“There it was, sitting pretty on a bare branch, wagging its tail in as carefree a manner as you would expect of a wild bird in love. When it swished its head left and right to survey its environs for potential snacks, its flowing purple beard swooshed along in grand fashion. Our hearts half-stopped as we oohed and aahed over the Purple-bearded Bee-eater (Meropogon forsteni), looking most resplendent in purple feathers covering its head, throat and breast, contrasting with its green upper parts, wings and tail streamers, and rich brown belly. Its elongated throat feathers hung over its breast in a “beard” that made it look sombre, yet somewhat comical.
“Out of nowhere, another bee-eater landed suddenly on the same branch. Two purple beauties! We were beside ourselves with excitement! I inched forward to photograph the pair with my tiny camera. Without warning, the first bird lowered its body by leaning forward until its belly touched the branch. Apparently, this was the female, and she was actually prepping herself for mating. Her position was so precarious, compared to her typical upright posture, that she looked ready to topple off the branch altogether. Grasping the opportunity, the male hopped onto her back and the mating session was over in the blink of an eye. And I had unwittingly captured a shot of these birds in union! Just as quickly as it happened, both birds flew off, leaving us exultant and a little dazed.
“The Purple-bearded Bee-eater is definitely one of the highlights of any birder’s trip to Lore Lindu National Park in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. It is endemic to Sulawesi, found only on this island and nowhere else on earth. Three of us, Yong Ding Li, Goh Yue Yun and myself worked the tough, steep slopes of the Anaso Track of Mount Rorekatimbu for five full days to see this bird and other montane endemics, from 28 May to 1 June 2007. The Sulawesi leg was the last of our 4-island East Indonesian birding tour that Ding Li and I were on, covering also West Timor, Flores and Bali.
[The two images of the Purple-bearded Bee-eater above are courtesy of Paul Pearson (left) and Andy Rhodes (right). The image below is by Pete Morris of Birdquest.]
“Over the next few days, we spotted three pairs of these bee-eaters, always hanging around three points along the Anaso Track. These hang-outs had one thing in common – they were all in open areas and near sandy ravines that provided suitable nesting ground for the birds. Purple-bearded Bee-eaters are known to dig burrows in steep banks near forest streams, cliffs, high-level roads, and banks by forest paths. The burrows serve as nests for the bee-eaters.
“We also observed them engaged in typical bee-eater hunts. From its perch, the bee-eater surveys its immediate vicinity. When it spots something, it swoops forward in a graceful arc, returning to its perch with a struggling insect (usually bees, beetles, wasps or dragonflies) clamped tight in its long beak. The insect is then smashed repeatedly on the branch to kill it, and to remove any indigestible parts (like a bee’s sting) and venom. It is then swallowed whole. During sallies, the Purple-bearded Bee-eater might emit a quiet, shrill “szit” or “peet” call. Curiously, bee-eaters are programmed to catch only flying insects. The moment an insect lands, it loses interest even if its prey is in plain sight.
“Together with the Red-bearded Bee-eater (Nyctyornis amictus) and Blue-bearded Bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni), the Purple-bearded Bee-eater completes the bearded bee-eater family Nyctyornithidae. All other bee-eaters belong to the family Meropidae.”
Top images of the copulating birds by Gloria, others by Paul Pearson, Andy Rhodes and Pete Morris.
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