Zorro, eat your heart out!
The bandit-like bold black band linking the bill to the back of the head through its eye seems to be a disguise, but it’s also a real give-away to their identity. The bandit-band is very noticeable when you get close up. But first you have to get near enough.
They’re Rainbow bee-eaters.
From a distance, their flight pattern is unique and the best give-away to their real identity. They sit on an open twig or dead branch, fence post or stump waiting for a bee, moth, damsel fly or any other decent-sized meal which happens to be around.They’re highly agile and distinctive flyers. They dart quickly, twisting and turning in pursuit of their prey, soar again and swoop towards a branch, usually the one they started from. Down south, bee-keepers aren’t keen on them, as they’ve been known to take 400 bees in a single day.
Then a few minutes later, they do it again. And again.
Dive bombing rainbow bee-eaters fascinated a handful of guests from the USA at Woobadda Creek recently. We spent a very pleasant 20 minutes watching these colourful and supremely agile birds surface-foraging for damsel and dragon flies in the deep, milky green waters.
As bee-eaters usually take insects in mid-flight, to see them dive unerringly into the water was special. A wonderful sight but too difficult for good photos. Instead, I’ve shown a few photos taken recently.
The “rainbow” in the name indicates their full range of delicate, pastel colours, They are characterised by the full orange colouring under their flying wings, green body, blue-green wings, and a bandit-like bold band. In flight, you can clearly see the orange/yellow under the wings and a big patch of blue behind their back, above the tail.
Male adult bee-eaters have a very thin long tail streamer, the female shorter and stubbier and the juvenile none at all. The juvenile also lacks the black bandit-band which come later in life. So, if you’re having identification problems, and reckon that you have a different species, then chances are that’s it’s just a matter of gender or age.
Its downwardly curved bill and largish head make it look a lot like a kingfisher, which it clearly is not! Kingfishers could be either forest or water types, but don’t take their prey in mid-flight. Their beaks are also noticeably bigger.
Bee-eaters bore a tunnel on a road or river bank as its nest, like some kingfishers, such as the azure kingfisher. It’s quite narrow and they seem to have to force their way through. Some bird experts suggest this is a way to force fresh air in and stale air out.
Here are a few places where I’ve regularly seen rainbow bee-eaters, between April and October.
Cowie Beach. About 50 metres along the shoreline to the north of the beach entry, the coconuts have been burnt, exposing the vegetation, and leaving a few vantage points for a small flock/family of bee-eaters. Further out among the mangroves, you’ll also see them along with a few Sacred kingfishers and prowling curlews.
Cowie Range. Along the top of the range where there’s open ground among the casuarinas (aka she-oaks) and wattles, they have a couple of favourite spots. One regular place is immediately to the north of the drop along the switchback going down into Thomsons Creek. I’ve often seen them sitting on the road late in the afternoon.
Bloomfield River Valley. North from Cape Tribulation before the hill overlooking the Bloomfield River, there’s an open patch of grassland alongside the Track nearing De Garra before the signs displaying the Wujal Wujal community. The little dead trees and branches make good vantage points for the bee eaters and nature lovers.
North of Ayton towards the Cedar Bay Range. There are quite a few spots where hordes of bee-eaters forage around.
Keating Lagoon. A ten minute walk in through the gate, past the Monet-like little bridge and water-lilies there is wonderful bird hide. Crane your neck out and immediately alongside is a dead tree which is often a rainbow-bee-eater lookout point.
Bee-eaters live all around Australia and a few stay in the Wet Tropics all year around. But most migrate to the Wet Tropics from further south around April. For nature and bird lovers, they actually help to fill the gap caused by the disappearance of the metallic starlings, pied imperial pigeons, some azure kingfishers and buff-breasted paradise kingfishers which migrate to New Guinea around the same time.
A few kingfisher notes
Kingfishers are not related to bee-eaters, but are kindred souls, so a few comments on some local species.
Australia has a wide range both of forest and river kingfishers.
The prettiest and perhaps most interesting of the forest types is the Buff-breasted paradise kingfisher which, after returning from its New Guinea migration in October each year, finds (or sometimes re-finds) a rainforest termite mound, bores a hole as a nest and raises its young in the mound. It relies on the termites to seal the mound before nesting. The termites, always tidy, patch it up again when the kingfishers have left on their annual migration.
It’s one of the most difficult birds to spot. When you’re driving along any of the rainforest roads, you might see — or half see — a flash of a very fast-flying bird shooting across the road about 3-4 metres above ground height. You might also see its unusually white streamer tail (if it hasn’t been rubbed off inside the termite mound!). I’ve found that the flashing tail is more likely seen in the February/ March period when the young are getting ready for their New Guinea migration.
Beautiful Azure kingfishers, with red legs, black beak, blue/white with burnt orange underneath, breed in North Queensland between Nov-April and can be seen in almost any creek in the Daintree area. As River kingfishers, they’re similar to European kingfishers.
Creeks such as Cooper, Noah, Emmagen and Woobadda are always good prospects north of the Daintree River, as well as the River tributaries themselves.
You might see them darting or zig-zagging along just above the water level, often from one low branch to another, then later back to the same branch seeking food. They’re appear as a flash of blue and sometimes orange underneath. Sometimes , they give a sharp little shriek as they go past — a warning sound??
Between November and April, they bring food back to their nestling or, later, protect them as they fledge from the nest.
They have unusual nests. They create a a chamber at the end of a one-metre tunnel which both sexes help to excavate into the stream bank. This chamber is lined with fish scales, bones and crustacean shells and between four to seven rounded white eggs are laid.
This white, round egg a common type of egg for birds nesting in holes. They don’t need to be pointed because they are not going to roll away in their chamber and the white colour makes them visible to the parent birds in the gloom inside.