Amethyst, iridescent greens and violets amongst Aloes

I want to thank Brian Bartmann for telling me about the sunbirds at Aloe Farm. A group of us,  were sitting chatting after breakfast at Kitchwa Tembo in the Masai Mara in January 2015 . We could not go anywhere as it was very overcast and the light was unusually low so we sat around chatting – as photographers do. We were discussing where we could go to keep “photographically fit” in between our big trips. Brian told me that the aloes were spectacular in May and that Aloe Farm was a sought after spot for photographers. Last May, Helen and I decided to take a drive out to Aloe Farm just past Hartebeestpoort dam on the way to Sun City in the North West Province of South Africa. Aloe Farm is an extensive nursery specialising on, you guessed it, aloes. They were very welcoming to photographers and their extravagant selection of aloes were in full bloom in May. Birds or not, we were assured of a spectacular display of vibrant colours.

There are 21 species of sunbirds found in southern Africa and they all belong to the Nectariniidae family because of their preference for nectar. Referencing Newman’s and Robert’s bird books there are five main types of sunbirds found on the Highveld in South Africa, the Greater double-collared, White-bellied, Black or Amethyst, Scarlet-chested and Marico Sunbirds. The remaining 17 types are location specific and found mainly in the coastal regions.

“When sunlight, which contains red, yellow, green, and blue light, shines on a mud puddle with oil on it, the areas that strongly reflect each of those colours overlap and produce all kinds of combinations which our eyes see as different colours…This phenomenon of colours produced by the partial reflection of white light by two surfaces is called iridescence, and can be found in many places…the more you see how strangely Nature behaves, the harder it is to make a model that explains how even the simplest phenomena actually work.”
~ Richard Feynman

I was not sure which types of sunbirds were were likely to see, but once at Aloe farm there were two predominant species that day, the White-bellied and Amethyst or Black Sunbird. They were accompanied by numerous types of bumble bees, honey bees and butterflies.

When photographing sunbirds on aloes the backgrounds will inevitably be busy. It is difficult to isolate the sunbird so I tried to include the vibrant colours of the aloes. The first image is of a adult male White-bellied Sunbird sucking nectar from the lowest flowers on this aloe inflorescence. They are the flowers which seem to ripen first.


All sunbirds are very talkative and size counts.  The males all have bright iridescent coloured feathers which radiate in the sunlight, and the colour changes all the time as the angle of the light changes when the birds move around.


From a photography point of view, the sunbirds are stunningly beautiful with colour combinations which you would never have thought of and the aloes add dazzlingly colourful backgrounds.


These little sunbirds were very quick so you need fast reactions to get reasonable images. The direction of the light was crucial to display the true colours of these little gems of the natural avian world.


This adult male White-bellied Sunbird was perfectly adapted to probing the long deep flower of the Aloes. Sunbirds are mostly small birds with long thin down-curved bills which are very well adapted for extracting nectar from flowers. They have long tongues, which can protrude past the tip of their beaks. The tongue can fold into a tube to produce a sucking action to collect the nectar.


“Nature has many scenes to exhibit, and constantly draws a curtain over this part or that. She is constantly repainting the landscape and all surfaces, dressing up some scene for our entertainment. Lately we had a leafy wilderness; now bare twigs begin to prevail, and soon she will surprise us with a mantle of snow. Some green she thinks so good for our eyes that, like blue, she never banishes it entirely from our eyes, but has created evergreens.

~Henry David Thoreau

This was a sub-adult male Amethyst Sunbird feeding in amongst “ice cream” Aloes.


Although we only got to see two species of Sunbird the whole day, the backgrounds provided endless variety.


A male Amethyst Sunbird looking very serious about its position on an aloe leaf. The Amethyst was much larger than the White-bellied Sunbird and often bullied it away from the florescence.


This male Amethyst Sunbird had its tongue out, savouring the nectar it had just suck out of an aloe’s corolla.


A variety of hummingbirds have straight or even slightly upturned bills, while sunbirds, honeycreepers and honeyeaters’ bills are decurved to differing degrees. The sunbird’s tongue collects nectar in the flowers by capillarity, and is capable of high speed licking rates. Although this licking behaviour has not been extensively studied, the speed of licking is thought to respond to changes in sugar concentration and the flower’s corolla length.


Where maximum floral lengths exceed bill lengths, hummingbirds, sunbirds and honeyeaters protrude their tongues beyond the tips of their bills to access the nectar. Rates of nectar extraction, however, decline rapidly once the floral length exceeds bill length. Decurved bills are thought to have evolved in sunbirds to enable perching birds to reach flowers at the ends of branches more easily. Consistent differences in bill length between the sexes suggest that males and females may exploit different flowers and different parts of the flower. Sunbird males have longer bills than females, but the opposite is true for many hummingbirds.


Many sunbirds are known to defend feeding and breeding territories; males will sing from a prominent perch and chase intruders, including those of other species.

“When bright flowers bloom
Parchment crumbles, my words fade
The pen has dropped …”


Pollination is an important process in nature. Plants have made many adaptions to promote pollination using wind, animals, bats, birds, water and insects. Plants and birds appear to have adapted to reinforce this symbiotic relationship to mutually benefit each other for food and reproduction. The birds that are specially evolved for ornithophily (process of pollination of a flower by birds) are the hummingbirds (Trochilidae) seen in the American continents, honey-eaters (Meliphagidae) seen in Australia and sunbirds (Nectariniidae) in the areas falling between.


Sunbirds are a group of small birds and their size ranges between 10-22 cm. They are diurnal and many have bright iridescent colours but their most important characteristic is their down curved beak, which in some species exceeds the length of the head.


Male sunbirds appear to change colour as they move around because of their iridescent feathers, which reflect according to the direction of the light. Although Hummingbirds fulfill a similar role to sunbirds they have quite different flight and feeding techniques. Sunbirds are much slower in flight and usually perch when they sip. They can hover but are more like any other bird in flight.


The flowers of aloes are grouped in candle-like or cone-shaped inflorescences, which can be branched or simple. The most common shape of flowers found in aloes is tubular, although some species have curved or even bell-shaped flowers. Flowers are typically brightly coloured and most often in various hues of red, orange and yellow, but there are also some species with green, pink or white flowers. The vast majority of aloes flower in winter,


Aloe Adrienne is a vigorous, medium sized Aloe with bi-coloured flowers in mid-winter.

“There is no glory in star or blossom till looked upon by a loving eye; There is no fragrance in April breezes till breathed with joy as they wander by.”

~William C. Bryant

Sunbirds are sexually dimorphic. The males are very colourful while the females and young are dull coloured


When the sunbird probes the corolla of the flower and extends its tongue, the grooves along the tongue facilitate the capillary action necessary  to automatically extract nectar without expending too much energy. When the bird is drinking nectar, it looks to be lapping up nectar. High-speed photography shows that tubes develop along the sides of the tongue as it penetrates the nectar, and then closes around the nectar, trapping it so it can be sucked back into the beak. Sunbirds have long thin down-curved bills and brush-tipped tubular tongues, both adaptations to their nectar feeding


Sunbirds have two kinds of plumage – breeding and eclipse. In their breeding plumage, males become very colourful and iridescent. Some species even have a yellow and orange tufts of feathers (pectoral tuft) on either side of each wing. During courtship displays, the male raises its head, fans its tail and flutters with partly open wings that expose the pectoral tufts and sings before the female. It is also observed that in some species, the pectoral tufts are intentionally exposed even while sleeping. Eclipse plumage is evident during the non-breeding season. The males revert to looking dull like females, but with remnants of breeding plumage in patches or with a dark line running down from the throat and  middle of the chest. Source:


“Night was falling. Birds were singing. Birds were, it occurred to me to say, enacting a frantic celebration of day’s end. They were manifesting as the earth’s bright-colored nerve endings, the sun’s descent urging them into activity, filling them individually with life nectar, the life nectar then being passed into the world, out of each beak, in the form of that bird’s distinctive song, which was, in turn, an accident of beak shape, throat shape, breast configuration, brain chemistry: some birds blessed in voice, others cursed; some squeaking, others rapturous.”
George Saunders

This adult male White-bellied Sunbird was feeding from a Aloe  called “Little Joker”, which is a hybrid made up from eight different Aloe parents.


The grooves on the tongues of sunbirds vary in volume with body size such that the tongues of larger sunbirds could hold more nectar. However, the tongues of sunbirds appear to hold less nectar than those of smaller species of hummingbirds. The nectar in flowers visited by sunbirds is normally located at the base of a tubular corolla.


While sunbirds feed largely on nectar, they will also take insects, especially when feeding young. Fruit is also part of the diet of some species. 


A Pansy butterfly also found the  “Bafana” Aloes attractive.  The sexes of Pansies differ slightly in that the females are slightly bigger, have more rounded wings and are more colourful and have bigger eyespots – sounds quite human! This aloe is by far the best aloe to attract sunbirds.


“Think and wonder,

Wonder and think.”

~Dr Seuss

A juvenile Amethyst Sunbird


While sunbirds usually forage for nectar when available they will also hawk insects. They will hawk flying insects from a lookout spot in the trees or bushes, but will also pluck them from leaves and branches. This adult male White-bellied Sunbird seems to be combining his sweet taste with savory insects.


Sunbirds do no harm at all to anyone, they do not damage anything, and they are essential to plants as pollinating agents, for which some plants have specially adapted their flowers.

“Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul.”

~ Henry Ward Beecher

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


4 thoughts on “Amethyst, iridescent greens and violets amongst Aloes

  1. Beautiful post Mike; nothing more frustrating yet rewarding at the same time as photographing small and busy birds! What’s the secret – fast shutter speed, high FPS and fast memory card?

  2. Hi Maurice – you are right 1/5000th or higher so you need good light and high iso capabilities. Memory cards above 1000x and a decent buffer. All sounds technical but the eye is still the critical element. Watching you blog with interest!! Best wishes Mike

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