A variety of sunbirds visit our garden in winter.
Early winter brings splashes of colour to the garden as the blue felicia’s compete with pink and white proteas, the orange and pink gladiolas and the first yellow gazanias of the season. But red is the only real contender for your attention as hundreds of aloe flowers are pointing their heads through the foliage to reach the sun. Clearly visible from a distance, they are like beacons, or arrows, pointing a variety of sunbirds to the right place and bringing a profusion of colour to our garden at the lower slopes of the mountain.
The scene repeats itself a few times a day and usually starts with the arrival of the lesser double collared sunbird. As in the case with most other birds, the female is rather dull in colour, but the male looks as if he belongs on an old fashioned jewellery box with his bright green head and back and a distinct shimmering red and blue band across his chest. He swoops down onto the cluster of aloes and hovers excitedly in front of a few flowers, loudly exclaiming his pleasure at the bounty he stumbled upon. Hopping from flower to flower he finds a perch to balance on as he uses his long curved beak to extract the nectar from deep within the flower and only pauses long enough between sips to continue his song.
But he has to work fast and only manages to feast on a few flowers. His excited singing has alerted a contender for the prize: a male malachite sunbird. Double in size from beak to tail tip, the malachite is not only visually bigger and brighter, his whole attitude is superior to the little bird as he makes his presence known. In the world of local sunbirds, the malachite is king. Apart from his bright yellow pectoral tufts, his entire body shimmers a luminescent green similar to the gemstone he is named after and he boasts a magnificent tail almost double the length of his body. Aggressively proclaiming his territory, he screeches loudly and displays his dominance in spectacular flight, continually showing off his bright yellow arm-pits and in so doing chases away the lesser double collared sunbird and wins the battle.
Proud and brave after his victory, the malachite sunbird enjoys a leisurely feast with enough time to look for bees, moths and other insects to supplement his meal. Catching them from mid-air, often displaying great feats of ‘aerobatics’ in the process, he darts between aloes until he’s had his fill, gets distracted and moves on to another flower filled shrub.
Peace will descend for some minutes, allowing time to move your gaze beyond the garden to the shimmering ocean below. Watching the waves break along the shore, it’s easy to let you mind drift away until you observe a shimmering bright flash of green accompanied by happy birdsong and the start of the second round in the battle of the birds.