Sunday, July 21, 2024

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HomeIssue 38A touch of light: return of the rainbow bee-eaters

A touch of light: return of the rainbow bee-eaters


All photos © Mike Gillam

As temperatures rise plant production increases and with it, insect activity. Soon the vigorous fresh growing tips of our whitewoods (Atalaya hemiglauca) will be wilting in response to the sap sucking ‘stink bugs’.

I admit to crushing the occasional black and tan bugs in early years and wiping pungent body juices over the fresh growth of those trees that I was precious about. It deterred the bugs for a while but these days it’s less necessary because we have so many whitewoods that the sap-suckers affections are spread more thinly.

Many of the sap suckers are also fond of nectar producing flowers. The whitewoods don’t ever seem to get a free run. There are bugs that target new growth, those that congregate on the fresh flower buds and yet others that hammer the ripening seeds.

I should add that sap suckers are very beautiful. We commonly see two Eucalypt specialists; both are brightly coloured, one orange and black and the other a powder blue, the colour of sky on a bright Summer, I mean Spring, day.

The tall and slender Eucalyptus thozetiana are flowering profusely. Seed pods are developing throughout the lower branches while newly opened flowers create a creamy yellow flush on the outer margins of the canopy where bats are occasionally visible among the halo of insects.

Perhaps this staged growth will expose the flowers to a wider variety and number of pollinators and extend the period and weather conditions when both flowers and viable seed are available.

The rainbow bee-eaters, a favourite with Alice Springs locals, seem to have timed their return to Centralia perfectly. Clearly they don’t like the northern buildup and have an equal dislike for our cold desert winters. They probably ride south on the early northerlies but the effort can take a toll.

There is a record of disaster in 2018 when a late season cold snap, likely combined with low fat reserves, left bee-eaters bereft of insect prey when they needed it most. Dozens of birds that had been roosting together for warmth were found dead on the ground at Ilparpa, south of Alice Springs.

Daily fluctuations in temperature are not uncommon throughout September and October and it seems hypothermia poses a serious risk for these tropical migrants that spend our winters in the Top End, New Guinea and Indonesia.

The image above of bee-eaters in a huddle was taken on 1 October a few years ago and birds at the nesting burrow in the Todd River during December.

I stopped by the roadside a few days ago to check the insect activity around a swathe of bright yellow daisies looking spectacular despite the lack of rain. The area was alive with flying insects. I counted fifteen species of butterflies, moths, wasps, bees and beetles, not to mention the ants and the spiders in hiding.

I’m taking a raincheck on the usual 2000 word essay to provide more research time for next week’s story on ghost gums. Until then …


Recently in this series:

A touch of light: the tireless energy of ants

A touch of light: sublime Centralian Spring


  1. Beautiful photos. Yes, in the past I have seen large groups huddled together to keep warm.
    I love when they fly and swoop continuously over my property catching food.

  2. Woah, such a beautiful looking bird. I have never seen these before. I didn’t know they live here, near Alice Springs. Thank you Mike for sharing.

  3. Yes, the rainbow bee-eaters have turned up recently in the vicinity of my home in the Old Eastside, as they do each year.
    I recall an occasion several years ago during a miserably cold overcast day (I think the maximum temp was about 14C) when several bee-eaters spent the day at my place, snapping up honeybees from the beehives in the back yard.
    A couple of telephone lines remain stretched from the pole in the back laneway across the yards of my place and a neighbour’s property, and these provided perfect vantage points for the birds to perch and swoop after the bees.
    Maybe the bees were a bit dopey from the cool weather but they certainly were no match for the agility of the bee-eaters – dozens of the insects met their doom that day, and many were snatched in mid-air literally in front of me.
    The honeybees got the message, for they ceased all flying activity; in turn the rainbow bee-eaters moved on to search elsewhere for prey.
    After awhile the honeybees resumed their activity but the rainbow bee-eaters soon resumed their hunting, and again the bees took shelter in their hives while danger was present.
    This happened several times during that day, and I observed the same behaviour on a subsequent day during sunny weather, too.

  4. I’m nearly sure I saw them in the Phillipines when I was living there in the early 90s.
    There was one spot on a ridge top the road went over on the Bataan Peninsula.
    My Filipino bird book doesn’t shed any light on the situation, but unless there exists a visually very similar bird, they make it that far in their annual migration.
    I hope someone can shed further light on this.
    I recall my first sighting for the year while walking on the Larapinta Trail some years ago. It was a flock of 20 to 30 and they were, I can only describe it as gambolling; tumbling, rolling, swooping, and seeming to say whoopee, we’re home.

  5. A beautiful bird, always great to see and hear these happy little birds chirping in their unique way.

  6. Have noticed rainbow bee-eaters nest in some interesting situations; for example, years ago I used to see them on earth banks along Heffernan Road in the rural area.
    On another occasion, after buffel grass had been controlled at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, a pair of these birds drilled a nest hole in the middle of a cleared flat, which was surprising to me as the ground in that vicinity was fairly hard.
    The major determinant for nest sites seems to be a substantially clear area of ground devoid of thick vegetation so presumably the dominance of exotic grasses along local creek and river channels restricts suitable habitat available for these birds to breed.
    They’re rather surreptitious, often hanging around in the branches of nearby trees but only discovered by chance when observed emerging from their nesting tunnels.


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