If you enjoy watching the birds that visit your garden, then I am sure you will be quite familiar with the beautiful array of sunbirds that so often visit our flowering plants. In the Garden Route we can boast with at least six different species, including malachite sunbird, orange-breasted sunbird, amethyst sunbird, greater and Southern double-collareds, as well as the unmistakable Cape sugarbird (which is not a true sunbird). However, in recent years two additional species have colonised the Garden Route: the collared sunbird (Hedydipna collaris) and the grey sunbird (Cyanomitra veroxii).
The sunbird in the photograph is a (male) collared sunbird, or as it has been aptly named in Afrikaans: “kortbeksuikerbekkie”, which translates to “short-billed sunbird”, and was photographed where I spotted it along the Brown-hooded Kingfisher Trail near Wilderness. However, they have now been recorded as far west as Herolds Bay, and I won’t be in the least bit surprised if they have already started to colonise the Glentana/Great Brak area. These cute little sunbirds are actually little pirates! Although their bills are too short to reach the nectar in most of the nectar-producing flowers, they have learnt to use their sharp bills to pierce the base of the flower, thereby bi-passing the flowers’ reproductive parts. Therefore they don’t really aid the flowers when it comes to pollination (as other sunbirds do), but rather act as nectar thieves.
The grey sunbird is easily confused with the female greater double-collared sunbird, but if you look carefully, you will notice that the grey sunbird has a metallic grey sheen, rather than the brown-grey colour of the female greater double-collared sunbirds. Grey sunbirds also have a beautiful melodic call. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you will see a male grey sunbird displaying his bright red (pectoral) tufts, which instantly gives away his identity. It is amazing to note that these cheerful sunbirds have already spread as far west as Dana Bay! They are especially attracted to strelitzia flowers, and in particular Strelitzia nicolai, but they have also learnt to make good use of our nectar-feeders. They are now more common in our gardens than most people realise.
These new-comers have moved west from the Eastern Cape, where both the collared sunbird and the grey sunbird are birds of the subtropical valley thicket. They are equally happy in forest habitat, and can now also be found in most forest patches in the Garden Route. But besides that, we like to plant trees and shrubs that originate from the thicket biome of the Eastern Cape. I have already mentioned strelitzia, but we also plant plumbago, Cape honeysuckle, various aloes and trees such as the beautiful coral tree. So in a way we have recreated their habitat for them, and therefore they have adapted well to living in our suburban gardens. So from now on, keep a lookout, and you might be lucky enough to spot not only six, but eight different sunbirds visiting the flowers in your Garden Route garden.
Peter Ginn & Geoff Mcilleron, The Ultimate Companion for Birding in Southern Africa.