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The Teatime Series

How backyard hummingbirds gave a healing photojournalist a new lens on life.

Betty Udesen play button

The Teatime Series: Click to view the slideshow

I’m not really a bird photographer. At least I don’t think of myself that way.

As a professional photojournalist, I’ve spent decades looking through a lens at the world and its myriad inhabitants, from Latin America, Africa, and Indonesia to my hometown of Seattle.

But it wasn’t until after I was badly injured on an overseas assignment that I began to photograph birds. The birds of The Teatime Series provided me with a form of interactive meditation during my recovery.

The home I share with my husband is in an old but eclectic neighborhood—close to parks, art galleries, funky shops, and lively bistros. But in the weeks it took me to heal, I was largely housebound. After years of non-stop participation in my community, and a seemingly unobstructed view of the world, I was suddenly limited to the scene outside my window.

I stood, tree-like, even swaying a bit, with my hands covering the feeder’s four perches. After a few preliminary buzzes, an Anna’s hovered above my hands and fed. Then it perched on my finger.

At first, I felt disconnected. I missed my life as an eyewitness to world events, my reason for picking up a camera.

Then, the hummingbirds appeared outside the glass doors to our second-story deck.

Hummingbirds are part of the Trochilidae family and are only found in the Americas. With more than 300 species, they make up the Western Hemisphere’s second largest family of birds. 

It was easy to see why early Spanish explorers in the Americas called hummingbirds joyas volardores, or flying jewels. With a little research, I was able to identify the flashes of iridescence around the feeder above my deck as Anna’s Hummingbirds.

Until the mid-20th century, Anna’s bred only in southern California and northern Baja. Their breeding range expanded as people began planting more exotic flowering trees in their yards.

And they’re  noted for conspicuous behavior. Males of the species frequently sing from exposed perches and put on elaborate aerial displays—diving at other hummingbirds, and even people.

During mating season, males are especially given to showing off for females. After soaring straight up nearly 100 feet, the male turns and dives at a spectacular speed. Some avian researchers report velocities of up to 50 miles per hour at the bottom of the dive. Great air turbulence through the bird’s open tail feathers produces a concluding, explosive squeak.

The Anna’s at my feeder were no exception, boldly buzzing and diving about me whenever I approached.

I wondered: Could these miracles of motion be persuaded to pause and perch on my hand to feed?

Betty Udesen Photo by Benjamin Benschneider

For Betty, making contact with a hummingbird required patience, silence, and stillness.

Photo by Benjamin Benschneider.

It seemed incredible, but with patience and perseverance the Anna’s Hummingbirds came to know me  and would light on my hand. It was a gradual process. I wore "quiet" clothing that wouldn’t blow about in the wind, and braided my hair for the same reason. Then I stood, tree-like, even swaying a bit, with my hands covering the feeder’s four perches. After a few preliminary buzzes, an Anna’s hovered above my hands and fed. Then it perched on my finger. I was elated and calm at the same time. For weeks afterward, I rushed onto my deck at dawn and dusk to receive my daily “blessing” from the birds.

On cold mornings, I still can’t wait to feel the exchange of our body heat. First the bird’s tiny feet grip my finger, feeling light as a human hair. Then it relaxes toward me to drink from the sugar water.

An Anna’s heart beats an amazing 1,220 times per minute in flight, but at rest it slows to 250 times per minute. It’s humbling when a tiny bird takes rest on my hand, trusting me as a safe place, our two cultures interwoven. In those moments when I feel the beat from within a hummingbird’s chest, it's as though I am connected with all that is right in the world.

As my recovery continued, my interest in the feathered life outside our windows grew. I wondered what other birds I could bring to our deck. What seed should I buy? I read about local birds and added feeders to our porch—the kind that would allow smaller birds to feed while keeping starlings and pigeons from becoming pests.

Sunflower chips and mealworms proved to be popular with the ever-expanding flock outside my windows.

Black-capped chickadees flitted in and out, quick to make friends. Flocks of House Finch with rosy faces and long, twittering songs? gathered. Steller’s Jays swooped in, inquisitive and scolding.

Goldfinch, the Washington State bird eventually arrived. It took two years for them to find our thistle feeders. Like canaries, they have long been caged and sold as songbirds. Watching the finch flutter about my feeder, I reflected on how, in art and literature, the caged songbird has long stood as symbol of repression and the wild bird a symbol of freedom.

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I began making photographs using the same equipment I’d use for baseball games. And, as with baseball, the wait for that special moment is sometimes very long.

With an eye to the season and an ear to the day’s weather forecast, I tucked seeds into decorative cups and pitchers. Using small mirrors and reflective surfaces to throw highlights and cast complementary shadows, I lit the scene. Sometimes I added a strobe to “stop the action” of a bird’s wings.

Then, I waited.

The birds that appear in The Teatime Series are considered “common.” I find that remarkable. Marvels of design and engineering, these backyard birds gave me an appreciation for a world I’d long taken for granted—the world right outside my windows.

Irish essayist Robert Lynd wrote, “In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.”  My injuries forced me to slow down, to become part of a healing quiet. For years, I’d heard bird song in my urban neighborhood but I didn’t know who was singing.

Now I do.


Betty Udesen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Betty is a pioneer in multimedia reporting that combines still images with field-recorded sounds and interviews. She has done projects in Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Central and South America, and Israel as well as in her hometown of Seattle. Her work has been recognized with two first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. For more of her photographs, visit www.udesen.com

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