In mid-December 2009 I went to Heliconia Walk at Singapore Botanic Gardens to observe and photograph the sunbirds feeding on the heliconia flowers together with Jean René Croguennec. I had my camera focused on a particularly promising Heliconia psittacorum ‘Lady Di’ flower cluster. Not long after we arrived and to our astonishment, a male Olive-backed Sunbird flew into the flower I was targeting and began his mating display. Although I’d never witnessed this before it was unmistakable what he was doing.
The early part of his display was especially vigorous with him extending his apricot colored pectoral tufts, singing at the top of his lungs, and flicking his wings as if for added emphasis. This portion of the display lasted for about 30 seconds.
Then he stopped singing and flicking his wings but continuing to extend his pectoral tufts, at first fully but as time went on he relaxed even more and the pectoral tufts retracted. This portion of the display lasted for about 2.5 minutes. Then as suddenly as he arrived he flew off.
He really did look quite stunning with apricot tufts, yellow chest and deep blue iridescent gorget. Unfortunately for this little fellow there were no females around to witness this spectacle.
I had a hunch and went back to the same spot four days later. And without waiting long a male flew onto the exact same flower as before and began displaying again. But to my disappointment photographically, facing away from me. Overall the display was a bit shorter than on the first occasion but his luck was better this time as there was a female in the vicinity.
I returned several times subsequently but didn’t see him display again, so perhaps the display accomplished the task at hand and he found a mate. In my observations, this the commonest of sunbird species in Singapore, is the only one with this unique and spectacular display.
A version of this article was published in Nature Watch (a publication of Nature Society Singapore), Volume 10 No 2, Apr-Jun 2010. The first photo of this post was the cover shot.
This year, 2011, I was lucky again and saw a male Olive-backed Sunbird display near the entrance of my condo, but no camera and no photo!
Another bird watcher in Singapore has brought to my attention that he has found that the male Copper-throated Sunbird also displays his apricot pectoral tufts when courting.
And lastly and unfortunately, Heleconia Walk has been replanted with other species of heliconias, and the sunbirds have largely disappeared.