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Hummingbirds: A Celebration of Nature’s Jewels by Glenn Bartley and Andy Swash 2022. Production and design by WILDGuides, Hampshire UK. Published by Princeton University Press, New Jersey USA and Oxfordshire UK. ISBN: 9780691182124. Hardback. $35.00/ £27.99. 288 pages.

Review by Frank Lambert
(photos by Nigel Voaden)

The incredible beauty and allure of hummingbirds was glaringly obvious on my first trip to Colombia, in 1987, when I saw 52 species during a six-week trip, including some of the most spectacular species on the planet, such as Sword-billed Hummingbird, Booted Racket-tail, Buffy Helmetcrest and Long-tailed Sylph, to name a few. They were everywhere I went, and one of the most notable elements of the Neotropical avifauna. Although my camera was lost in the backwaters of the Amazon, when our speedboat flipped, I know for a fact that I had not managed to capture a single species of hummingbird on film. They were too small, too fast and the forest interior was too dark

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Buffy Helmetcrest, Colombia (© Nigel Voaden)

Thirty-five years later, digital technology has made it relatively easy to capture an image of these amazing birds, especially if you are fortunate enough to visit some of the numerous hummingbird feeders dotted across the entire Americas. These provide a continuous source of sugar water and in some locations are visited by hundreds of individual hummingbirds of tens of species. Even so, the quality of photographs in the present book is outstanding, capturing the beauty and many of the fascinating aspects of their behaviour.

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Rufous-breasted Hermit at a hummingbird feeder in Brazil (© N. Voaden)

These incredible photographs provide the main attraction of Hummingbirds: A Celebration of Nature’s Jewels. Around 540 magnificent photographs are used in the book, illustrating all 101 hummingbird genera and over two-thirds of the 369 species recognised by the authors (based on the official BirdLife International List). Most of the photographs were taken by Glenn Bartley and Andy Swash, but more than 60 other photographers provided material for the book. However, this book is a lot more than a collection of amazing photos. The detailed text, based on the latest scientific research yet easy to understand, provides a definitive account that eloquently describes and explains all aspects of their lives.

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Glittering Starfrontlet, Colombia, displaying the incredible iridescence shown by many hummingbirds (© N. Voaden)

The book starts with a brief introduction, focusing largely on origins and taxonomy, followed by eight comprehensive chapters dealing with every aspect of hummingbird ecology and biology. Chapters headings include Adaptations for Exceptional Lifestyles, Colour and Iridescence, Breeding, Biogeography and Biodiversity, and Conservation: Hummingbirds under threat. Alongside the photographs and text are numerous illustrations revealing details of anatomy and behaviour. 

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The last chapter of the book, Taxonomy: The BirdLife List of Species, provides an outline of phylogeny followed by a checklist that illustrates at least one representative of each genus and includes a small distribution map for every species in the list. The hummingbird family, Trochilidae, diverged from the swifts and treeswifts some 40 million years ago and started to diversify around 22 million years ago.

Over this long period, hummingbirds have diverged and evolved to occupy every habitat in the Americas from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, and from sea level to around 5,000m. They have also colonised some offshore islands, with one species found only on Robinson Crusoe Island in the Juan Fernandez Islands, some 650km off the Chilean coast. 

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Purple-throated Woodstar, Ecuador (© N. Voaden)

Hummingbirds are exceptional in so many ways that it is impossible to mention them all in a review. But here are some of the things that I find most incredible. Their hearts can beat at up to 500-600 times a minute even when perched; some species can enter a state of torpor to survive cold nights; their diet comprises about 90% nectar, which they get from visiting up to 2,000 flowers a day; adaptations of their wings enable some smaller species to beat their wings at up to 200 times per second (so that high speed flash is required to capture high quality photos in flight).

To top it all, the Bee Hummingbird, found only in Cuba, weighs a mere 1.6-2g (0.06-0.07oz), whilst Sword-billed Hummingbird is the only bird to have a bill that is longer than its body.

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Sword-billed Hummingbird, Colombia (© Nigel Voaden)

The chapter on Conservation describes the many threats faced by hummingbirds today. Sadly, 30 species are already threatened, such as the recently discovered Blue-throated Hillstar and Colourful Puffleg, confined to a small area in Colombia, but as articulated in this book, climate change will inevitably result in many more species being considered threatened in the coming decades.

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Colourful Puffleg, an Endangered species confined to Colombia (© N. Voaden)

On the other hand, a few species, such as Allen’s Hummingbird, are judged to be increasing in numbers despite all the problems that hummingbirds now face.

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Allen's Hummingbird, USA (© N. Voaden)

Hummingbirds are iconic birds, remarkably beautiful. instantly recognisable and captivating, so this superbly illustrated and informative book will appeal not only to birding enthusiasts, but also to anyone with a passing interest in nature. Whilst this is a 'coffee table' size book, it offers much more than most books in this category, and I am sure it will be a welcome addition to the libraries of many birders and wildlife enthusiasts.

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