Friday, March 22, 2013

All The Colours of a Rainbow - European Bee-eater

Like me you have probably often flicked through books and bird guides thinking I would love to see that bird, or in my case put one in front of the camera. I would guess that your attention has also probably been drawn most to birds that are slightly unusual in shape, or behaviour or are very colourful. One bird that has always 'stood off' the page to me from an early age is the European Bee-eater purely on the basis of its riot of mixed colours which always seemed so 'exotic' compared to the more muted hues of many UK birds.

Having said that and having now spent so many hours in close proximity to less colourful UK species, my appreciation has grown of the beauty that can be seen in both form and subtle variations and patterns of plumage.

Unfortunately the European Bee-eater is a bird that rarely appears in the UK except for the occasional vagrant that turns up along the east coast. So my only chance to see one would be to head either southwards or eastwards or preferably both. Last summer I took a week long bird photography trip to Hungary in eastern Europe which was truly amazing and high on the list of species to photograph was at last the enigmatic bee-eater.

The bird life in Hungary is in a different league from the UK. As I travelled across the country to the eastern Hortobagy region there were two very obvious reasons why the numbers of birds was so much greater.  Firstly the insect life was much more abundant, partly due to a warmer climate, but the really striking feature was the better quality of bird habitat provided by less intensive farming practices. Instead of fields ploughed to the very edge to extract every last pound of crop from it, there were broad margins of natural vegetation, trees had been left and drainage was open reed filled channels that snaked across multiple feeds providing connecting corridors. Its not rocket science to help birds by providing good habitat and the decline of many species in the UK must surely be the result of economic pressures that accompany modern farming practices.
Oops I have digressed, back to mission to see and photograph Bee-eaters. Well I had been in Hungary for 6 days before it was time to visit the bee-eater colony. We set out later than usual that morning and were driven half an hour west before we came off the main road and followed a dirt track around to a small hide (blind) set up next to a sand bank where the birds excavate their nest burrows. As we moved the kit into the hide the distinct calls of the birds could be heard and they could be seen gliding round at distance on stiffened wings plucking insects from the air. Our driver said he would be back in 2 hours. 2 hours!! I had waited years to see and photograph these birds and now I had a such a short-time with them. As a result we arranged for another very brief session en route to the airport for the flight home the following day.

A butterfly for breakfast.
The photo below shows a pair with the female on the left showing disinterest to the advances of the male.
He flew off and came back with a large wasp which he gave to the female.
She ate the wasp but was still  impressed with his efforts. So off he went again and returned with a small bee as a gift.
That did the trick.
The first sight of a bird landing in front of the hide was memorable. If there is an ancient tale of how these birds got their colour then now doubt it involves a white bird that flew back and forth through the arc of a rainbow.

Given the limited time available I needed to get camera busy. The birds were coming in regularly both with and without prey. Suddenly I heard geese and then I heard a dog and in front of us, making their way down the track, was a farmer with hound and in front of them a flock of around 300 geese on course to go right past the colony. This disturbed the birds for around 30 minutes. 30 minutes later the honks of geese return they all came back past once again. The limited time had now been cut in half!
Once the birds settled back down I decided to get some photos of birds coming in to land, given that shots against the flat white sky were not going to look great.
Another bird returns with a bee. No flying insect is safe from the efficient aerial predation of a bee-eater.

I did enjoy my brief time with the bee-eaters and they make a great photographic subject as they also show some very interesting behaviour. I suppose the shine was taken a little off them by being forced in to such a brief time with them to fully appreciate their splendor and having already been thoroughly spoilt by seeing so many amazing birds during the previous 6 days of my trip. I guess at this point you may be wondering what bird could I have seen that could have beaten the the bee-eater in terms of amazing colour? Well in my opinion the answer to that is below.....the European Roller.
In 70 days time (not that I'm counting or anything) I will be returning to eastern Europe again. This time I am heading a little further east in to Romania where I am sure some more bee-eaters are likely to find their way in front of the camera. Hopefully if they do it will be a  less rushed affiar giving me time to fully appreciate them for beautiful bird that they are.


  1. Bonita serie del Abejaruco y muy bonita la captura de las Carracas.Saludos

  2. This has to be one of the coolest birds out there. You caught so many great shots! Perfect detail.

  3. Stunning photos, Richard. This must have been such an incredible trip for you. Congrats on not only seeing your dream bird but capturing so many wonderful images.

  4. Excellent post filled with exquisite photographs! Truly stunning birds!

  5. Wonderful and amazing photos! sorry your time with them was so short! How wonderful to realize a childhood dream!