Photography

Whoa! Watch a Sneaky Roadrunner Nab a Hummingbird While It's Feeding

A California photographer managed to capture the rarely documented behavior in his own backyard.

It’s a bird-eat-bird world out there—and Roy Dunn is out to photograph it, even if it’s occasionally hard to watch. A wildlife photographer for more than three decades, he is particularly fond of hummingbirds, since he enjoys the technical challenges of high-speed photography.

“I’ve watched hummingbirds for thousands and thousands of hours,” Dunn says. He’s racked up that time both out in the wild and in his California backyard, where he estimates about 150 hummingbirds rely on his nectar feeders during peak summer season.

During all that time watching hummingbirds, he occasionally has had some company: a Greater Roadrunner. While Dunn lurked behind his camera, the carnivorous bird, which typically eats lizards and insects, would lurk at the base of a flowering cactus or a hummingbird feeder and wait for a feathery snack to stop by. Then, while the hummingbird is enjoying a sip of nectar—pounce! Even when ambushed, the hummingbird gets away most of the time; roadrunners only make a successful catch about once in 10 tries, Dunn says. 

The first time Dunn saw a roadrunner attempt to catch a hummingbird has stuck with him. “It was really quite sensational to witness, and it made me feel a little uncomfortable,” he says. But he refuses to be squeamish about it. “Nature is nature, and I’m steadfast in my belief that it should be documented how it occurs.”

That principle also shapes how he gets his photographs. He doesn’t want his feeders to change how hummingbirds behave, so he puts out water that’s less sugary than flower nectar. Dunn says his visitors do still prefer the flowers. But that doesn’t stop them from visiting the feeders for extra fuel, and that’s where roadrunners occasionally stalk them. While the behavior isn't unknown, documentation of it—much less documentation of a succesful catch—is rare.

So this fall, Dunn set up a camera in his kitchen, frame fixed on a feeder. Then, he waited. Getting the video took patience, given the roadrunners’ failure rate. And natural photography aside, Dunn does meddle on the hummingbirds’ behalf to try and deter roadrunners from becoming too reliant on the high concentrations of hummers around his house. He, his wife, and his dog have all been known to chase roadrunners away from the feeders. “I’m not out to give the roadrunners a free lunch, put it that way,” he says.

But the day he made this video, Dunn didn't scare the roadrunner off. Instead, he waited almost three hours to catch the right moment—and for the roadrunner to catch his meal. “He missed quite a few before he nailed one,” Dunn says. He was ready, with a camera that can stretch two seconds of action into twenty seconds of amazing action. “And once he nailed one, I raced out and chased him away!”

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