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

June 18, 1986|JOHN DREYFUSS | 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

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.

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.

"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."

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.

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.

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."

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