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A Session with Bee-eaters

Of the four types of bee-eaters recorded from the Kathmandu valley, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater is the most commonly seen species of them all. They can be found in rural areas on the outskirts of villages, and though many bird guides write that the bird’s preferred habitat is forest near water, there are not very many water bodies in the Kathmandu valley at all, so from my experiences, they can be found where there are groves of trees bordering open areas and fields, especially on hillsides.

Maybe it is that combination of groves and fields that makes them so common in the northern portion of the Kathmandu valley near Sangla and Jhor. They are almost everywhere, it seems, at least by bee-eater standards. You can’t go far without running into some. The most I’ve seen during one birding trip in the Sangla area was fifteen, and that was an estimate.

They are hard not to admire, too: they dip through the sky like swallows, and for the most part are confiding and tame. They hunt from exposed perches and have a habit when sallying out for insects to come back to the same perch over and over. Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters are very social, family-oriented birds, and often you just don’t find one bird hunting alone, but five or six at a time.

Bee-eaters as a family are very social – sometimes they’ll even pile on ten to a branch or fill a tree with their brightly colored bodies. The exception, perhaps, are the rather stoic Blue-bearded Bee-eaters. In Nepal at least, they confine themselves to dense hill forest and forest clearings and aren’t as nearly gregarious and sociable as their Merops cousins.

By the time I had reached a little crest in the hill I was climbing, I had noticed there were at least four of the bee-eaters around me. They were perched, or sailing around, or calling their “pheer-pheer-pheer” and fluty “cheek” calls. With such good opportunities for photographs, I didn’t feel like I could justify going any further. So I stopped there and got out my camera.

The afternoon sunlight was warm on the landscape, and the golden light contrasted with dark rain clouds on the other side of the valley. It was definitely raining in Lalitpur, I thought. Hopefully the clouds didn’t float over here and bring more rain down. As sunny as it was right now, this time of year one could never know.

Rain clouds over the Kathmandu Valley

My gaze wandered from the southeast to the southwest. There stood Nagarjun, a huge bulk of a hill, its many ridges and ravines outlined in the afternoon light. The shortest of the five main hills around the valley, Nagarjun peak reaches just over 8,000 feet above sea level. If it wasn’t for the lockdown, I thought, I’d much rather be exploring its dense hill forests for Barred Cuckoo-Doves, Red-tailed Minlas, Mountain Hawk-Eagles, shortwings, and shrike-babblers.

Nagarjun in the sunlight with Champadevi and Hattibhan to the left

But a bee-eater’s call brought me back to reality. There were two adult birds behind me, and a younger bird in front of me. They called and perched and sailed on the afternoon winds. When they were above me, I could see their orange wings against the sun. And when they were below me their sky-blue rumps contrasted with their chestnut heads and green overwings. I spent the rest of the time on the hill photographing bee-eaters.

Immature Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Adult Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Immature Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Adult Chestnut-headed Bee-eater


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