If you were not bedazzled by what is arguably Europe’s most beautiful bird this summer, you may now have to wait until next April. Most of our breeding birds have returned to Africa to spend the winter by early September, although stragglers from further north can pass through later. Exceptionally, single birds have been seen in winter in the Algarve.
Bee-eaters are very sociable. Flocks of between a dozen and up to fifty birds spend much of their time high in the sky in pursuit of large insects when their presence is revealed by the liquid “quelp . . . . quelp” contact calls. Much larger flocks form during the migration seasons. Their favourite prey, bees and wasps, are hunted nearer the ground in flower-rich open country, where dead trees and roadside wires provide launching pads for their sallies. After beating the head of the prey item against the perch, the abdomen is rubbed to release any venom. Some stings may be removed but others are swallowed, possibly to ‘top up’ immunity.
Bee-eaters’ colonial nests are in enlarged chambers at the end of long tunnels excavated in river banks, quarries and sometimes even flat, sandy ground. These can take a pair taking turns between ten and twenty days to complete. Holes in man-made structures are also occasionally used.
The northernmost representative of a large, mainly tropical, family, it is not surprising that Bee-eaters are most numerous in the hottest parts of Europe. In Portugal they are commonest in the south and south-east, with the open plains of Alentejo Province attracting the largest numbers. Numbers in Iberia have declined over the last century, but global warming is probably responsible for a recent northerly extension of their breeding range and ‘pioneer’ pairs have even nested in Britain. I saw my first at Selsey Bill in Dorset in the early sixties, but it knew it had ‘overshot’ and I watched it head back out over the Channel just after dawn.
The slightly larger Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, with greener plumage, breeds in Africa as far north as southern Morocco and occasionally reaches Europe. I have seen two in the Algarve in the last four years, so it may be occurring more frequently as the climate becomes more ‘North African’ in type.