It’s not what you expect, but what you inspect, that counts…

Whilst driving, I’d seen Little Terns flying along the Kallang River in Singapore, and thought it would be a ‘mighty fine thing’ to try and shoot them as they were diving and catching fish.

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 10.13.18 am
Kallang river, Singapore… where Little Terns were fishing.

The Kallang River has several sections where you can walk alongside, and parts where you need to leave the banks and rejoin later where walkways recommence.

One late Saturday afternoon,  I encountered a place where I could walk no further and proceeded to try and rejoin the river a short while later.

So with camera, long lens, tripod and assorted other ‘gear’ slewn over my shoulder and in tow, I decided to take a short cut through an industrial area. There were many small factory and manufacturing units therein, though given the timing, few were at work and the usual production noise was incidental, rather than incessant.  As with most small Singapore industrial estates, there were plenty of trees around, though other vegetation is predictably missing.

Between two rows of units I walked quickly, eager to get to the riverside again to try and spot the terns.  Suddenly I heard a sharp, shrill “Chee”,  followed by a “chee-chee-wit” in quick succession. I knew this was an Olive Backed Sunbird (OBS). I knew that OBS’s had quite some reputation for being pretty and also for being somewhat fearless of humans; only a week or so before, I’d seen a pair nesting around 12 inches under an HDB apartment block ground floor window in Tampines. But in an industrial estate? There’s no food source for them here, in the main, is there?

I tried to trace the source of the birds’ call, as it was being sounded out, though intermittently. Eventually I saw, outside a factory unit, a potted plant. Just one. No other vegetation around to speak of, save for high trees. Just this one plant. And lo and behold, lit nicely in the falling afternoon sun, was a male Olive Backed Sunbird. He was merrily dancing between the few stems on this potted plant, digging his bill at the base of the flowers at times, to “steal” the nectar. I say “steal”, because when engaged in this piercing activity, (rather than trying to extract nectar from the top of the flower), the bird is not ‘fulfilling its’ symbiotic obligations’ through pollen transfer to other plants… no pollen is ‘transferred’ to the birds’ beak, head et al, and thus ongoing pollination can’t happen. The bird did, however, take nectar from the flowering bud entrances from time to time, so let’s forgive him.

Sunbirds are not exclusively nectarivores, (have a diet based on nectar). They predictably need protein, minerals, vitamins, amino acids too in order to survive, and nectar provides little or none of such things. The energy giving diet, therefore, is supplemented with insects, grubs, caterpillars and larvae, to provide nutritional balance.

As ever my camera gear was all “on” and ready to shoot, and whilst seeing the beautiful bird in this place was both unexpected and exciting, what immediately struck me was that this potted plant was positioned so that immediately behind it was a pink wall with grey framing.  A pink wall, with a plant that had pink flowers, wasn’t going to work… I needed to capture the bird with only the grey framing as a backdrop. And I needed to get down to ‘eye level’ with the bird too, as the plant pot was around 10 inches high and the plant a further foot above that. Shooting from my eye level wasn’t going to work, especially with my height. I quickly and quietly closed down the tripod to all but it’s lowest legs, knelt into position, and then lay down on the industrial site road. I’d not seen a vehicle nor heard one, so figured that for just a brief while, I’d be pretty safe. On top of that, a 6 foot 3 inch western guy, in camouflage gear, lying in the road looking through a camera viewfinder and with a long lens, IS going to get noticed! LOL. Thankfully I had no audience for this ‘spectacle’. With thoughts of becoming potential roadkill cast aside, I manoeuvred myself and the camera to ‘tighten up’ on the bird and have only the grey framing as the backdrop. In the interests of ‘getting the shot’, all that was in the space, of maybe 20 seconds. After all, there was only this one plant and the time the bird was likely to remain here was surely limited.

I pressed the AutoFocus button on the rear of my camera and into view came a few of the lovely pink flowering buds.  A small adjustment, and there he was!A39T7312-imp-imp

It’s rare that you can get such a clean background when photographing sunbirds, as typically they are in either branches of trees, hunting insects and the like, or in flowering plants in abundance and clumps- both make for busy backdrops. This day I got lucky. After taking a few frames in portrait mode, I thought a ‘landscape’ orientation might work better, so shifted slightly and turned the camera body and lens 90 degrees, to a more traditional position. I liked what the viewfinder was gifting me…


Sunbirds in Singapore are quite common, especially the Olive Backed Sunbird, featured here. Nonetheless, common or not, I think they’re gorgeous. I often hear it said that feathers around the throat on many sunbird species are iridescent. That’s an apt descriptor as an array of colours on some species is breathtakingly pretty and spanning the colour spectrum. In fact, a sunbirds’ feathers around the throat in many species, are not just wondrously colourful, but refractive. This is because  the feathers around the throat have prism- like cells that refract the available light, producing differing hues of the colour spectrum, depending on the birds’ position, the light source position, and your viewpoint. Mere pigmentation alone does not cause the variable colouration, though these prism like cells are mainly melatonin, which in itself is a pigment. This is a trait that sunbirds share with hummingbirds and at times it is tempting for an untrained observer to imagine a sunbird may in fact be a hummingbird, as it periodically ‘hovers’ when feeding. The sunbird has little of the hummingbirds’ adeptness in flight, however, and whilst a small bird, is far heavier than an average hummingbird. So hovering is a sunbirds’ stab at mastering flight, rather than an innate physical trait. Sadly we do not see hummingbirds in the wild, in Singapore – I wish! But I feel our variety of sunbirds adequately compensate for this.

So.  Did I manage to find the Little Terns and get some half decent shots of them? Yup!..  and that’ll be for a later blogpost. Yet even if I hadn’t, just finding this sunbird was more than enough to make my day. So beautiful. In such an unexpected place. Which leads me to leave you with a thought I hold dear when seeking out bird subjects to photograph, no matter where I  am…

“It’s not what you expect…

It’s what you INSPECT that counts”.

If you don’t go look, then surely you will not find.



3 thoughts on “It’s not what you expect, but what you inspect, that counts…”

  1. You sure know how to hook your readers. :). You include sound scientific knowledge, aesthetic abilities, suspense and thrillers and leadership principles in your writing. Enjoyed reading v much.

    Liked by 1 person

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