As we move into winter, the local aloes are coming into flower, providing a splash of bright reds, oranges and yellows into the browning landscape.
While the bush loses its vibrant array of greens and takes on a more drab appearance, these flowering plants become an important micro-ecosystem attracting an array of insects. In turn, a suite of sunbirds are drawn in to maximise on the available nectar and protein in insect form.
Many people are familiar with hummingbirds as they are widespread across the Americas and are striking little birds. The smallest bird in the world is a bee hummingbird, weighing in around 2 grammes and sizing up at roughly 2,5 inches (6cm).
Sunbirds are Africa’s equivalent of the hummingbird family. Both occupy the same niche – ie. they both fulfil the same ecological roll as nectar eaters.
Hummingbirds (family Trochilidae) however are only found in the Americas whereas Sunbirds (family Nectariniidae) are found exclusively in Africa and Asia. This basically means that although these families of birds look almost identical, they are in fact completely unrelated and have come to look the way they do due to their habitats and habits being similar in a case of convergent evolution.
Sunbirds are prolific within the Londolozi Camps, particularly when the Aloes are in flower. This means that between game drives, one has the opportunity to take a walk and observe the fantastic array of iridescent colours flitting about around you quite easily. The key is to sit quietly and wait. Patience will then pay off.
There are 21 species of sunbird in southern Africa of which five are found at Londolozi. These include the white-bellied, collared, scarlet-chested, Marico and amethyst sunbirds. All are very different looking colour-wise but all have a long, decurved beak that is perfectly adapted for probing nectar out of tubular flowers. The tip of the bill is sharp and serrated for cutting through the edge of a flower to reach the sugary nectar within, if they cannot reach all the way down the flower. This is a sneaky adaptation that unfortunately for the flower means that pollination is sometimes avoided but the sugary reward is stolen!
Males of all species are brilliantly coloured with some form of iridescence. This is what makes them wonderful to photograph as with a glint of light, they take on a metallic shine. As they are quite territorial and very vocal, chances are at a good stand of aloes there will be quite a display from these little birds.
If one doesn’t take the time to observe, these will fly by without being noticed. Take one step further and there is a wonderful array of colourful insects all around us that may catch the eye too. There is a world of opportunity all around us waiting to be discovered…