As a boy, my Birding tomes of reference were the Field Guides to the Birds of Britain & Europe, published, I believe, by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), and by Collins.
Whilst reviewing the pages to identify what birds I had been lucky enough to see, I’d often see birds that, for Britain at least, were described as “Accidentals”.
You know how it is when ‘the grass is always greener’? Well with some of my boyhood birding dreams, that was surely the case. Birds that could only be seen in the UK by pure chance, if the bird ‘had somehow gotten off course’, maybe even ‘lost’, seemed to captivate me… especially as some of those birds were plainly beautiful to the eye.
Whilst these ‘accidentals’ were many, one family of birds that always remained etched into my memory, were BeeEaters. The reference guides mentioned that Bee Eaters could commonly be seen in continental Europe, and North Africa, and in the UK on rare occasions, in the very south of the UK. I paid little heed to this as I’d not heard of them ever being seen in the UK. What I did notice, is just how pretty these birds were, despite not being able to see them and not knowing if I ever would… I just hoped, one day, I’d get the chance to see them.
In recent years, I’d seen Bee Eaters on many occasions in Asia, launching from high, bare branch type perches, and usually at distance. Early attempts to photograph them were unsuccessful as the lenses I had were insufficiently long and against a bright sky background, my ‘starter level’ photography equipment coupled with extremely limited knowledge and skills, produced frustratingly poor images. I began to think that maybe “Bee-Eaters are just not for me” and perhaps I’d never get to shoot them. Until a few months ago…
In Singapore we are blessed with Bee-Eaters all year round, with Blue Tailed Bee-Eaters gracing our shores between September to March and then the rest of the year with Blue Throated Bee-Eaters. So I began my quest in trying to shoot these birds, to experience their beauty, their aerial majesty and dexterity, and to bring those boyhood yearnings to fruition.
I’d been told that there was a “botak” tree near a pond there, (botak means bald or balding in Malay – a bit like me 🙂 ), and it reportedly was a favourite place for the Bee-Eaters, so I searched it out and waited. Then I waited. After that, I waited. Until finally, I had just waited. For several hours. No Bee-Eaters came anywhere near where I was waiting and I was beginning to lose the will to live! No Bee-Eaters, but no other birds either! Finally a fellow bird photographer approached and asked me what I had been shooting. I said I had been trying to photograph Bee-Eaters but was rapidly starting to think that I’d have more chance trying to photograph Elvis. Thankfully, the photographer told me I was in the wrong place – this was a botak ‘perch’ that a year or so previously a photographer had placed there, not the famed botak tree. I was directed elsewhere and off I went.
I found the ‘famed’ botak tree and noticed it was in the middle of a pond. My birding lens was a Canon EF300mm f2.8 and I had a 2x teleconverter fitted – so I was shooting with a focal length of 600mm. I noticed straight away that if Bee-Eaters showed up, then they were likely to be so small in the viewfinder and that pictures most likely would need to be cropped to death. Anyways, I thought I’d ‘give it a go’ and at worst case, I’d get to see these wonderful creatures. The light intensity, after all, was pretty good.
After a short time, in the corner of my eye I caught the briefest ‘blue flash’ and I wondered, as my heart started to race, whether this may have been the bird I was so keen to see. Alas No. It was a White Throated Kingfisher, as identified by its’ familiar cries. A further twenty minutes or so passed and then suddenly I recognised sheer beauty. Not one Blue Tailed Bee-Eater, but two landed on a perch in almost instant succession…
My viewfinder became awash with colour and I can only imagine my smile was so wide, that I’d naturally created ‘fill in flash’. Finally, after all those years, I’d managed to see these beauties and appreciate them in front of my very eyes. To see a little more detail than I’d seen before was simply joyous. But I was still quite a long way away from these captivating birds. What to do? Well, If I’d not been alone, I’d perhaps have been a little more adventurous and waded out into the pond. But I had no idea how deep the muddy pond bottom was, and dare not risk getting stuck, or worse still sucked under. I did, however, have the option of climbing a tree. Hmm. After contemplating whether my slight frame (yeah, right!) could even climb this tree, and also whether there was anything natural that I might disturb or damage, I thought that little or no harm could come of this. So up I went… thank the Lord no-one was around to see what surely would have been an interesting spectacle of comedic proportions. Yet eventually I managed to manouever myself into position, AND get my tripod and camera gear safely with me, and in position (albeit precariously).
I’d just gotten my bird photography set up nice balanced, awaiting the return of the Bee-Eaters, when in a nearby tree, an adult Blue Tailed Bee-Eater perched, resplendent with the spoils of its’ recent hunting foray. I tried to shift my angle whilst precariously balanced in the tree, and was extremely mindful that I could easily fall, along with all my bird photography gear. So I moved very carefully indeed, until I could get the Bee-Eater in view.
And there it was. A lot closer this time. Yehey! Maximum awesomeness! I was So-ooo happy.
Finally I had managed to capture this lovely bird that had previously been carved into my memory. Wow. I was aghast, whilst gingerly pressing the shutter release on my camera. Happy Days indeed!
What happened next surprised me a little. I thought momentarily that I was watching a Kingfisher undergo its’ process for getting a fish ready to swallow. The Bee-Eater proceeded to smack the large insect that it had caught onto the thickish branch it was perched upon.
Then instantly the bird deliberately chose to manoeuvre the prey into different position – by tossing it into the air and catching it as it was in midair. I researched later what the Bee-Eater was doing, and WHAT a smart bird! They know which insects have stings and therefore which can be swallowed immediately, and which ones need ‘some preparation’. Whenever Bee-Eaters catch prey that potentially could sting them, they manipulate the prey to protect themselves.
I watched this process with another Bee-Eater… after capturing their prey, they either squeeze the abdomen, smack the prey on a branch, or both, in order to cause the insect sting to protrude, which can then be removed upon strongly pressing the abdomen of the insect.
The next step is to further squeeze the insect abdomen at the very bottom, until all the sting has been ejected and the venom removed too.
It’s a very smart bird that has learned this process to make sure a meal can be enjoyed heartily, whilst simultaneously protecting itself from harm.
I climbed down from the tree after taking these shots, as I was for some reason feeling a little precarious and somewhat uncomfortable. I focused back on the original ‘botak’ tree and noticed a juvenile Bee-Eater. It probably hadn’t left the nest too long ago and whilst I couldn’t see it fly off and go hunting it in my viewfinder, I did see it emerge at distance, flying low and fast over the surface of the pond. It banked hard in pursuit of a large insect but then seemed to lose control, with the change of direction causing it to lose momentum, the ability to remain airborne, and thus it took an unplanned dip into the lake.
The bird quickly returned to its’ perch and I smiled when I saw it through my lens.
What only moments before was the epitome of aerodynamics, now looked somewhat unkempt and definitely none the prettier for its’ unscheduled swimming lesson. Haha.
With fluffed up feathers to aid the drying process, the young Bee-Eater looked kind of cute to me.
It didn’t take too long though before the bird began to dry its’ feathers and resume the more familiar, slicker, Bee-Eater shape.
Bee-Eaters’ wings are almost perfectly triangular and in flight the bird has the aerial manoeuvrability of a modern fighter plane. Somewhat surprisingly, during the entire drying process, the bird did not open its’ wings to dry them… it’s as if the wings didn’t get wet at all.
The Blue Tailed Bee-Eaters were seen on many occasions by me through March, when they left Singapore’s shores and were seemingly replaced by a different Bee-Eater species, the Blue Throated Bee-Eater. I’m looking forward to the Bee-Eaters returning in September, as maybe now I have a longer lens, I can capture them more closely and improve on the bird in flight (BIF) shots I took previously.
I thus far haven’t seen too many of these more recently arrived Blue Throated Bee-Eaters up close, despite several occasions watching them hunt from a distance.
On only one occasion so far have I seen them in a place where I could shoot them without a grey or white cloudy background, coupled with a super high perch. And even then, this shot was at distance – I’d estimate at least 60 metres away.
But Hey! It’s only July and these guys will be in Singapore for at least another month… there’s time to shoot them and I think I know exactly where to do that, AND get shot without the sky for a background. If I find and manage to shoot them, I’ll post a few shots in coming blog-postings. Meanwhile, My boyhood dreams have largely been fulfilled, or so I thought until recently. Friends of mine have been shooting different Bee-Eater species in Malaysia – and these birds, are simply stunningly pretty. I just HAVE to go find these beauties and get some shots of those!
So I guess a boyhood dream ends, gets rekindled, and a further boyhood dream now begins… it’s just that the boy is a little older. The enthusiasm, however, remains every bit as young ;).