Stephen Rutt chases a rare glimpse of the luminous bee-eater.
David Hamilton was running late. It is 3rd June, 1920, a milky day that he would later remember as hindering observation. He is passing the River Esk, on the edge of Musselburgh, Scotland, when he sees a pair of peculiar birds, two ‘rather unusual strangers,’ crowning a wire fence. He dallies, snatching a guilty moment to watch them. Taking cover behind the hanging green screen of willow branches, he watches as the strangers take off and come flying past, snatching bees from the sky.
He really must go. That evening he tells his friend, the ornithologist J. Kirke Nash about what he has seen. Two birds, of medium size and elongated shape, with long thin bills and an extended central tail feather. Feathers like nothing else he has seen. A shining, multicoloured dream of a bird (even in bad light): yellow throat, blue front, red, yellow and green on the sides, and gold behind. Nash is hooked. For the next twelve days, the two men watch ornithological history unfolding.
These peculiar strangers are bee-eaters, birds of southern Europe, rare to Britain, rarer still this far north. The avian pair are repeatedly visiting a sand bank by the river’s edge where a new hole has appeared in the sand. A three-hour vigil by the human pair reveals 15 visits to the new burrow, the birds spending up to ten minutes a time inside. Hamilton notices the ceremonial passing of a large bee from the male to the female.
The twelve days are a cocktail of joy and anxiety for the watchers. It is, in Nash’s words, ‘a pleasure which we feel sure the most ambitious ornithologist could never have hoped to enjoy’ and yet Hamilton and Nash worry. They worry about the birds’ conspicuousness: their brilliant plumage compared to the nearby ‘herbage’; the burnished gold of their backs as they hover at the nest hole, opposite a busy footpath.
They are right to be anxious. This is the first nesting of bee-eaters in British history and it will end in tragedy.
102 years later. The quarry-face wobbles. The sand is baked hard as stone, and must be scorching to touch, I think, as I watch the heat haze distort the webcam’s picture on my phone. For thirty minutes nothing passes. My attention wanders. Then the bee-eater appears. I screenshot. It flies off in a frame of colour: red, white, yellow, blue, green. Missed it. I rewind thirty seconds into the past and try again.
It is the hottest day in history here, 100 miles southwest of the quarry at my in-laws’ in Bedfordshire. We lie around like stray dogs, briefly released of responsibility by the heat. Flies filled up the house before we shut the windows. Then we pulled the curtains tight to hide from the light. We sweat going nowhere. We sweat doing things. I shuffle out every hour or so just to see what the future feels like. It’s a furnace until the evening shadows shield us from the sun’s fierce glare.
Later, I would see that the weather station to the west of us recorded a maximum temperature of 39.5 degrees; the weather station to our east topped at 39.9. The evening news shows roads and runways melted, London on fire, France on fire, Iberia on fire. Everything is described as tinder dry. Everything goes up like a match.
I text my dad the screenshot of the bee-eater, a rainbow-blur of a bird leaving its nest hole. ‘They might be coping,’ he replies, ‘and not cooking.’
Three days later Dad and I are driving down Norfolk’s tight backroads, the bleached verges studded with sky-blue scabious and candy-striped bindweed. We pull in through a gap in the hedge. Shell out £5 to a volunteer — high-viz jacket, deckchair, whiteboard of sightings — and park in a field of dirt next to a portaloo. We walk a short dusty path beaten through dry grass, speckled with the chrome-yellow constellations of ragwort, the great floral survivor. It is a muggy, sticky late morning, half the temperature of before.
Fifty people are bunched near the quarry edge, looking at “nothing much, mate”. That nothing much: a chaffinch, blackbird and two woodpigeons on the telephone wires that stretch over one corner of the quarry. A buzzard wheels above, from cloud to cloud to cloud, black against the shades of white and grey sky. Between where we stand and the drop into the quarry there is a tangle of bramble. Orange and brown gatekeeper butterflies drift between the flowers like autumn leaves. Bumble and honeybees move low over the ground, humming with the day’s lack of urgency. Sand martin calls rattle from above the line of the telescopes as they flit, swerving in the air after insects we can’t see. No one watches them.
Longueurs. They happen. They are an essential part of the birding experience, when the birds disappear and the mind wanders through the landscape. The quarry is a useful distraction. The bramble and the trees on the far side remain familiarly green, deep-rooted, able to retain a supply of water missing from the fields. An allotment lies to the west of the quarry, where a plume of smoke and a person dressed in white slowly move.
I speculate sotto voce on the identity of the tall yellow-flowered plants on the far side of the quarry. “Evening primrose,” says the man stood next to me, without breaking his vigil at the telescope’s eyepiece. It is all he has said to me. It is all he will say to me.
England is changing. I remember when I first left home for the north, aged 18, that south-east England was green and was green all summer long. But now, aged 30, to point the car south down the A1 is to enter a brownscape. A dustscape. Grass parched and singed, the skeletal-straw remains of dead umbellifers in the central reservation. Wind the window down in a traffic jam and the stridulation of grasshoppers — ersatz cicadas — makes it feel like the bits of the Mediterranean you drive through between the airport and the beach.
This is not the sun-addled ravings of someone who moved to Scotland and misses the occasional day of 23 degrees and sunshine. This is the disorientation of someone who, on scrolling Instagram, saw a schoolfriend post a picture of a hometown park and assumed it was somewhere in the south of Spain, for the dusty heat leaching out of the picture.
This year borrowed a bit more from Spain. Eight bee-eaters ended up in a disused sand quarry on the edge of the village of Trimingham in North Norfolk. They stayed a while. Then two pairs burrowed into the sand, like kingfishers would, and laid their eggs in the warmth and darkness of the earth. This does happen in Britain: it is the eighth time they’ve ever bred here, since Hamilton and Nash found the first pair. They bred in Sussex in 1955. Then nothing for almost half a century until Durham in 2002 started something curious. It was followed by Herefordshire in 2005, the Isle of Wight in 2014, Cumbria in 2015, Nottingham in 2017. Little flurries of attempts, always one or a few pairs in one location, as if an attempt one year would yield a repeat shortly after.
Bee-eaters were still seen in Britain in the years between nests but they were seen as they usually are: pushed northwards by southerly winds in spring or autumn, a transient presence; fleeting fly overs, thrilling the lucky, or settling on wires and attracting crowds of twitchers for a day or two before slipping away. Hard to mistake, not exactly inconspicuous, and yet normally only seen by the grace of being in the right place at the right time.
As I was, once.
Midsummer 2015 in North Ronaldsay, a small island, the northernmost in the Orkney archipelago. The morning had dawned overcast. The sea was quiet, for a change, and on such a morning it feels as though you’ve caught the place unawares, before the harsher elements of island life — the noise of the waves and the salt air and the stiff breeze — spark up. Mornings like these, in places like North Ronaldsay, feel loaded with possibilities. I wasn’t surprised to get a text from an island friend with directions to a good bird, one that I had never seen. But on following them, I was surprised by just how good: the grey morning resolved into a small ecstasy of colour on the telephone wires, a panoramic perch for a view of the silage fields fizzing with insect life.
It was a moment for slack-jawed excitement, no thought process required. Look. Ridiculous. Later we figured out that in the moment it was probably the world’s most northerly bee-eater (and still we didn’t think about why or what that meant).
That ecstasy. It is colour mostly.
On watching the bee-eaters through binoculars, Nash called them ‘a perfect revelation’. He then proceeded to list an itemised breakdown of plumage features in a distinctly unrevelatory avian ekphrasis.
Think of it another way. The bee-eater’s feathers are an ornithological kaleidoscope, an unlikely combination of others. It has kingfisher blue on its breast. Yellowhammer gold on its throat. A godwit’s rich dark red (like dried blood) on its wings and back. Black and white eyestripe and forehead like a wheatear. The tail is green shot with blue like a mallard’s head or a teal’s wing. So far, so imperfect. You can cobble the colours together from elsewhere in Britain’s birds. But this Frankenbird would never match the lustre of the real thing. A bee-eater’s colours seem luminous, even in weak light (as Hamilton found when he first saw the history making pair).
That is because these colours are structural. Figment not pigment. That is to say, what you see when you see a bee-eater is not exactly what is there, but an artefact: the surface of their feathers interfering with the wavelengths of light. It is this that causes their bright glossy sheen, that bee-eater glow. Their colours are a dialogue with light itself. And in a way this feels right, more revelatory than ornithology’s pedantic terminology of colours. Bee-eaters are birds of the sun. They need its warmth for their food to fly, their feathers need its light to shine. They are a reminder that nothing exists in isolation, stripped of its surroundings. And that to take it from that is hollow, pyrrhic.
Lurking within most of us is that human instinct to possess the bright, the shiny, and the exotic; to capture the gem-like. It is understandable to an extent. It was present, tragically, in 1920. The nest by the River Esk failed when a nearby gardener caught the female. He kept her in a greenhouse and fed her breadcrumbs, not bees. She died two days later. The male was taken by a cat shortly after.
There’s a reason why the RSPB protect bee-eaters when they nest here. There’s a reason why they open these pop-up viewpoints in places that are otherwise uninteresting. Now the threat doesn’t come from misguided gardeners but disturbance from the curious, the eager to witness, the memory collectors. Sometimes the devil has good intentions (sometimes the devil wears practical trousers and carries a tripod).
Karl Marx had it that history happened twice, first as tragedy then as farce. (The 2005 nest failed because it was found by a fox, the 2017 nest failed due to bad weather.) The recent weather — this new arid version of England — is pitched somewhere between the two. On the day we shut the windows, closed the curtains, and hid from the outside, 41 houses burned down in London and 13 people drowned while swimming. The deputy prime minister tells us to live with it, enjoy the sun; headbangers say we survived 1976 without the nanny state.
The RSPB tweet about the Norfolk bee-eaters, making the point that as we warm up, warmer weather species will survive, then thrive in our new climate. People reply that because the first nest was in Scotland so long ago, this can’t possibly be the case (tweet about a tragedy, farce in the replies). There are outliers and exceptions, of course, but the RSPB’s point holds. Everything has a climate window. A study from earlier this year found some evidence in the avian antithesis of the bee-eater. The chiffchaff and the willow warbler are two almost identical small warblers, found throughout Britain. Like a bee-eater, they are green in part, have two legs and a pair of wings. Unlike the bee-eater, they don’t excite people too much. Like a bee-eater their changing nature in England demonstrates the climate changing around us. One of the crucial differences between a willow warbler and a chiffchaff is their subtle needs. The willow warbler is northern and the chiffchaff is southern; a willow warbler’s optimum breeding climate is 11 degrees and a chiffchaff’s is 13 degrees. In England, where the mean ground temperature in the breeding season is 12.7 degrees, the chiffchaff’s population is increasing and the willow warbler’s declining. But in Scotland, where the mean temperature is a cool 10.2 degrees, the willow warbler’s numbers are increasing. The willow warbler is a species that is moving north through Britain, being displaced in slow motion by the warming weather.
Nobody would ever pay £5 to see a willow warbler viewpoint in Norfolk. There would be no deck-chaired volunteers. It would be ludicrous to imagine such a thing existing, and yet…
The bee-eater’s climate window is opening. They require a July average temperature of 21 degrees. If you map a line across Europe of places that average 21 degrees in July, you draw the northern limit of the birds’ distribution: in patches across the middle of France, a stripe through Germany and into Poland, with gaps for mountain ranges. They can, on rare occasions stretch to 17 degrees. But on the edge of their range they rely wholly on good weather. So here is perhaps a chain reaction of tragedy: a warming climate lures them in, but summer storms generated by the heat see that they don’t succeed.
It is just a bird. Breeding where it can, where the summer facilitates it. Just a bird, attracting the attentions of birders. And that’s how we ended up in Norfolk, a slight diversion from where we were supposed to be, rubber-necking climate change by a quarry.
A boat lies beached by the brambles, peeling its white and blue paint. A short distance away the rusting front of an old yellow tractor lies trapped by the dismembered limbs of other, anonymous, machinery. This place wasn’t ever meant to be seen by thousands, certainly not from this angle, and it has been left ugly. There are piles of tiles, metal girders, trailers, tarpaulins, bricks and a wire fencing panel. A stoat skulks around a rotavator, rust on rust; its low-slung body pouring through the gaps in the machine. It scurries to a pen holding old gas bottles by a tatty prefabricated shed. Bee-eaters have a habit of breeding in quarries. Half of their attempts in Britain have been in quarries or sand pits. It is habitat rather than anything more meaningful but it makes sense to me. Quarries are places where our extraction of the land is at its most blatant. This junk-lined quarry is an emotionally honest picture of our attitudes to the environment. They remind me, strangely, of ‘Ozymandias’: ‘boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.’ Sand and ruins. The arrogance that leads to here, a place where 40-degree heat seems inevitable.
I drift around to the other viewpoint. This group of birders have been glued to their telescopes watching linnets and goldfinches. Flocks buzz the nearside shrubbery. This year’s crop of young trill, their lives all energy over caution at this point; or as heard earlier, more of that nothing-much-mate. Behind, in the sandy bank that I had seen up close on my phone, the nest hole lurks unobserved.
I zone out. Someone says, “It’s like a festival of nature, this. Reading, Leeds, Norfolk.” Others discuss the nature reserves that sell sandwiches on the way back, give directions to the county’s other star attractions, all part of the tour, the itinerary of the imperilled.
The warden — sunburnt, shorts, air of mild authority — breaks the reverie. “Flying in. One. From the allotments, over the beekeeper,” his voice falters, “…ironically”. Heads instantly swing left, binoculars raised, eyes lowered to telescopes. In flight the bird is an awkwardly angular presence, all ill-fitting triangular wings and long spikey tail, that rainbow-blur from my phone screen bought to life. The bee-eater calls, a warm rippling trill of rolled Rs, “a summer holiday sound,” somebody says. It lands between a woodpigeon and a blackbird on the wires. The length of the blackbird, but slimmer, glowing against the grey sky. In its stout bill a bee is held perpendicular. The bird dashes the insect twice against the wire to remove the tail’s sting, and tosses it up. The bee falls vertically down the bee-eater’s mouth. Nothing sticks in its throat.
And off, again. One last flash of colour. The bird slips into the nest hole, vanishing into Norfolk’s hot earth.
Revelations of the changing climate rarely get more perfect.
Stephen Rutt is a writer and amateur naturalist, specialising in creative non-fiction prose and birds. He won the Saltire Society’s first book award, for his debut, ‘The Seafarers’. His second book, ‘Wintering’ was one of The Times’s best nature books of the year for 2019 and his third book, ‘The Eternal Season’, has just come out in paperback. His writing has also been published in The Guardian and The Scotsman. He is normally found in Dumfries, where he lives with his wife, baby and cat. He can be found on Twitter here and Instagram here. His website is here.