A Glimmer of Gold
and the mating ritual that left me breathless.
Looking out at sunset, the last rays of the day hit gold. The bird’s head was lit, shining like precious metal. This is the one I’d been watching and waiting for. My favourite bird-the Rainbow Bee-eater.
Years ago, when I was flirting with bird-watching, I had a wow moment. Watering pot plants I looked up to see a bright coloured bird swoop through the air to snatch a bee on the wing.
As it flew I glimpsed the bronze orange under-wings catching the sunlight.
There was a striped head, a black and gold chin strap, green breast and blue belly up against the blue-blue sky.
Tail streamers trailed behind the bird.
It didn’t see me as it soared past to a eucalypt. It was November and the start of breeding season, the Rainbow-bird had its mind on important things.
Witnessing a courtship ritual is startling in and of itself.
You share an intimate moment from another species.
Tender and brutal, I couldn’t pull my eyes away.
The Australian Bee-eater sidled up to a female with a shorter extended tail.
Watching this display was one of the reasons I decided to be a birder.
The Bee-eater fluffed up its head to look larger, feathers high as if it had a buzz cut.
Rigid, he hopped along the branch awkwardly with both feet together.
It bowed deeply, its beak down, swaying as if it was drunk.
Spreading each orange wing in turn it vibrated them like a fan. Forming various shapes, lifting and dropping his tail, it tried to impress.
The dirty dancing of the avian world.
The female glanced at her suitor, then looked at the captured bee which still squirmed to be free.
The male stabbed the insect violently on the branch, scraping out the sting.
Sliding closer, his head was so deeply bowed it was almost horizontal. The presentation of the bee to the female bird was elaborate and showy.
There was a long pause while she considered his proposal before snatching the morsel and swallowing instantly.
The male Rainbow-bird sat upright and tilted his head, she tilted hers the opposite way. Their beaks were parallel, like lovers about to kiss.
The new couple flew away, mimicking each other’s flight pattern exactly in a close courtship dance that reminded me of trapeze artists in an aerial ballet.
There’s no doubt mating followed the ritual.
My jaw practically on the ground, I knew I’d seen something exclusive.
In taking his bee she acknowledged him as her mate.
With that gesture was the promise that he’d sustain her while she incubated eggs in the 1-metre tunnel they’d build together.
The bee gift was an implicit agreement that he would nurture and provide food for her and their chicks. A symbolic act to show he’d be a good provider.
I saw Rainbow-bird marriage vows, though I didn’t know it at the time.
I’ve researched birds since then.
The more I read, the more fascinating it has become.
Two years I’ve been looking out for Rainbow Bee-eaters.
No luck there.
A local bee-keeper didn’t place bee boxes on our farm in 2017 or 2018 because of the ongoing drought.
He placed them on our farm this year but the flowering season was too short.
So little rain the yellow and white box gum trees blossomed for just 3 weeks.
Last year we spent a fortune on a 150-metre deep bore. It was dug to provide stock water to cattle getting stuck in the mud of 20 dams that had dried up.
Touring the farm in the Can-am we check the bore pump still flows every day. I found these bees buzzing in slow circles, lapping shallow water at the outlet.
With no flowers, the bee boxes were removed at the end of October.
Waiting so long to see Bee-eaters I almost gave up on them.
I’d forgotten how amazing life is.
I’d forgotten Mother Nature often finds a way when there’s no way.
Before our honey-man removed the boxes, bees escaped and made new hives.
One beehive is in an old tree hollow on the driveway.
Two weeks ago at sunset, I thought it was Swallows ducking, diving and gliding. Then I saw flashes of gold in the sky.
Ten Rainbow Bee-eaters made figure 8 patterns like race cars on a track.
I saw tail streamers, bright feathers and their sky-play as they searched for soft dirt to dig into for an egg chamber.
These rainbow bright birds make communes of 40 or more in late spring.
Juveniles and males without a mate help excavate the tunnel nests. Digging with curved bills that act as picks they scrape out soil with partly fused feet that act as shovels.
So excited the birds were back, I could barely focus the camera.
I see bee-eaters every other day now. They sit motionless on bare branches or scrounge for insects on the ground, but look uncomfortable anywhere but up in the blue. Bee-eaters are at home in the sky, where they capture wasps and bees with ease, never slowing for a second.
The rainbows fly with far more grace than other birds; cutting the air with golden wings.
A Rainbow-bird discovering I’m watching. My head and shoulders are out the bathroom window taking pictures. She isn’t impressed but I am pleased to see her. You have to love an angry bird and this one is awesome.
It’s a birding-daydream come true.
The afternoon sun never fails to capture the colours of the bee-eaters.
It makes their golden rainbows glow.
Shine on little birds.