Report from Ian Williams who visited the Sierra Mountain Refuge in July.
With numbers definitely down this year on our local patch around the village of Lanjaron, Bee-eaters were a "must-see" for our field-trip to Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche. Kiersten was sure she had located a possible nest-site here last year, and the search for a breeding colony was one of my priorities for the visit. We heard the familiar "pruh…pruh" calls almost as soon as we arrived, which was a promising start, but with last year's site looking overgrown and unused we clearly had some work to do…
Elegant and exquisitely colourful, the Bee-eater Merops apiaster is one of Europe's most exotic looking summer visitors. With the others gone I was left to for possible locations alone – and I soon found a small flock feeding only a short distance from the house. With a good view their blue-green chests, rich, chestnut backs and caps and bright yellow throats are unmistakable, and with long, pointed black bills and the black band running through the eye they're a beautiful sight.
The sunny, open meadows and stands of trees around the valley suited them perfectly, and they swooped and glided over the fields, returning to the branches of a favourite dead tree before heading off on another foray. Bee-eaters take a variety of insects – including, naturally enough, a good number of bees – hawking them in mid-air, and I could actually hear the tapping as they dispatched larger prey and removed the stings on their perches before swallowing. Superb stuff!
I still hoped to find a nest-site of course, and I finally had the clue I had been hoping for. An adult bird swooped low over a field as I passed, and landed on a sandy bank…and promptly disappeared. At last! Sure enough, a neat, round entrance gave the location of the tunnel, and I sat down to watch.
The Bee-eater often breeds in colonies, but it was just a single nest that I found on this occasion. They excavate tunnels to a depth of a metre or more: deep enough to maintain an ambient temperature for the nestlings that protects them from the excesses of the hot Mediterranean summer. Wind around the nest-site and the "piston" effect of parents entering the tunnel actually assist with providing fresh air to the nest chamber, and although external conditions may vary widely the parents provide a remarkably stable "microenvironment" for their youngsters.
The wait was worth it. I saw both adults arrive with food for their brood, and finally got the view I had hoped for. A juvenile Bee-eater, listening out for the return of its parents…and clearly not quite ready for the rigours of life outside the safety of its burrow! Terrific birdwatching, and an encounter I had hoped to enjoy since my arrival in Spain.
The arrival of of a friend for the last day I was here – many thanks to Marianne for some of the habitat shots we've used in our reports – had us quietly approaching the dead tree once more. With Woodlark Lullula arborea bursting from cover at our feet as we passed we settled down and got nice views of the parents, before spending more time at the nest-site where we once again saw the juvenile: its bright black and yellow face staring out from the bank was a highlight of the trip and it's great to have some shots for you today!
A wonderful way to end my time here.