I'VE ALWAYS wanted to see a hummingbird close up, in the wild, not in the zoo. A friend told me it was easy.

Just go to the hemlock on the corner of 77th Street and MacArthur Boulevard in Cabin John, he said. A guaranteed sighting.

Sure he was kidding, I took the chance anyway, heading out MacArthur past Glen Echo, past the one-lane bridge and Captain's Market. And there it was, a big hemlock hugging the side of the old red house on the corner. A dozen or more red nectar-feeders hung from the lower branches like Christmas ornaments. But I didn't see any birds.

I got out for a closer look. As I walked toward the feeders, I heard what sounded like an electric fan buzz past my shoulder. Before I could turn, the sound was gone.

The source of the noise sat perched on a feeder right before my eyes. This was my first close encounter with the smallest bird on the East Coast -- the ruby-throated hummingbird. Just over three inches long, the young male weighed no more than three grams -- about 150 birds to the pound.

I was amazed that he held his ground. He didn't budge although I was just inches away.

Out of nowhere, another hummingbird buzzed past, forcing the first from his perch. I was about to witness aerobatics straight out of "Top Gun," a hummingbird dogfight.

If that wasn't enough, four other birds materialized to take a turn at the feeders. And there I was, nine miles (as the crow flies) from the White House, surrounded by no fewer than six hummingbirds.

But that wasn't all. Just around the corner, in front of the house, were a dozen more feeders -- full of goldfinches, house finches and all sorts of woodpeckers, including the pileated, North America's largest (except for the ivorybill, which may be extinct).

There was even an aluminum purple martin house with a dozen chirping swallows sitting on the roof.

What is this place?

It's neither zoo nor nature center -- it's the Wild Bird Center, a store catering to the fancies of backyard birdwatchers. The proprietor, George Petrides, gave me an update on the hummingbird situation.

"We've got hundreds of customers reporting backyard sightings all over the area," he said. "Margaret Richardson has them on Tilden Street NW. John Gibney's got them in Vienna, Brian Condon in Potomac and Colleen Bergeron has them in Gaithersburg."

How'd they get them? With red flowers and a feeder full of sugar water.

"Be sure to keep your feeders clean," Petrides said. "Put out fresh nectar every two or three days, and run your feeders through the dishwasher at least once a week."

It doesn't take long for the nectar to ferment in summer heat, he said. Hummingbirds drink about half their weight in nectar each day, and fermented foods can kill them.

I left the store with a feeder, a box of instant nectar and a free publication about hummingbirds. I hung the feeder on the red impatiens plant hanging outside my kitchen window. I really didn't think I'd see any.

I was wrong. The next morning, a female ruby-throated showed up. She's been coming about every 10 minutes ever since. WINGING IT

FEEDERS

for hummingbirds are made of glass, plastic and pottery. Consider where you'll hang it when you decide on material. Ceramic and bottle feeders with glass tubes may drip in the sun; feeders with trays on the bottom do well in both sun and shade; those that attach via suction cups directly to a window may drip on the sill, and if the seal breaks they fall to the ground. Plan to clean the feeder at least twice a week.

FOOD:

The nectar formula is simple: Measure 1/4 cup sugar into a cup and fill with boiling water. Some books recommend using honey for its nutritional value, but honey also can harbor a fungus that hurts hummingbirds' tongues. One manufacturer sells a liquid nectar fortified with vitamins and minerals. There's no honey in it, so it won't harm the birds. But there's no scientific evidence that wild hummingbirds need or prefer fortified nectar. Wild birds that frequent feeders get their protein and nutrients from natural sources. Stick to table sugar.

RED DYE:

Hummingbirds are attracted to anything red -- flowers, clothing, lipstick. For years people who feed hummingbirds have added red food coloring to the nectar in their feeders.

INSECTS

are inevitably attracted to sugar and water -- bees, wasps and ants. No matter how annoying, don't use insecticides -- they kill hummingbirds, too. Try putting salad oil on your feeder hanger to deter the ants. Most feeders come with bee guards, small plastic mesh caps for the feeding portals. They keep the bees and wasps from getting to the nectar, but they don't keep the insects from crowding the hummers. The easiest solution is to put out more feeders; the plastic tubes cost only $2.95.)

MIGRATION:

Ruby-throated hummingbirds winter along the Gulf of Mexico, as far south as Panama. They begin the trip in September. Many people stop feeding the birds in September, saying they don't want to keep the birds past migration. There's no evidence that the presence of feeders keeps hummingbirds from migrating (and they may help the little travelers refuel for the long haul); leave the feeders out until the birds stop coming. HUMMINGBIRD HELP

Here are some places -- aside from your local hardware store -- to find hummingbird feeders and other equipment:

AUDUBON NATURALIST SOCIETY BOOKSHOP --

1621 Wisconsin Ave. NW (337-6062) and 8940 Jones Mill Road, Chevy Chase (652-3606).

CHESAPEAKE FEED --

Muirkirk Industrial Center, off U.S. 1 south of Laurel. 953-2433 or 301/792-0150.

H.B. HUMMERS --

1455 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (Willard Hotel arcade). 638-3187.

ONE GOOD TERN --

1710 Fern St., Alexandria. 820-8376.

WILD BIRD CENTER --

7687 McArthur Blvd., Cabin John. 229-3141.

WILLIAMS FEED & GARDEN SHOP --

447 E. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg. 948-9222.