An extraordinary congregation of bee-eaters


As with many birders, I like to spend time on a strategically placed small island during peak migration. Not only does this offer the best chance of finding something unusual in terms of rarity, but it also affords the opportunity to simply marvel at migration in action, with sometimes spectacular numbers of birds passing.

Over the last decade, spring for me has meant a visit to Ventotene. This small Italian island is part of the Pontine archipelago; it is in the Tyrrhenian Sea, around 25 miles from the Italian mainland. With a total area of just 0.59 square miles, it is ideal in location and size for picking up migrants journeying northwards from Africa to Europe for the breeding season.

One species which can appear in good numbers from April through May is the spectacularly beautiful European Bee-eater. With its outstanding colours, long tail and down curved bill, added to its ability to acrobatically catch insects in flight, the species' attraction to birders and non-birders alike is obvious. A quick look on the Italian equivalent of BirdTrack, ornitho.it, tells me I have had close to 4,000 sightings of bee-eaters in Italy. Despite so many encounters, this spring I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to witness the species as I have never seen it before.

Having completed a successful first day's birding around the island on 10 May, my last port of call was a small wooded area close to the main piazza in Ventotene. Often good for European Roller, Golden Oriole and Phylloscopus warblers, it's a place I don't like to miss. Nearing the end of the wood I could hear bee-eaters, but the call was somehow much more subdued than usual. Making my way to where the sound was coming from and looking up, I could see what at first looked like a large, thorny nest. On raising my bins, however, that thorny nest transformed into a spectacular gathering of bee-eaters, crammed together closely on branches, getting ready to settle in for the night.

European Bee-eaters gather to roost on Ventotene, Italy, on 10 May 2018 (Brendan Doe).

Incredible – a bee-eater roost! The birds seemed totally unperturbed by my presence, so I started to rattle off some photos. I also took a shot on my smartphone, which I sent to my partner with the caption: "This is one of the most incredible things I've seen. Over 60 bee-eaters huddled together for the night!" My partner's reply was "It looks like an enormous caterpillar", which was a theme to be repeated later. It was one of those jaw-dropping birding moments that make you utter disbelieving words out loud and will stay in my memory forever. The next day, bee-eaters again roosted in the trees but 'only' 30 or so birds were present, down from the 60-70 the previous evening.

European Bee-eaters, Ventotene, Italy, 10 May 2018 (Brendan Doe).

On getting home and processing my photos, I posted a few of the bee-eaters on Twitter. If I'm lucky I usually get a few likes and retweets of my photos. However, it quickly became apparent something different was going on with these images. Not being a 'celeb', in my terms, this was going viral! Writing this almost a week after posting, things are finally calming down. Between my post and BirdGuides tweeting it as a 'Notable' in the Photo of the Week article, there have been 5,000 likes, retweets and comments! Many of the comments echoed my partner's original suggestion: that at first the huddled bee-eaters looked like some kind of giant caterpillar.

With so many bee-eaters together in such a small space, the spectacular colours and striking deceptiveness of the photos, at first appearing to show something totally different altogether, perhaps contributed to the fact that many non-birders also liked the pics. Whatever the reason, a huge thanks to everyone for their positive feedback. I'll be back again next spring to see what wonders the magic of Ventotene will throw my way.

European Bee-eaters, Ventotene, Italy, 10 May 2018 (Brendan Doe).

Written by: Brendan Doe

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