Sunday, March 24, 2013

The European bee-eater

European bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

The European bee-eater looks like a large colourful swallow. It is often seen in flocks and is usually heard before being seen.

During the past couple of decades it became more common in Malta and can nowadays be seen migrating regularly, often in large flocks, during both the spring and autumn migration

Until about a hundred years ago it used to breed in the Maltese islands and nests were recorded from Ramla l-Ħamra in Gozo but stopped doing so because of human disturbance. 

During the past couple of years it started breeding again in one locality on mainland Malta. This resumption in breeding coincided with the abolition of hunting during the spring migration. They nest in colonies in sandy banks near rivers but can also breed in coastal sand dunes and sloping soil mounds. 

The nest consists of a lined depression at the end of a long tunnel excavated by the bee-eaters by using their bill and feet. Both the male and the female take care of the eggs, which are brooded for about 3 weeks.

Bee-eaters prefer to live in warm climates. The European bee-eater breeds in southern Europe, North Africa and western Asia and winters in tropical Africa, India and Sri Lanka.

In Maltese it is known as qerd in-naħal because it eats insects especially bees and wasps. It catches its prey in the air flying around and catching the flying insects in its beak either during continuous flight or more commonly by sorties from an open perch, usually a branch on the top of a tree or large bush. 

Before eating its meal it repeatedly hits the insect on a hard surface to remove its sting. Bee-eaters are colourful birds. The species seen in Malta has brown and yellow upper parts and green wings.

There are 26 different species of bee-eaters in the world. Most are found in Africa. They are all characterised by richly coloured plumage, slender bodies and usually elongated central tail feathers. All have down-turned bills and pointed wings. 

This article was published in The Times on 21 October 2009.

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