Photographing European bee-eaters in Charente-Maritime, France

A photogenic bird with an annoying habit of nesting on private property

European bee eater with a bee in its beak.
European bee eater with a bee in its beak.

For a photographic project in the Charente-Maritime department in France, which will end in 2014, we needed a photograph of a European bee-eater. We knew that the habits of this beautiful bird make it very photogenic. But, before we could take pictures of the birds, we had to find them, and that turned out to be harder than it sounds.

A migratory bird which nests in sandy banks

The European bee-eater, Merops apiaster, is a bird that feeds on insects. Bees are its main food source, but it also eats wasps, hornets, flies, dragonflies, etc. It usually catches insects while flying, the same way that swallows do.
During the European winter, bees stay in their hives, depriving European bee-eaters of their favorite food, so the birds migrate to West Africa. Because of their migration patterns, European bee-eaters can be found in Charente-Maritime in the late spring through summer.

Usually, European bee-eaters dig their burrow-like nests in sandy riverbanks. After mating, the female will deposit five eggs in the burrow. They will be incubated for three weeks by the both adults. Then, the adults care for the juveniles for four weeks.  At the end of those four weeks, the adults force the juveniles to fly.

The way that the adults teach the juveniles to fly is highly unusual. They force the juveniles to fast before flying. Adults weigh, on average, about 2 ounces, and they have a wingspan of almost 20 inches. The little ones are so well-fed and fat that they can weigh up to 2½ ounces. This extra weight is a burden which could prevent them from being able to fly easily, so the parents stop feeding the juveniles so that they will lose enough weight to be able to fly. We were able to observe and photograph the chicks as they screamed for hours at the entrance to the nest, begging for food. In the end, they get so hungry that they fly to find food. It is an extraordinary behavior that we do not forget.

In the Charente-Maritime department, European bee-eaters usually nest in sand quarries. Unfortunately for us, most of the quarries are privately owned.

European Bee-eater feeding juveniles in his burrow in a sand quarry.
European Bee-eater feeding juveniles in his burrow in a sand quarry.

The nightmare of trying to get permission to photograph the birds

To find sand quarries in Charente-Maritime, we used mapping software online. Once we spotted a quarry on a map, we went to visit it.

In the first five quarries which we found, we were unsuccessful in our hunt for a place to take pictures. In the first two quarries, could not find any European bird-eaters or any signs that they had ever been there. We could not get to the third quarry. We were denied access to the fourth because it was still in operation. The owners of the fifth site politely refused our request to take pictures on their property, since we were just photographers, not members of a birding association.

With our binoculars we sighted two pairs of European bee-eaters flying to the tops of the trees around the quarry. We had to find the nests. After a couple hours of waiting, lurking in the tall grass away from the eyes of the wary birds, we saw the nests, but there was no way for us to install our blinds or take pictures without the owners’ permission.

Our tenacity finally pays off

As soon we are back, we start looking for a new quarry. They are not many in the region. We will soon spot all the good sites. We find a new quarry in the south of Charente-Maritime.

We must visit the sand quarry soon, as the time is going fast. The chicks will quickly grow to the size where they can fly. Soon, we will no longer find any birds in a nest. The migration to Africa is coming soon.  Mercifully, the owners of this quarry allow us to take pictures on their property.

We hide behind small shrubs and look to the sky, searching for European bee-eaters. We are worried and stressed because there were very few quarries to begin with, and now, if this one does not work out, there may not be enough time to find another one before the birds migrate to Africa. After twenty minutes, we hear the expected scream from one of the chicks. We see the adults flying high. The birds are there. Now, all we have to do is wait for the adults to show us where the nest is.

We do not know yet, but the juveniles are already very big. They are almost ready for their first flight. The parents have stopped feeding them. We wait all day before we see a chick coming out of the hole to beg for food. However, by this time, the sun is going down, and the light is not good enough to take pictures. We need to come back again, but at least we saw our first birds.

European Bee-eater juvenile in his burrow in a sand quarry.
European Bee-eater juvenile in his burrow in a sand quarry.
European Bee-eater juvenile in his burrow in a sand quarry.
European Bee-eater juvenile in his burrow in a sand quarry.

We are lucky. The next day, the weather looks great with lots of sunshine. We arrive early. The site’s geography requires us to set up our blinds in the middle of the quarry. It is impossible to settle on the banks because there is a ditch bordering the property. The parents do not show up today. We just take pictures of the juveniles at the entrance to the burrow. Nevertheless, we are satisfied with the photographs.

The next day we return, hoping this time to see the adults. Our wishes come true after a morning of waiting. An adult alights near the nest with a bee in its beak. We just have time to focus our cameras and shoot the picture, since the cameras were focused on the burrow.

We came back home very satisfied with the happy ending of our research. We finally met someone who understands our needs. But our joy was short-lived. Consulting the weather forecast, we saw that the weather for the next four days was going to be rainy. By the time the weather turns sunny again and we can take pictures, the birds will be gone. We will not be able to get any more photos this year. Still, at least we have some good pictures from our two days of photography.

We call the manager of the sand quarry, explaining that we will not be able to come again this year. He invites us to come back next year and continue taking pictures. Our project will be over by then, but we will still come to take pictures of these incredible birds.

Blind to photograph european bee-eaters in a sand quarry in Charente-Maritime in France.
Blind to photograph european bee-eaters in a sand quarry in Charente-Maritime in France.
Blind to photograph european bee-eaters in a sand quarry in Charente-Maritime in France.
Blind to photograph european bee-eaters in a sand quarry in Charente-Maritime in France.

Wildlife photography is a very difficult area

This project taught us never to commit to having pictures of wildlife that we are not sure of being able to find. Nothing is more difficult than nature photography. Nothing is predictable. Everything is random. Patience and tenacity are necessary, but often insufficient.

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Article published on Sunday, August 25, 2013 . Written by
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