The other day I woke up to a sound that had obviously seeped into my unconscious mind and nudged it into consciousness. I opened my eyes and listened. A gurgling sound reached my ears and, recognising it, I sprang out of bed and stared out of our tiny bedroom window. It was very early and I couldn’t see them, but due to the absence of other city noises, I could hear them flying somewhere above the house. Autumn had come and the bee-eaters were migrating.
I first saw the European bee-eater (Merops apiaster) while researching the territorial behaviour of otters (Lutra lutra) in Evora, Portugal. This is my favourite photo of that first event:
Bee-eaters are migrant birds that winter in Africa and come up to Europe (further and further north every year) during the winter. As their name suggests they are avid insect munchers and you can often see them slapping a bee – or any other insect – with their beak against a branch before swallowing it. Their biology seems to tend towards the soap opera kind of life: they’re seasonally monogamous but have cooperative breeding (with brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts all helping out with the raising of new offspring); along with family feuds and daily adventures, their lives could very well be a potential for an ornithological Downton Abbey! And also they are just beautiful to see!
Interestingly, they build their nests in earth cliffs (most often the banks of rivers and streams) and burrow deep into the soil to find a safe spot for their young. To do this they dig for about twenty days and move up to eighty times their weight in soil. Impressive! In some parts of the world they are hunted for their meat (not surprising…nearly every living thing is eaten, somewhere!) although it seems to me like they’d be a hard mouthful to catch: bright rainbow-ed arrows dashing through the sky.
Last year I worked for a project in Cordoba (in the far south of Spain) whose goal was to study social behaviour in birds and, although we didn’t actually work with these colourful migrants, chances of seeing them were not sleek. Except for the first one of this post, all the other photos were taken then.
Difficult to see but fascinating to watch, this is probably the most colourful bird we have in Europe (not considering the illegal immigrants!), so next time you heard a gurgling sound above you look up and sharpen your eyes…you might just see a flash of colour in close pursuit of an insect, flying for its life!