Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters

by Graeme Guy | April 5, 2013

© Graeme GuyAs a nature photographer, you develop an attachment to certain species. One of my favorite bird species is bee-eaters. They are colorful, are master hunters and flying aces. In my adopted location of northeastern Malaysia there are three species of the total of 26 world-wide species. Before moving to Penang I had heard of a legendary nesting ground for bee-eaters. It turned out to be a sporadically used and somewhat cryptic motocross track where two species of bee-eater – the Chestnut-headed and Blue-throated – have taken advantage of leather-clad man’s construction and drilled their nest holes into the jumps. Last year and this year I spent several mornings in a mobile hide made to record the nesting phenomena. Due to the locations proximity to the equator, I often felt as if I were in a sauna.

Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters (Merops leschenaulti), unlike the Blue-tailed and Blue-throated cousins, are endemic within the Malaysian State of Penang. They are a resident breeder in the Indian subcontinent and adjoining regions ranging from East India to Southeast Asia, including Thailand, northern Malaysia and Indonesia. This species is not found in southern Malaysia or Singapore but like other bee-eaters is a beautiful, richly colored, sleek bird and a master flyer. It is predominantly green, with blue on the rump and lower belly. Its face and throat are yellow with a black eye stripe. The crown and nape are a rich chestnut. Newly fledged chicks are the same colors except for a mainly darker green forehead and less distinct demarcation between the colors. The species is 18-20 cm long and it lacks the two elongated central tail feathers possessed by the majority of bee-eater species. The male and females have similar coloration but when seen together the males are noticeably larger, with a higher forehead.

Pair of chestnut-headed bee-eaters © Graeme Guy

Although seen in small groups throughout the year in various locations in Penang state, Chestnut-headed bee-eaters arrive at communal breeding grounds around the middle of December. For the first few weeks it seems to be reunion time and the various pairs will hunt together from the surrounding taller trees. January and February are the region’s dry months and it is a spectacle to behold as these beautiful flying machines arc down from their high vantage points and power after flying insects. The rapid aerial assault is mostly punctuated by a perceptible ‘thwack’ as the insect is hit. That mission over, the bird will return to a perch to ingest the captured insect.

Catching a bee © Graeme Guy

Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters are very exuberant with captured insects: usually they are bashed onto a branch to ‘anesthetize’ them and then tossed into the air to get them into a favorable position for swallowing. Bees are a favored food, as their name suggests, and the sting is squeezed out before the tossing occurs. A steady supply of insects presents certain problems in waste disposal. One of the major proteins in insects is chitin, which is a durable, waxy polymer that is very hard to digest. Every so often these bee-eaters, as well as related species, will open their bills wide to expel a black ball of indigestible insect products.

From a photographic viewpoint I was determined to get some shots of these beautiful but deadly fliers (in silhouette, from underneath, they remind me somewhat of the renown RAF Spitfires). Most of my images were taken with a 500mm f4 lens resting on a beanbag on my vehicle’s open window. However flight shots demanded high ISO, high speeds, a shorter and more easily manipulated handheld lens and a location away from the restrictions of the car interior. The clear blue skies of the early months allowed for speeds of 1/3000 to 1/4000 second, coupled with modern camera tracking and the reflexes of an Olympic skeet shooter (I wish).

Flying after bee © Graeme Guy

After settling into the nesting area, the pairs of bee-eaters descended to the undulating terrain and started drilling exploratory holes. Their pick-like bills loosened the compacted soil and the soil was then kicked back out of the way. It was a joint effort and the pair would often be seen working in unison with one loosening and the other shifting. Loosened soil is kicked backwards by dainty feet in a ‘half-pipe’ formed by the arced wings that also serve to suspend the flailing appendages. After a few weeks I could see where the serious nest cavities were being constructed by the piles of ‘tailings’ outside the entrances.

Bee-eater on ground © Graeme Guy

Bee-eaters are such delicate and efficient flying machines so it seems contradictory to sound logic that they should nest underground and must drill the holes themselves. It seems to be the equivalent of fitting the latest jet fighter with a backhoe or asking a refined lady in her Sunday ensemble to dig the vegetable garden. Survival however needs adaption so serious preening is needed to keep flying feathers in good shape and considerable time is spent grooming. These sessions are punctuated by wing stretching and tail fanning that can be quite graceful and balletic. At the start of the season the bee-eaters arrived in prime condition but after digging in abrasive soil some of the birds showed the rigors imposed by their mode of reproduction.

Chestnut-headed bee-eater on branch © Graeme Guy

After nest construction began couples become more interactive and were observed mating on their favorite perches. This activity can be spontaneous when the couple sit adjacent to the other and mating is instigated by the male sidling along the branch to contact the female or the female bending forward inviting the male to mount her. Coupling often follows the gift on an insect. Around two weeks later it was like Mother’s Day; females were stationed on various perches while the males were operating at full throttle to supply them with insect presents. This phase is about building the female up nutritionally to fulfill the demanding role of egg-laying.

Bee-eaters mating © Graeme Guy

Pair with bee © Graeme Guy

I followed three active nests over the next month. Both incubation and fledging each take around 25-30 days. The suppliers were very industrious in maintaining a steady flow of mainly larger insects to the nests. Three to five birds, including younger birds, likely from the last nesting, supplied each of these nests. As the chicks reached maturity the feeding got quite frenetic and sometimes two or three birds would arrive within seconds of each other to hand over insects. In one nest there was only one chick and it stationed itself just inside the entrance and gulped down everything offered. It later ventured a look at the world but stayed inside the hole to continue getting fed. The next morning the chick had gone and the nesting area was considerably less active. In clutches with multiple offspring, chicks fledge on different days as egg-laying is progressive. After leaving the nest, the adults seem to tutor the young fledglings for another week in the vicinity and it is heartwarming to see.

Chestnut-headed bee-eater and dragonfly © Graeme Guy


About the Author

Graeme was born and raised in the Wellington/Hutt Valley area of New Zealand. He practiced as a pharmacist in Dunedin, Napier and Hamilton after obtaining a degree in pharmacy. He later obtained a BSc and MSc (Hons) from Waikato University in Hamilton before completing a PhD in Biochemistry in Adelaide, Australia in 1982. After five years in Birmingham, U.K. he moved to Singapore where he became a Professor and Principal Investigator at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in 1988. He is the author of over 100 scientific papers. Nature photography has always been an interest of Graeme's but became a serious pursuit for him in the last 15 years. He has won more than 1,200 awards in international exhibitions and has had a number of published articles and images, including 30 covers. In 2011, Graeme retired to live on Penang Island in Malaysia where the tropical environment provides him with plenty of photographic subjects. To learn more about Graeme and see more of his work, visit his website grguy.smugmug.com and blog malaysianwildlifephotography.blogspot.com.

3 thoughts on “Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters

  1. Beautifully captured Graeme and a great article. I love these birds. I am happy to know that these birds are still coming back to breed at the motocross track.


  2. A wonderful article, Graeme, with words that describe exactly as I have witnessed these favourite birds of mine behave. I, too, was amazed how these elegant birds would choose a noisy weekend (so I was informed then) motocross venue to nest. RAF Spitfires? Exactly!

    All the best, Kwan