Rarity finders: Blue-cheeked Bee-eater in Shetland


As always in June, we were in double-time mode, starting the day early and finishing late, juggling essential gardening jobs with birding. By lunchtime on 10th we considered having a snooze to get re-energised. However, a long-awaited south-easterly wind made it difficult to relax, let alone sleep. We were both keen to get out in the field.

The morning had been pretty good – the Blyth's Reed Warbler from the day before was still at Ham yard, singing with gusto but less showy, while a scattering of common migrants kept us on our toes, interested and hopeful. A walk up the burn north to Bloburn with European Nightjar in mind produced a lone Eurasian Wigeon, though a saunter along Soberlie dyke and coast was productive with more Swallows, a single House Martin and a Spotted Flycatcher.

Before heading south after lunch we decided to check if anything new had dropped into Ham valley. Halfway down the burn we stopped to investigate a bit of movement in the canopy of a small tree and a Common Chiffchaff revealed itself. We turned to move on when, suddenly, the jaw-dropping sight of green bee-eater appeared flying towards us. It landed on a fence approximately 20 m up the slope.

Shetland's only previous Blue-cheeked Bee-eater record was the famous and popular individual of June and July 1997, which stayed in the Lerwick area for a fortnight and was widely twitched (Donna Atherton).

Cameras were deployed without thinking and we shakily managed reasonable shots and video. It was calling a harsh repeated single choo whistle while looking around appearing unsettled, yet it seemed unaware of our presence. After less than five minutes it took flight and headed up high north-west over the slope and out of sight. We were left shaking our heads, open-mouthed in disbelief and astonishment at the encounter.

Its overall colour was a bright grass green, but when it called it flicked its wings up exposing pale turquoise flanks and undertail coverts. The face had a neat broad black eyestripe on a white background, with a powder-blue face, and a yellow and burnt-orange chin and throat. The bill was long, black and downward-curved to a sharp point. In flight the tail streamers were silhouetted and more pronounced. We recognised it as a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater from our time in India.

Footage of the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (Donna Atherton).

We put the news out on Shetland Rare Bird WhatsApp group and then made our way up the slope, confident that it would be perched on a fence over the rise. We continued to search but we were on autopilot and not really able to fully concentrate due to the short, sharp shock and associated adrenaline rush. We never refound the bird.

Because we had only a very brief time with the bee-eater (exactly four minutes from the first to last photo), it made it all the more surreal. Also, I dipped on a very brief European Bee-eater in 2021 that Geoff encountered at Ham – this made up for that. A few days later we enjoyed re-enacting the four-minute timeline and it still felt like a 'pinch-me' moment!

Written by: Donna & Geoff Atherton