Encounter: Crimson Sunbird

A chance meeting with this charming sunbird kept our spirits high through the unpredictable Himalayan weather

In September 2010, on our way to the shrine of Madhyamaheshwar, we spent a night at the beautifully situated GMVN guest house at Ukhimath. It had been a year of catastrophic rains – an extremely heavy and extended monsoon had wreaked havoc on the roads and the landslides continued to pile up as more rain was forecast.

As we stood contemplating the ominous news that we had just received -- a part of the road leading to the starting point of our trek at the village of Uniana had been washed off -- we picked up a sunbird-like call from a bottle-brush tree beside the bungalow. 

Could it be the Green-tailed Sunbird? I had seen it at Chopta (2,900m) but this (at 1,130 m) seemed a tad low for either the Green-tailed or the Fire-tailed Sunbird. But it was also high for the ubiquitous Purple Sunbird that is so common in the plains. As we stepped out to scan the tree, we spied the unmistakable scarlet breast that glowed as if on fire in the rays of the morning sun. It was the Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja).

Though this sunbird is fairly common (it is found in the Western Himalayas, Sahyadris, and a race occurs in the Nicobar Islands), this was my first sighting. The bird was quite restless and kept flitting from the bottle brush tree to a large dense-canopied tree nearby. It made these sorties while vocalizing all the time. 

The bird has a crimson patch on the mantle and a yellow spot just above the rump but from the view that we had, the scarlet breast and throat merged into a rather drab grey-olive belly. The tail is greenish and much longer than that of the Small Sunbird or Crimson-backed sunbird (Nectarinia minima) which also has a much less curved beak. The Crimson Sunbird is supposed to have a preference for red flowers which may have been the reason for its multiple sorties to the bottlebrush, a plant introduced from Australia. It’s also a favorite of the Purple Sunbird (Nectarinia asiatica).

Pretty soon the staff of the guest house got interested and took turns gazing at the beauty – which was present at Ukhimath year-round but which they had probably never looked at so closely. Beaming with pride at our joy of a lifer, they said: “Uttarakhand mein aapko bahut sundar pakshi dikhenge” (you will see very beautiful birds in Uttarakhand). We knew they were right and in the days ahead their lighthearted quip kept our hopes high as we we negotiated blocked roads, incessant rains and imminent landslides to bird persistently in the Himalaya.

The Crimson Sunbird is the unofficial national bird of Singapore.