Jon Dunn clearly loves beautiful things – hot on the heels of his previous book, Orchid Summer, comes this account of travels in search of hummingbirds. Exquisite in appearance, pugnacious and characterful, hummingbirds are for some the most attractive and alluring birds on the planet.
The book’s ten chapters take the author from the world’s most northerly species – the Rufous Hummingbird Selasphorus rufus of Alaska – to the most southerly – the Green-backed Firecrown Sephanoides sephaniodes of Tierra del Fuego – via a grand tour of the Americas, through Arizona, Mexico, Cuba, and Central and South America. Through the author’s eyes, we are introduced to such wonders as the smallest bird in the world, Cuba’s Bee Hummingbird Mellisuga helenae, Peru’s extraordinary Marvelous Spatuletail Loddigesia mirabilis and Chile’s Juan Fernández Firecrown Sephanoides fernandensis, confined to the remote Pacific archipelago that inspired the story of Robinson Crusoe.
The author encounters a myriad of difficulties but nonetheless succeeds in seeing an astonishing diversity of hummingbird species. This, however, is no ‘ticking trip’ – the motivations are overwhelmingly aesthetic rather than acquisitive, and the target species are chosen carefully for their contribution to the wider tale. On the surface, this tale is a travelogue of a series of wonderful birding adventures, but the geographical progression throughout the book provides a perfect framework for much broader explorations of the places that hummingbirds occupy in our history, culture, art, literature and music. These are deftly woven into the narrative and are presented in extensively researched detail. The literary connections, for example, range widely from Henry David Thoreau through D. H. Lawrence to Ian Fleming.
The subtext of these explorations is often troubling and a story not so much of reverence for these charismatic birds but of greed, exploitation and destruction: the trade in hummingbirds for their supposed medicinal properties, and the rampant onslaughts of the Victorian collectors and the practice of faking ‘new’ species. Hummingbirds also suffer from more generic threats: deforestation, the introduction of invasive species and, of course, a changing climate. In many places, the author tells positive stories of conservation initiatives but the reader can only fear that such isolated actions may ultimately prove insufficient.
The Glitter in the Green is a real treat to read but also somewhat bittersweet. For those lucky enough to have seen hummingbirds, it will help to recapture something of the wonder they engender. For those yet to see one, it will surely act as a spur to do so. All readers, however, will come to share the author’s concern for the future of these glittering gems.