Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rainbow Bee-eater

The thing I love most about watching birds is that exciting moment of confusion as the eyes and brain try to make sense of a random flash of color, to resolve it into something knowable. A burst of blue-green from the corner of my eye; we're near a pond; this is Far North Queensland, Australia. A kingfisher? No. Brain flips rapidly through the rest of its files . . . images remembered from a field guide . . . Rainbow Bee-eater!

Rainbow Bee-eater, Centenary Lakes, Cairns, Australia
These are not rare birds, but they were to me, as somehow I had never seen one before. For twenty minutes or so, Frank and I watched as it flew precise sorties, to pluck dragonflies from the air and return to its perch to dash the insects against a branch before gulping them down. It was gorging itself. So many dragonflies were meeting their doom that I lost count. It seemed the bird couldn't possibly fit anymore in its tiny stomach, yet somehow it kept going.

At first glance, the bee-eater is like a gorgeous piece of jewelry, a decorative folly of iridescence and tail streamers. But to an insect, it's a killing machine. Beneath all that finery is a nervous system wired to hunt. This bird sat on its perch in a state of complete alertness, scanning for any movement, and it almost never missed its target, many metres away in midair and invisible to my weak human eyes.

I love this bird's name. Rainbow Bee-eater, Rainbow Bee-eater, Rainbow Bee-eater. So improbable sounding. Yet for once, this bird has a name that actually makes sense (shock!) as it does eat bees. It eats wasps, too. It rubs them against branches to get rid of the stingers and venom glands.

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