Buzz as rare ‘rainbow birds’ set up summer home in Norfolk


Written by Jenny Shelton

Two of the six bee eaters that appear to be nesting in Norfolk, perched on a gravelly patch of sand in the old quarry

Seven rare, technicolour birds are setting hearts a-flutter after appearing out of the blue over the Jubilee Weekend.

Two of the six bee eaters that appear to be nesting in Norfolk, perched on a gravelly patch of sand in the old quarry

Bee-eaters usually nest in southern Europe and north Africa, but this small flock has chosen a disused quarry at Trimingham, near Cromer, to spend their summer.

The birds have been seen making nest burrows, so there’s even a chance they might breed.

Bright and bombastic, there’s no mistaking a bee-eater. Their plumage is a fabulous dreamcoat of colour: claret-red backs, ultramarine underbellies, indigo wings and sunshine-yellow throats.

As well as bees, they feed on dragonflies and other flying insects, which they pluck from mid-air by leaping from their perch in a fluttering of rainbow wings. Bee-eaters do rather play to the crowds.

This is the sixth time bee-eaters have nested in the UK in recent times. Though undoubtedly rare, bee-eater sightings are on the increase, with a rush of UK breeding records occurring in the past 20 years.

DNR-GAL-Bee-eaters Norfolk 2 Mike Edgecombe.jpg

As their range continues to be pushed north due to climate change, these exotic birds may become established summer visitors.

In Nottinghamshire in 2017, the last time there was a fall of bee-eaters, thousands of people enjoyed stellar views of these special birds, with families and eager birdwatchers alike travelling from all over the country.

“Right now, these might be the seven most exciting birds in the UK,” says the RSPB’s Mark Thomas, who is working with local birdwatchers, the North-East Norfolk Bird Club and the landowner to set up a viewing scheme.

“We want everyone to be able to enjoy watching these utterly spectacular birds, while keeping the bee-eaters safe from disturbance. Bee-eaters tend to turn up every few years completely out of the blue, and it’s always a joy when they do.

“Nothing looks or sounds like a bee-eater,” adds Mark. “If you gave a child a box of crayons and asked them to draw a bird, this is probably what they’d draw. It’s like a festival of colour coming to town.’’

The car park and viewing area is located to the east of the quarry in a large grass field off Gimingham Road at TG284384. (What3words Car parking costs £5 to cover site monitoring.


Somewhere over the rainbow

There are 26 species of bee-eaters in the world, many of which are migratory: the European bee-eater being one of them. In winter, you’ll find them in southern Africa, then come the summer they fly north to nest in southern Europe, north Africa and west Asia.

Life-long lovers

Bee-eaters pair for life. Courtship sees the male serenading the female with songs, aerial courtship displays and romantic gifts of food. (We’re impressed!). Bee-eaters are one of a few birds species – like sand martins and kingfishers – that nest in holes, which they excavate themselves. Sandbanks and quarries are favourite spots for setting up home.

Babysitters club

Both sexes incubate the eggs – often up to ten of them – which hatch after around 20 days. But the couple may get help from other members of the colony, who step in to help with feeding duties.

DNR-GAL-Bee-eaters Norfolk 3 Mike Edgecombe(1).jpg

What about the bees?

It’s no surprise what the bee-eater’s favourite food is. Using their excellent eyesight and precision-curved beaks, they catch bees mid-air then disable their quarry by whacking their meal against a branch to remove the sting.

But don’t worry, the Cromer bee population isn’t under any serious risk from this visiting colony.

Divine intervention

In Greek mythology, after a botched sacrifice ritual, the god Apollo saved the boy Botres by turning him into a bee-eater.