannot detect them. For tunately we came prepared: Included in the 150 pounds of equipment we were lugging through the swamp were high speed strobe lights. Only with them could our lenses capture the birds in action, as when a male (left) lifts off from a pencil perch. Using feeders to lure the birds down from hundred-foot-high trees, we were able to obtain the first photographic documenta tion of the species. Measuring a bit more than two inches from bill to tail, only the male of the Hummingbirds of the Caribbean, the second book by ROBERT and ESTHER TYRRELL, will be published this fall by Crown Publishers, Inc.