Encounter – Chestnut-headed Bee-eater

In the deciduous forests fringing the Western Ghats, look out for the charming Chestnut-headed Bee-Eater
Bee eaters are probably a bird-lover’s (and photographer’s) favourite birds — breathtakingly beautiful, amazingly acrobatic and acquiescent. Early into my birding days, I ran into the Chestnut-headed Bee Eater (Meropus leschenaulti) when I had imagined that the Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) was the end of the road to birding bliss.
A Chestnut-headed Bee-eater looks out from its vantage near Valparai, Tamil Nadu
The chestnut head and crown are definite pointers to identification. A chestnut-and-black line runs horizontally at the base of the neck, under the off-white/ cream-coloured cheeks and chin. The chestnut on the head tapers back, well beyond the shoulders to blend into the rich foliage-green of the wings and tail. The body, breast down to the vent, sports a lighter shade of green, and the inner tail-feathers are a dull olive.
Perched on a mud bank, maybe near a nest, near Valparai, Tamil Nadu

Quite a few people, in my experience, confuse the European Bee Eater (Merops apiaster) and the Green Bee-eater for the Chestnut-headed. The chestnut head in this species is darker in comparison to the golden-yellow of the Green Bee-eater in breeding plumage, and the cheeks are off-white, compared to the blue cheeks of the Green Bee-eater. The European Bee-eater, too, sports a chestnut crown, but it ends a little above the forehead, and then a dark band like a highwayman’s hood runs over the eyes. In the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater the chestnut runs all the way to just above the beak and over the eyes, and ends in a dark line under the eye.

Showing off the bold brown collar

If you are straining against the bright sky, unable to discern the colors, the tail is an easy giveaway. The long spike, present in most bee eaters, is absent and the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater’s tail ends in a shallow w. The call is a repetitive ‘trill’ — gruffer than the Green Bee-eater’s — while perched and in flight.

Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters are agile on the wing, capable of swift flight and spectacular aerial sallies. They wait on open perches, tossing their heads from side to side, keeping a keen eye out for insect movement. A patient observer may be rewarded with the sight of them snapping up wasps, dragonflies or butterflies at arm’s length. Then the birds return to the perch, repeatedly beating the prey, which is still clasped in the bill, against the perch to separate the stings.
This is typically how you might encounter the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater – on an open perch in a forest glade

The Chestnut-headed Bee-eater nests in holes on sand embankments. They are common in south India, and I have spotted them in several places in the Western Ghats including the Anamalais. I have heard stories about village children raiding the nests with playful curiosity, but thankfully those occasional incidents remain the only threats to these lovely birds, loss of habitat and natural predators notwithstanding.

Text and photos: Sandeep Somasekharan
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