Sunbird Letters

A series of letters to family and a friend about the sunbirds.

Subject: Hello!
Date: Sat, 16 May 1998 16:28:40 +0800
From: Michael Hartley
To: family

hello all!

News: Some birds have taken to building a nest just outside my window. I don't know what type they are, but they are smaller than a swallow, they have long, slightly curved beaks, their plumage is greenish dark brown on the back and wings, with a yellow front. The head of the smaller one is darker than that of the other.

They have hung their nest off my clothesline, so when I do my washing I'll have to be careful not to disturb them. The nest looks like a rounded bottle with a hole in the side, and is made up of whatever scraps they could find - a few twigs, but mostly nylon thread and discarded tissues and cigarette packaging. Also, some brown stuff that they seem to have manufactured themselves.

It's wonderful! I've been able to take a few photos in the dim morning light - they don't seem to be scared of me if I move slowly enough. I'm looking forward to when the female lays her eggs, and hatches them.

Should be very good...

Subject: Bird
Date: Sun, 24 May 1998 21:09:38 +0800
From: Michael Hartley
To: family


The birds seemed to abandon the nest for a while, but now they have come back (or at least one of them has). It is now sitting patiently inside the nest, with just its beak poking out. The hole faces my window directly. This is not such a wonderful thing - first of all, it makes it very hard to photograph inside the nest (the window, as Ross and Sandie will tell you, does not afford a clear view of the outside), secondly, it is hard to open the window without disturbing the guest.

I still don't know why it went away for a while - perhaps to wait while the eggs formed, I don't know. Perhaps I can find out from the internet somewhere....

I have used up half a roll of film so far. I shall email the best pictures, when they are developed.

Subject: News...
Date: Mon, 01 Jun 1998 21:08:08 +0800
From: Michael Hartley
To: family

The eggs have hatched! After leaving the nest empty for a week, the mother bird came back and became resident, sitting on the nest during the nighttime. To my surprise, she would sometimes leave it during the day. I always had this image that a mother bird was making a full-time commitment to sit down on the eggs for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, until hatching time. Too many documentaries about Antarctica, and Footrot Flats cartoons about brooding hens, I think. I guess that in the tropical weather, the egg won't die if left unattended for a half hour here and there.

I snuck onto the balcony yesterday when the mother was absent, and shone a torch inside the nest, because I wanted to see how small the eggs were. To my shock, I saw no eggs; instead there was an ugly-looking pink blob squirming away from the light. A chick! So far: 1 week nest-building, 1 week "gestation" or whatever the avian equivalent is, and 1 week egg-sitting.

The inside of the nest seems to be lined with white - I assume that the white is feathers - I know that the birds obtained some small white feathers from somewhere - but it may be nylon, of course. I have used up one roll of film, but I haven't had time at work to scan in the best photos yet. People keep asking me how long it has been since I did any washing.

I have been able to confirm that the birds eat from flowers, since I saw 3 or 4 of them in a flowering bush across the road.

 yOURS, mIKE h...

Subject: News!
Date: Mon, 01 Jun 1998 21:45:02 +0800
From: Michael Hartley
To: a friend

A pair of birds have made their nest outside my window, hanging from my clothesline. People keep asking me "Wah! How long since you last did your washing??!" Don't u start!! They are the small birds with the yellow front and the long beak. The head of the male is darker than that of the female. The nest is like a rounded bottle, with the hole facing my window. Although the birds could find a _few_ twigs, their main building materials were discarded tissues, paint chips, nylon string and used cigarette packaging. It's fantastic! I've used up a whole roll of film already, and hope to make electronic versions of the best photos. After a week building, the birds seemed to abandon the nest for a week - I was afraid it would be permanently, but then the mother came back. She sat in the nest at night, but during the day would fly off for a while now and then... now, her eggs have hatched! I got a torch and snuck out onto the balcony once when the mother was absent, and shone it into the hole, wanting to see how small the eggs were. To my shock, instead of a neat stack of eggs, I saw a writhing pink blob, trying to escape from the light. A baby bird! I now have some more sensitive film, and look forward to watching the progress of the new family as the weeks go by. Would you have any idea what the name of this kind of bird is???

Ok - better go now...

Yours, MIke H...

Subject: Sunbirds
Date: Mon, 08 Jun 1998 22:31:42 +0800
From: Michael Hartley
To: family


I found out the name of the bird, by asking on the internet newsgroup "rec.birds". Check out the thread entitled "What tropical bird is this". If you don't where to look, go to and search for "tropical bird"

 Anyway, the bird is called an "Olive-Backed Sunbird". Its scientific name is "Nectarina Jugularis", and apparently it is also found in the tropical parts of Australia, where it goes by the name "Yellow-Bellied Sunbird". Does dad have a book on birds of Australia? If so, there may be a picture in there... Failing that, there is a painting on the net at [MH : link broken] - check it out!

As I mentioned, the eggs have hatched. Both male and female help out in the feeding, but they have become much more circumspect in approaching the nest - instead of flying straight there, they will land far off, then land nearer, then close by, all the while looking to see if there is any evidence at all of humans about.

I was able to get my first proper glimpse of the chicks this morning - They are large enough to be seen through the hole when they extend their necks for food. Their beaks are quite short at the moment, compared to the parents.

This afternoon, someone who thought the nest had been abandoned cut it off the line - until to their shock they saw the chicks inside! They quickly did their best to stick it back to the clothesline with sticky tape. It seems to have worked - the mother is on the nest now - uncomfortably so, because her kids keep squirming around underneath her. I guess it will get more like that as the weeks go by.. :-)

Subject: Sorry no email...
Date: Sat, 20 Jun 1998 14:42:45 +0800
From: Michael Hartley
To: family


Sorry I've been silent for a while - my computer died, and so I spent last weekend trying to fix it... It's getting better now, but still not perfectly in working order...

Anyway - the big news is that the birdlings have finally left their nest. It appears that there were two daughters, but I'm not sure, because maybe the plumage changes colour after they leave the nest. I walked out one morning and saw that one of the two young birds was sitting on the balcony - he had stunted-looking wings and tail, but he (or she) was still able to fly - clumsily! The first time I saw him fly was when I got too close, and he took off in an arc that ended suddenly against the window. In his next flight, he got halfway across the road before "chickening" (pardon the almost-but-not-quite pun) out. One interesting thing is that the parents still came to feed the chick after it had left the nest! And to toilet-train it... The birds have this gross habit - So that they don't mess up the nest, when the young one wants to go, he turns around in the nest, and then does his business, which the adult bird catches in his/her beak before flying away with it.

When I got back after work, the nest was empty - I suspect it is in fact abandoned now that the cycle is over...