I saw my first Spiderhunter five years ago. I was looking for birds inside Satchori National Park in Habiganj. Although my guide and I had started early, we had scored few birds. It was close to noon and, knowing that birds are harder to find during mid-day, we decided to head out of the forest. With the sun directly overhead, the light inside the forest became dappled – mostly dark with spots of bright rounded patches where the sunlight broke through the foliage. The plants grew thick and tall on both sides of the trail and we kept scanning inside the forest for possible finds.
Suddenly we heard a sustained loud monotonous bird call, which-which-which-which, and presently saw fast movement on a rather thin branch of a medium-sized tree, a few yards into the forest. We stopped for a better look. There were two small birds with enormously long bills. They appeared to be playing with each other. After a few seconds, however, it became clear they were hunting as a team, searching and probing leaves and branches for insects, each covering a different direction. Darting from light to dark areas they were like a mirage and extremely difficult to photograph. One of them hovered in front of a flower while it probed inside with its bill. Then, for a brief moment, they sat on a thin branch and almost faced each other before resuming their search.
These were Little Spiderhunters, one of two types of Spiderhunters found in Bangladesh. Plainly coloured with olive upperparts and yellow underparts, their eyes have a pale, broken ring around them and their short brown tail has a thin white band. They are over 6 inches long, weigh about half an ounce with a bill that is 1.5 inches long. Year-round residents of Bangladesh, they dwell in the forests and areas of dense vegetation, particularly in Sylhet and Chittagong regions. They feed on nectar, insects and – as their name suggests – spiders, often extracting them from the centre of their webs. To drink nectar, they insert their bills inside flower and use their tubular tongue to sip like a straw. Fine serrations on the edge of their bills help them catch and hold spiders and smaller insects. Their global range runs through South, East and Southeast Asia.
The Streaked Spiderhunter, the other species seen in Bangladesh, is harder to find. It is seen almost exclusively in the forests of Chittagong area.
Worldwide there are thirteen species of Spiderhunters. They belong to the same family, Nectariniidae, as our Sunbirds. But unlike Sunbirds, whose males and females differ substantially in appearance, the male and female Spiderhunters look alike. Other than the outsized bill, Spiderhunters are less distinctive looking than Sunbirds.
In my experience, Spiderhunters spend their time inside the forest, where they hunt while making their loud noise. Occasionally they do emerge from the darkness. I was able to see the bird once from the watchtower at Satchori. It was a treat, watching its long bill gleaming in the sunlight as it hovered around a bunch of wildflowers growing on a vine while maneuvering itself into acrobatic positions so it could reach inside the flowers. But it lasted only for a few seconds after which it disappeared once again into the depths of the forest.
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