Don Carroll jokes that when he moved to Las Vegas seven years ago with his wife, Noriko, he “didn’t know a hummingbird from a pigeon.”
After all, he was a freelance photographer from New York City. Not an ornithologist. Not an expert. He only knew a pigeon was bigger than a hummingbird.
He swears it was something psychic about the tiny birds that lured them to the Las Vegas Valley’s east side.
“I think the hummingbirds called us,” he said from their back porch.
The porch and its surroundings were center stage for the several years they spent documenting in film and spectacular close-up photos the nesting of a black-chinned hummingbird named Honey.
Honey’s nest of sticky spiderwebs and downy plant fibers sat balanced on a clothesline Wednesday. It stretched beneath the porch’s ceiling. It was there the day they arrived from New York on April 17, 2002.
“We virtually got off the plane, drove up here and walked to the back porch. There was a cardboard sign on the floor with an arrow pointing up that read, ‘Be Careful! Hummingbird’s Nest Above!’ That was the first hummingbird’s nest we’d seen.”
Then Honey flew up, her wings beating at least 50 times a second, allowing her to hover long enough for a pose.
“I ran and got a tripod and a camera and started shooting. … We kept shooting every day,” he said. “We virtually shot from sunup to sundown.”
At least once he fell asleep with the camera’s remote control in his hand.
What started out as a move to get away from the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center ended up being a labor of love.
First their book was published in 2006. Then they continued to work on a 45-minute documentary film, “First Flight — A Mother Hummingbird’s Story,” which was completed in May after editing more than 250 hours of footage.
With more than 40 years of special effects and fashion photography experience — his photo of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dalai Lama graced the December 1992 cover of Paris Vogue magazine — he envisioned that he could use unique angles and multiple cameras to absorb the birds’ beauty. A strategically placed mirror would bounce images back to the lens.
“Everything has to do with point of view,” he said, “especially with hummingbirds. If you understand what is about to happen, then you can be prepared. On some occasions, I’d set up two or three cameras. We were borrowing video cameras from our friends.”
At times, the delicate work was frustrating. A breath of wind could throw the frame out of whack, or Honey would hop out of view.
“The great thing about shooting stills is that nobody hears your profanity,” he said. What he learned was that hummingbirds were somewhat predictable and territorial with others of their kind but “usually not afraid of you.”
Sometimes, they would even hover close to Birthday, one of the couple’s cats.
“Most birds have repetitious lifestyles. They do things over and over as long as it works,” he said. “We knew she was going to come back and lay eggs.”
When she did, he said the conditions were superb. “That was pure luck. The morning light was perfect.”
His images of the hatching sequence in such detail is “truly magical footage,” according to John Klicka, curator of birds at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The camera view is straight down from over the nest, which is the size of a half English walnut shell. The nest, only big enough to hold two eggs the size of coffee beans, every spring has hatched a pair of hummingbird chicks after 17 days.
“If someone says what’s the secret in photographing hummingbirds, it’s look for the light. That’s the secret of all great photography and all great painting,” the 70-year-old photographer said.
Ideal light brings out the brilliance of the purple band on the male’s lower throat. In normal light it appears black, hence the name “black-chinned” hummingbird.
“But when the light hits the iridescent feathers, they sparkle like precious sapphires,” the CD’s jacket cover reads.
Noriko said the “First Flight” projects have been a welcome change in their lives since Sept. 11, 2001, another day that Don grabbed his camera and rushed to capture the moment.
That time, it was the tragic scene after the World Trade Center fell two miles away: the people and chaos. At the time they were living in a loft in Little Italy. “The whole neighborhood changed. It lost its energy,” he said.
Noriko recalled how they “started looking for a place to move. We were thinking of California but a friend said go to Las Vegas.”
Having grown up in Japan, she had never seen a hummingbird. “My friends in Japan and my parents don’t know how hummingbirds fly. They don’t have them over there.”
Noriko’s task was to assemble a collection flute, harp and acoustic guitar music to mesh with the floating, darting nature of the birds. She also narrated the CD and did the hand-held video camera work and editing. The audio selections are a meld of Spanish, Asian and American cultures, characteristic of their international lifestyle. They met in Bangkok airport in 1988.
A self-taught photographer, she said Don “learned from his mistakes” and drew on experience taking photos in Hollywood and Santa Monica, Calif.
“I never went to photography school and never learned the rules. If I could see it in my mind, I could do it,” Don said.
Once he tried to attend the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, but didn’t get in because he lacked a high school diploma.
“But I went back and lectured there in the mid-1980s,” he said about the center’s interest in his 1982 book, “Focus on Special Effects.”
The Carrolls’ next project is to turn the hummingbird work into animation for a children’s story.
“You’ve always got to experiment,” he said.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.R-J Video
More book and video information and hummingbird images can be found on Don and Noriko’s Web site