Oh how I love these birds of many colours

A hot summer’s day. The sky a blazing blue. The tang of saltwater wafting on a slight breeze. A short distance away there are steep crumbling cliffs that overlook an azure sea lapping at golden sands of the North Norfolk coast.

In our immediate vicinity the sun beats unrelenting on dense bramble and scrub that fills a small quarry. The walls of the quarry where visible are yellowish, orangey, brown in contrast to the dark green and browns of the vegetation and the brilliant blue above. In the middle of the quarry below us a digger sits silent and motionless, just the top of its cab and bucket visible among the foliage. Behind us is the parched yellow, dusty grass of a field commandeered as a car park, the heat shimmering off the roofs of the half a dozen or so cars parked there, and making mirages of the gazebos set up.

Across the blue sky overhead, Sand Martins dip and dive, twist and turn through the hot air. Swooping low, squabbling between themselves mid flight, before dropping down and disappearing into the quarry whose rock face is littered with dark nesting holes.

We stand overlooking this scene for a while, a small flock of others doing the same, cameras poised, binoculars scanning, telescopes ready.

The view over the quarry

We are all here hoping to catch a glimpse of a real super star of the bird world. Like a group of super fans waiting for the latest rock band to appear from back stage. This group of birds have arrived for the summer, with two pairs now nesting in the quarry walls like the Sand Martins, and have caused quite a stir in the area. They are European Bee-eaters.

Climbing from the car we were initially told by the local guide that the birds had just been seen. But as is always the way when we reach the quarry edge it is all quiet on that front. For now the Sand Martins and a lone Kestrel provide the highlights, almost like the warm up act to the main event (not a bad warm up act either!).

Then another bird gliding over the quarry catches the eye. It is about the size of a Starling with similarly star shaped, pointy wings, but the bill is long and dark. Focusing with the binoculars my anticipation quickens, as I take in a kaleidoscope of rainbow colours. It is like something straight out of the imagination of my 6 year old.

European Bee-eater in flight

The bird flies down to perch on a looping bramble branch and joins three others perched on the bushes. Through the telescope we can see their stunning ‘coat of many colours’, a get up that Joseph would have been proud of!

There are bright bursts of yellow on the throat and back that contrast with rusty red cap, wings and back, and flashes of vibrant orange as the bird move in the sunlight. Underneath and on the tail it is vivacious marine blue and green. These guys give our beloved Kingfisher a run for most exotic and vibrantly coloured bird in Britain. They are stunning.

European Bee-eaters perched

They continue to perch, surveying the quarry, before flying up to sit on overhead wires in ones or twos, their soft chattering ‘prrp prrp’ filling the air. There is nothing quite like it in our British song book. It sounds almost tropical.

European Bee-eaters perched on wires

These birds with their technicolour dream coats normally nest in southern Europe and north Africa, before migrating to southern Africa in winter. Over the years there have been a few nesting attempts in the UK, with this the 6th since 2001. There will likely be more in future as their normal range continues to extend northwards, likely in no small part due to climate change. It appears though that their southern habitat is contracting, so their range is in fact shifting rather than expanding. Just another hint (if we needed one after sweltering in 40 degree heat over the last couple of days) that climate change is real and here.

Whether these birds are successful and whether they become a more common sight in the years to come remains to be seen. For now it is like a dream watching these beautiful rock star birds in the Norfolk sunshine as a birthday treat, and this dream will definitely do.


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