Boisterous bee-eaters dive and dunk, experts wonder why!

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Chestnut-headed Bee-eater perching over waterhole. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

Satchari National Park has been a home of the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater for generations. However, spotting and then photographing the fast and frantic spectacle of this rare bird is not for the impatient

We were enjoying the exuberant aerial sallies of the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater across a tiny piece of sky hanging over a solitary waterhole deep inside the Satchari forest. No noteworthy bird had yet peered out of the dark foliage around us; bee-eaters were the only show in town.

We sat silently on the well-trodden dirt-bank of the watering hole made some years back for the wild animals. By visiting it for a covetous sip or a hasty dip a few rare and furtive birds of the forest had lately made the waterhole a cherished spot for the wildlife-photographers.

For a rare and remarkable bird to show up we prayed as all amateur photographers must. Hours passed, our prayers were not heard. No rare bird thirsted for a photo session. Only the boisterous bee-eaters dashing and darting overhead kept our minds off the marauding mosquitos.

The gregarious bee-eaters with their bright chestnut head and beautiful golden throat crisscrossed the forest clearing like so many colourful little darts. From their cheerful chirpings we knew that the sleek little fellows were having an afternoon get-together, a boisterous hunting party.

The bee-eaters hunt the honeybees and other flying insects with nasty sting. Intermittent showers and sunshine had filled the wildflowers of the forest with plentiful nectar which pulled the bees out of their hives. Unfortunately, quite a few bees would not return home from the bee-eater party.

Satchari National Park has been a home of the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater for generations. We have observed a flock of them hunt at the forest-edge round the year and breed in spring by excavating burrows in the vertical bank of the seasonal streams that meander through the national park and the tea-estates.

Did the bee-eaters recognise us as frequent visitors of the forest! They showed up at the Satchari National Park entrance and found us all over again at that desolate waterhole. We, however, continued to aim our cameras at the dark bank to photograph the absconding rare-birds, not the bee-eaters.

The Chestnut-headed Bee-eater is not considered a rare bird in Bangladesh. But it is rare beyond India to the west and Vietnam to the east. It is an endemic bird of a very small part of the Orient and lives only in the 10 countries in our neighbourhood. It is either very rare or absent everywhere else.

We turned our attention to the bee-eaters after waiting for hours for the arrival of an elusive rare-bird in vain. The hunting party of the bee-eaters was tapering off as the sun hid behind some dark clouds. The colorful aerial hunters started descending through the forest clearing and flew merrily over the waterhole.

A few bee-eaters perched on thin bamboo stems leaning over the waterhole and impishly looked at the tranquil water down below. Were they thirsty after a long hunting party! When thirsty, the bee-eater usually flies low over the water and scoops a mouthful to drink. We expected to witness a spectacular drinking party.

Soon a bold bee-eater initiated a dive from the bamboo perch. We expected him to descend a little bit and then recover from the dive to fly over the water for his scoop.

But no; the bird had something else in mind. He went into a steep dive and appeared to be going headlong for a dip in the water.

We had never seen a Chestnut-headed Bee-eater take a dip in water. The bird-books say that in summer the bee-eaters were seen taking the plunge in water. The books also say that such 'behaviour was poorly understood'.

The bird-books were right, at least, partly. In the blink of an eye the bee-eater went right into the dark, tranquil water without a splash or fanfare.

Soon the bee-eater emerged from the dark water by thrashing its wings and splashing water all around. After only a few wing-beats and a vigorous waggle, the bird took to the air all dry and dandy. It was happy to return to its perch and commence an elaborate preening routine.

A second bee-eater dived into the water soon after the first left chirping and wheeling happily. We enjoyed the plunge nearly as much as the divers. Our only struggle was how to photograph their fast and frantic actions in inadequate light.

Many bee-eaters joined the euphoric diving party and followed the routine with palpable delight and gratification.

Strangely, after preening the feathers all clean and dry the bee-eaters quickly went for a second plunge. And for some of the birds the second was not their last dive.

Soon the little waterhole turned into an avian Haridwar Kumbh Mela bathing site. Their Mela lasted for half an hour after which we annulled all our grievances against the missing rare-birds and the menacing mosquitos.

We could not help remembering how for hours and with what delight and merriment we dived out of bridges into some canals in our adolescence. The big difference between us and the flock of the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater was that quite a few individuals in that flock were not adolescents.

We remained a little queasy with the bird-experts stating that the reason why Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters sometimes dive in water was 'poorly understood'. If that was so, wasn't our childhood behaviour of diving in canals 'poorly understood' as well!

Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam.

From The Business Standard

  • Boisterous
  • Bee-Eaters
  • Chestnut-headed
  • Satchari Forest
  • Satchari National Park

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