Trees in Amazonia tend to flower annually and often at a very precise moment. This happens at the same period year after year, with all the trees in a single population of a given species coming into blossom simultaneously. This means cross-pollination of flowers from different individuals can take place, ensuring the intermingling of their genes. The trees produce flowers adapted to their pollinators so as to attract them in large numbers. The flowers are colourful, fragrant, or sweet and their forms are suited to insects, birds or bats, providing them with abundant food in accordance with their needs.

This article tells of the flowering of a tree that is frequently found in gardens in French Guiana, the Erythrina (also known in French as the Everlasting or Immortelle), Erythrina indica. This tree originally comes from south-east Asia and has been planted along tropical coastlines throughout the world as an ornamental plant. The tree we are interested in grows in a garden right next to the beach at the foot of Montravel. It is a very large specimen and no doubt fairly old, with its highest branches reaching about twenty metres above ground level.

In French Guiana the forest comes right up to the shoreline, juxtaposing the ocean in a living green wave buzzing with life, reaching the gardens and clearings. It is all around us and can be found in the hedges, bushes, copses, and trees. We rarely notice the complexity of these familiar parts of the landscape. We have a fundamentally different vision to that of an ant, lizard, or bird. We look at trees from an aesthetic standpoint if they are pretty, in blossom, or large enough to draw our attention, and only see fruit trees from an interested point of view. But for wildlife rather than being decorative they are a habitat, perch, source of food, and an environment. The blossom period offers the opportunity to spend time in a tree and observe the ever-changing face of nature.

We’re going to be looking at the birds here. The ants that live in its hollow branches, the passing butterflies, the bees busy gathering nectar, the many small invertebrate lifeforms that fly and scuttle around will be passed over in silence, despite being a vast realm bound up with the life of the birds and indirectly ours too. All these realms are interconnected, life being complex in its essence, and only rendered simple by ignorance.

The Erythrina starts flowering in early April. Not all of the branches come into blossom at the same time, and the process is spread out over more than one month. The lower branches are the first to be covered in big bright red flowers. Each inflorescence lasts ten or so days and gradually opens outwards providing easy access to pollinators.

The tree is pollinated by insects and hummingbirds. The many flowers are an important source of food for these birds. Trees such as this which flower annually are no doubt part of the local culture of the birds in the sector. They know where it is situated and come in large numbers to feed there when the flowers are open. During the ten days spent in the Erythrina eight different species of hummingbird were observed: the rufous-breasted hermit (Glaucis hirsutus), the black-throated mango (Anthracothorax nigricollis), the tufted coquette (Lophornis ornatus), the blue-tailed emerald (Chlorostilbon mellisugus), the blue-chinned sapphire (Chlorestes notata), the fork-tailed woodnymph (Thalurania furcata), the plain-bellied emerald (Amazilia leucogaster) and the glittering-throated emerald (Amazilia fimbriata). This was a stroke of luck, for whilst some of the species are commonly found in gardens and clearings, others are more forest birds and their coming to this tree indicates how mobile they are.

Each species of bird gathers the nectar in a different manner. Most of them do not spend long in the tree and are just passing through for the food. The tufted coquette for instance only came once in ten days. Others such as the plain-bellied emerald and the blue-tailed emerald come at regular intervals several times over the course of the day. From time to time an individual comes to feed and then leaves. The mangoes tend to use a perch in a nearby tree, on one of the dead twigs at the top. They stay there for a long while before rapidly coming and feeding. Within one minute they have visited several flowers and returned to their perch. They are comparatively large and generally choose the outer flowers which are easier to get to and are more exposed, often opting for those which are close to the top of the tree. The smaller species, the emerald and sapphires, tend on the contrary to visit the inner flowers right from the bottom of the tree through to the uppermost branches.

The presence of a large number of hummingbirds results in competition over the flowers. The most common species, the glittering-throated emerald, is also the dominant one. Several individuals take up residence in the tree and each defends its sector against all the other hummingbirds irrespective of species. Each has its own personal perch and spends a lot of time on it. The tree echoes with their song, a series of little rolled trills. They preen and watch the activity of the other birds in the tree. The male is more colourful than the female, as is the case with many species of hummingbird, but their colours are not always apparent. They first change colour depending upon the angle that the light strikes them. From the side they look dull green or brown. If they turn and face you, their throat lights up brilliant green. Another movement and the sides of the neck become turquoise blue. When perched they play with these colours, open their blue, green, and golden tails, sing and watch what’s going on around them as the branches dance in the sea breeze. They regularly take to the air to feed from the flowers in their sector. They are aggressive and territorial, resulting in many fights and aerial pursuits. But these do not last long, a few seconds at most, even if they can involve three or four birds chasing each other through the foliage. Although they are to rapid to fully appreciate with the naked eye, the protagonists show how skilled they are at flying, able to reverse, turn 180 degrees, veer sharply, fly quickly through the foliage, hover, ascend rapidly, or dart down at speed. Hummingbirds are the final word in flying, and burn up an awful lot of energy. They can reach such peaks of achievement because their diet is largely made up of the sugars of the flowers. In order to be pollinated the flowers have created the hummingbirds, but the hummingbirds have modified the flowers by their preferences and needs, in a process of joint evolution.

At the beginning of flowering a female glittering-throated emerald made a nest on a branch at the heart of the tree. On the first day of observation brooding was over and two chicks hatched. They were almost naked and the female often covered them. She just went from time to time to gather nectar and then came back to feed them. Whilst she was away the chicks remained hidden in the bottom of the nest, and they were so small you could hardly see them. Over the course of the days they grew bigger, and the female fed them more frequently, perhaps also giving them larger quantities, and then one of the chicks disappeared. The remaining one quickly grew, its plumage developed, with only a bit of duvet left on the head, accentuating the comical appearance young birds often have. It soon took up all the space in the nest. The female no longer covered it and came and perched on the side of the nest to feed it every half hour or sometimes every hour. And then one day it flew away and the female changed tree as there were no more flowers.

Many other species of bird also came to this tree. A couple of epaulet orioles (Icterus cayanensis) came several times a day to feed on the flowers. They always came together, arriving suddenly and calling out as they perched. Their vocabulary is composed of many little cries, whistles, and grating sounds. They ate the nectar of the flowers and were always on the move, going from one branch to the next. They only stopped in front of the flowers, always partially hiding, taking the nectar they wanted and changing flower again, calling out as they flew. The pair knew this tree and came from afar to visit it. After feeding they disappeared behind the distant rooftops. Perhaps they were using this food to raise a brood. They all live in the same landscape as we do but everything has a different meaning for them. We see beauty where the tree is making colour to attract the insects and birds that pollinate it, and they see it as a source of food.

The other species of birds which live in the tree use it as a perch to halt as they pass briefly through. Each species behaves differently on visiting the tree, some just halt for a moment, whilst others sing, or call, or preen, or rest. Looking back on them and taking them all together, these various different scenes combine to make up the daily life of the tree. Several species of tanagers visit the Erythrina. A silver-beaked tanager (Ramphocelus carbo) comes and perches nearly every day on one of the main branches for its morning song; a couple of blue-grey tanagers (Thraupis episcopus) briefly visit the crown after feeding at a nearby papaya, with their beaks still covered in orange pulp. A flock of palm tanagers (Thraupis palmarum) call out as they briefly visit, followed shortly afterwards by a couple of burnished-buff tanagers (Tangara cayana) who disappear into the canopy of Montravel. A pigeon, the ruddy ground-dove (Columbina talpacoti), comes to rest and preen for a few minutes before flying off towards the nearby dirt track looking for food. Other passerines species can be heard calling in the nearby clump of forest, such as a yellow-bellied elaenia (Elaenia flavogaster), a mouse-coloured tyrannulet (Phaeomyias murina), a great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus), and a red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus). As well as a little woodpecker (Veniliornis passerinus) visiting the branches, a noisy pale-breasted thrush in a hurry (Turdus leucomelas), two roadside hawks (Buteo magnirostris) come to finish their aerial combat, and a house wren (Troglodytes aedon), whose two fledgelings stay in the lower branches waiting for food.

Observing the upper part of the tree is rarely boring. Surprises can happen at any moment, hoped-for events, unexpected ones, and even ones you haven’t dreamt of. Sometimes it is just a different light, sometimes an instance of behaviour, a ray of sunlight, a bird resting, or a flower which breaks off and falls in the wind. You wait in hope, and hope springs from observing the banal. But banality recedes with full knowledge.