Bee-eater lives up to its name

rainbow bee-eater
Rainbow Bee-eater

As I’ve said before, Rainbow Bee-eaters (Merops ornatus) take small flying insects on the wing, swooping from their perch and returning to juggle their prey for consumption. I saw this bird fly from our neighbour’s power line and was just able to get a shot through foliage a minute later. Its prey is, appropriately, a European honey-bee.

Rainbow Bee-eaters in the city

Birds against the sky
Rainbow Bee-eaters arriving for the night

Rainbow Bee-eaters, Merops ornatus, are amongst our prettiest birds and I always look out for them hunting on the Town Common or in parklands beside Ross River – even, occasionally, in my own garden. I know they nest in holes in sandy river banks but I never thought about where or how they might spend the nights outside of the nesting season until one of my readers sent me an email asking whether I knew about them roosting in a “huge aggregation” beside Ross Creek in the city. I hadn’t known, of course, and was quite surprised by both the communal roosting and the inner urban location.

birds on bare twigs
Gathering to roost

It took me a week to find an opportunity to see for myself. The location was a narrow fringe of trees at the edge of Ross Creek, on the South Townsville side (in front of the Telstra building), and when I arrived half an hour before sunset the birds were already beginning to fly in. Numbers built up steadily over the next 45 minutes, most of them in one wattle tree but a few in nearby mangroves. As the evening grew darker and cooler they huddled closer together and deeper inside the tree, making an accurate estimate of numbers impossible; 50 or 100 might be a fair guess, and more may still have been arriving when I left.

birds in foliage
Rainbow Bee-eaters amidst the leaves. How many can you see?

A bit of time on the net revealed that the communal roosting behaviour is well known and the urban location not too unusual. In a study of their roosting habits around Darwin by Bellis and Profke, for instance, we read,

While breeding, Rainbow Bee-eaters tend to roost in pairs or in their nest (Fry 1984). Non-breeding birds, however, roost in trees in colonies of 30 or more birds (Warham 1957; Kloot and Easton 1983; Garnett 1985; Saffer and Calver 1997). Birds travel to the roost from their foraging grounds between 15 to 60 minutes prior to sunset, eventually settle down before dark and leave at dawn the following morning (Lord 1933; Warham 1957; Kloot and Easton 1983).

Bellis and Profke counted up to 300 birds in one roost, while Graeme Chapman (also in NT) estimated 1,000 at one Mataranka site. (His page is worth visiting for his wonderful photos, too.)

Rainbow Lorikeets share this roosting behaviour and are such a common sight around the city at nightfall that I automatically assume that a flock of greenish birds heading for a tree at dusk is a flock of lorikeets. I will look more carefully in future!

birds in tree
Settling down …
groups of birds perching together
Rainbow Bee-eaters snuggled together in the foliage

Kingfisher, Bee-eater, Lorikeets and Ibis

Yesterday, for some unknown reason, was an exceptional day for birds in my garden.

Sacred Kingfisher on power-line
Sacred Kingfisher, Todiramphus sancta
Rainbow Bee-eater on power-line
Rainbow Bee-eater, Merops ornatus

The day began well with these two beautiful small hunters. They are both the same size (Slater’s Field Guide says they are both 23cm long, a little smaller than the Rainbow Lorikeet) but the Bee-eater (see its front view here) takes insects on the wing while the Kingfisher takes larger, heavier ground-dwelling prey such as grasshoppers and small lizards.

Our big paperbark is in blossom and the Rainbow Lorikeets have discovered it. Flocks of them hurtle into the tree and … vanish. They are so brightly coloured that they should stand out like clowns at an undertakers’ convention, but somehow they don’t.

Rainbow Lorikeet
Rainbow Lorikeet in paperbark blossom

As well as all these, I saw (but didn’t photograph) a Sunbird, some Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (they’re in town for the Dry season), a Cuckoo-shrike and our usual Honeyeaters. Finally, standing at my front gate I saw these Ibis heading for the mangroves of nearby Ross River.

Three Ibis in flight
White Ibis, Threskiornis molucca, in flight

Rainbow bee-eater

Rainbow Bee-eater perched on power line
Rainbow Bee-eater, Merops ornatus

The Rainbow Bee-eater is a beautiful bird whose closest relations in Australia are Kingfishers and Kookaburras. (There are other bee-eaters overseas, but not here.) It is rather smaller than the Kookaburra but has similarly predatory habits – as its name suggests, it specialises in flying insects, which it takes on the wing.

I have seen them quite often in parklands near home but this, the first good photo I have obtained, was taken from my front gate; the bird was perching on our power line to eat his prey. (I saw him spit out the crackly bits afterwards, too, but just missed the shot!)

When I uploaded my picture of the Brown Honeyeater I mentioned the need for longer lenses for bird photography, and this and my recent Flying Fox photos are proof – taken with a borrowed 50-250 zoom lens, they show much more detail than I could have obtained with my 100mm lens.

More about bee-eaters: Birds in Backyards or Wikipedia.

Afterword: Well, I posted the above on Saturday morning and then decided to go down to Pallarenda and the Town Common because it was far too nice a day to spend indoors. While I was walking back along the track through the Common late in the afternoon I saw another Bee-eater fly in to perch in a tree ahead of me. He was kind enough to stay for his portrait, too. It was already a good day, but that made it even better.