Saturday, April 24, 2010

One swallow does not make a summer, but a Bee-eater does!

Had Aristotle lived in Iberia he might just have been tempted to associate summer with the Bee-eater, but in the Balkans they arrive later than in these parts and the Swallow got the part.

Bee-eaters started to return from Africa at the end of March (see post of 30th March) and soon got down to the business of excavating nest holes or widening old ones (post of 2nd April). St Bee-eater's Day (10th April), the day Irby considered most passed overhead, went by and by St George's Day the colonies were well established and in full swing. It gave me an opportunity to photograph these incredibly photogenic creatures.

It is hard to know just how many Bee-eaters there are. A recent estimate put the Spanish population at over 100 thousand pairs but this may be an underestimate. If these figures are correct the European population may be around a quarter-of-a-million pairs, nearly half living in the Iberian Peninsula.

Bee-eaters spend much of their lives in the air, hawking for all kinds of large insects, not just bees. They are agile and swoop swiftly at unsuspecting prey.

Insects, their sole diet, are the limiting factor to their distribution which does not go beyond the 21C isotherm. They breed in south-west Europe, central and eastern Europe, East-Central Asia and in North-west Africa. There are another 22 species of bee-eater in the genus Merops but they are less adventurous than their European cousin and tend to stay in the tropics. Only the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater reaches Morocco and sometimes strays across the Strait of Gibraltar into European territory. The winters do not support sufficient insects of the right size so all Bee-eaters winter in tropical Africa. The Iberian ones fly south over the Strait of Gibraltar in large numbers in September.

But for the next few months of summer, the Bee-eaters will bring colour to the blue skies of the Iberian Peninsula.

Merops, after which the bee-eaters are named, was a Greek mythological king. His wife was killed by Artemis and he took it upon himself to end his life but Hera changed him into an eagle and placed him among the stars.