Pictures and write-up of the Bee-eaters

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The Bee-eaters worldwide could be considered to come from two subfamilies -1]  the bearded Bee-eaters, Nyctyornithinae and 2] the typical Bee-eaters, Meropinae, .

World wide there are 26 species and in South East Asia - 6 species. In Malaysia, we are lucky to be able to spot 4 of these species 

Red-bearded Bee-eater Nyctyornis amictus
Blue-throated Bee-eater Merops viridis
Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater Merops leschenaulti

As you can see that 3 of the Bee-eaters are in a group of near passerine birds from the family of Meropidae.  So are most other species are found elsewhere. The diagnostic features of Bee-eaters are their colorful plumage, slim bodies, down turned bills and pointed wings. Their usual flight pattern of coasting give them a swallow-like appearance when seen from afar. Also common is the black stripe running from the eye to the base of the bill. Lastly, most of them having an extended streamer in tail feathers.


Bee-eaters as their name imply, really eat Bees. But it is not surprising to see them going after and eat other harmless insects especially dragonflies, and also grasshoppers, butterflies. On rare occasions, they may eat small lizards and fish. One important point, 4 species of Honeybees are the top choice of food for the Bee-eaters around the world.

Bee-eaters are somehow programmed to catch flying objects on the wings. The next chance you get, watch them. Bee-eater will catch the insect when the insect is in flight and ignores the insect after it has safely landed. After getting the insect and before eating its meal, Bee-eater removes the sting by repeatedly hitting the insect on a hard surface. This action normally extracts and remove most venom.

Another feature of Bee-eaters, they are gregarious. Each morning and later in the evening when they leave and return to their nests, the sky would be filled with birds gliding across the glow of the day accompanied with incessant calls.

The 3 [Meropidae] Bee-eaters that we see in Malaysia are migratory birds.


1. Blue-tailed Bee-eater  Merops philippinus

 Size & diagnostic markings:- 24 Cm. For us in central peninsula, there are really 2 species of Bee-eater, either Blue-tailed or Blue-throated. Then at some months, both Bee-eaters are not around. The Blue-tailed would appear for about 4 months. When the Blue-tailed gone, the Blue-throated would b around for another 4 months. The Blue-tailed Bee-eater is 24 cm long with the streamers extending another 7.5 cm. Firs, the the Blue-tailed Bee-eater has Blue -green on the upper part and the under part pale yellow. The bird has bronze green crown all the way to the back, thin border of pale yellow at the throat followed by chestnut color on the rest of the throat to the breast.

 Distribution :-  The bird is native in Philippines, Sulawesi and the surrounding Islands. Then breeds in countries at the southern foothills of the Himalayas.
 Habitats & preferences:- This is lowland open country birds. Found often in ricefields and besides mangrove forest.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:-  This bird when arriving into the country will spread its presence to all urban as well as rural area at the beginning of the season. In some location,  in the forest edge or urban gardens, the bird would stay for a longer period while others just a day or so. To be exact, the bird would settle down and be present in entire season in areas of open country. As mentioned earlier, padifields and edge of pathways in mangrove forest.
 My personal jottings:-

The Blue-tailed Bee-eater is native to a large range of land stretching from the Philippines to the foothills of Himalayas. This is one migratory Bee-eater. One intriguing point about the Blue-tailed Bee-eater is that its time of appearance in Malaysia runs contrary to that of the Blue-tailed Bee-eater. it is like the changing of shift. One goes and the other appear. So far only once in Pangsoon that I had seen 3/4 Bee-eaters of the Blue-tailed and Blue-throated at the same spot, side by side of one another.

I am trying to firm up some dates for long term observation. The Blue-tailed Bee-eaters from continental Asia would spent the winter months in the south. I feel that the bird is more a wintering visitors in Malaysia. They should be seen around the period of August- March. At year time, the open country and forest edge would be filled with Blue-tailed Bee-eater. Then they start flying back from the months of February

This bird actually breed in Myanmar and North Thailand during the period of February - May and are resident of West Thailand.

It is not difficult to monitor the migration time line. When new migrants are in the country, they would descend on the urban housing estates in doves. Their calls would alert me. Strays would perch on the TV aerials. Having consolidated my notes, my new task would be to confirm whether any vagrants from the Blue-tailed remained in the my usual haunts.

Record of bird's call :-    and Video

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 1

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 2

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 3

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 4

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 5

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 6

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 7

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 8

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 9

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 10

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 11

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 12

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 16

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 17

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 18

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 19

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 20

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 21

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 22

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 23

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 24

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 25

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 26

Blue-tailed Bee-eater # 27


2. Blue-throated Bee-eater  Merops viridis

 Size & diagnostic markings:- 23 Cm. The Blue-throated unlike Blue-tailed would avoid urban areas. Although they may come to the Parks in urban areas but never in garden. The Blue-throated Bee-eater is slimmer in appearance and also shorter at 23 cm. The streamers is another extension for 9 cm.  The upper part is pale blue. The crown is significantly dark chestnut color also extending to the back. The blue throat is diagnostic and followed by bright green in the under part.

 Distribution :-  This is a bird of the Greater Sundas and breeds in south China. It is also breeding in Malaysia while the bird is a visitor
 Habitats & preferences:- This is a lowland open country bird. Prefers heavily forested areas with a river nearby. Nests are in open areas where there are sandy mounts with vertical sides.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:- Firstly, this is a bird of the deep forest. The bird prefers protruding bare branches in the middle or upper storey of trees. Sometimes on electric wires that passes through forest areas. These forested areas could be those in the hills or coastal mangroves.
 My personal jottings:-

The Blue-throated Bee-eater is native to the Islands of Philippines and the Sunda Archipelago. This bird breeds in China during the months of March - August. The bird spends its winter period in the south and are passage migrants through South Thailand and Malaysia. Around the same time as the Blue-tailed Bee-eater are flying into Malaysia in August, could also be the same time the Blue-throated Bee-eater are passing through on their way to Indonesia.

It is during this period that I saw groups of 10/20 birds in the Kiara Hills for a few days. Then the group re-appear after days of absence. Could be the different groups passing by. On the northwards bound journey, the Blue-tailed Bee-eater would have left early in February, followed by a short period when the Blue-throated Bee-eater was sighted.

At the same time, there is also a population of Blue-throated Bee-eaters staying in Malaysia as residents and breeding here as well using the same breeding time frame. It is interesting that time like May, where little Blue-tailed was seen, that I saw the Blue-throated. In early May there were 3 newly fledged Blue-throated Bee-eater in FRIM. Then, we saw adults in Bidor.

The local residents when encountered are in pairs or with the siblings of 3/4 birds. Obviously different from scenes of 10s of birds when meeting up with a group of passage migrants. The big question I asked myself, most resident Bee-eaters have remained in remote countryside and forest edge. How would the scene be, when the wintering Blue-tailed are in the country?


Record of bird's call :-    and Video


Blue-throated Bee-eater # 1

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 2

Blue-throated Bee-eater# 3

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 4

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 5

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 6

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 7

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 8

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 9

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 10

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 11

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 12

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 16

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 17

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 18

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 19

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 20

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 21

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 22

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 23

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 24

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 25

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 26

Blue-throated Bee-eater # 27


3. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  Merops leschenaulti


 Size & diagnostic markings:- 22 Cm. This is a bird of the open country, but seen only in northern peninsula during the northern winter months. In Malaysia the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater is the smallest among the 3 Bee-eaters present at 22 cm. The upper part  of the bird is dark green while the under part is pale green to blue. This time the crown on this species is dull chestnut and as usual runs all the way to the back. The throat is pale yellow with the thin chestnut border at the lower edge of throat. This species do not have streamers for its tail feathers.

 Distribution :-  The habitats of the birds start from the north eastern part of India, down the Indian continent to Sri Langka, Andaman Islands to Sumatra, java and Bali.
 Habitats & preferences:- This is also a lowland open country bird preferring forest edge and mangrove forest.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:- The bird is seldom seen and only confined to places in the northern peninsula, like Penang and Perak.
 My personal jottings:-

Very little information is available about this species. The bird is native to the foothills of Himalayas, then a narrow corridor to South-western China. Through the Andaman Island into Northern Peninsula and into the Indonesian Islands Sumatra, Java and lastly Bali. It was observed that in India, this is  bird of the highland forest than also prefers places near waterways.

In Malaysia, the bird is found in lowlands open country. In Penang, huge colony near Air Itam which is an area of low hills. In Perak, the open areas of Padi fields and ex-tin mines land. Perched in middle or lower storey. In the case of Bee-eaters, more often than not along electrical wires. Though the bird was seen as far south as Johore, but recent sightings showed that it was sighted around Ipoh and not further than that.

As usual, the bird nest in tunnels bored out in the soils of vertical slopes and the community look after the young. Then I read that the bird lay its eggs the period February to May. In the past few years the birds would leave Penang by early February. In 2008, the whole colony of birds were still around in early April. Where did the bird comes from or leaving for which destination to do their breeding? Someone did mention that the bird breeds in India & Asia! Nowhere was mentioned that bird is migratory.


Record of bird's call :-    and Video


Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 1

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 2

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 3

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater # 4

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 5

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 6

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 7

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 8

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 9

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 10

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 11

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 12

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 16

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 17

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 18

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 19

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 20

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 21

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 22

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 23

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 24

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 25

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 26

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  # 27


4. Red-bearded Bee-eater Nyctyornis amictus


 Size & diagnostic markings:- 34 Cm. After reading about the 3 Bee-eater above, this last and 4th Bee-eater is totally different from all of them . This is a jungle bird of the deep forest. The Red-bearded Bee-eater at 34 cm long appears bulkier and much larger then the conventional shape Bee-eaters. The bird is almost green in color with the upper and underpart in close shades. The throat and the central breast in red with shaggy feathers. The fore crown purplish pink and small band of red before the crown.

 Distribution :-  This is a bird of Sumatra and and the Borneo Islands.
 Habitats & preferences:- This is a bird of the deep forest, usually in the hilly areas of the lowland forest. It is equally common in the sub-montane forest.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:- The requirement for the birds presence is places with dense forest and tall trees. the surrounding should also be hilly as the birds calls should be able to travel great distances. Its presence in the areas is prompted by the sounds of its odd calls in hoarse tone.


 My personal jottings:-

The Red-bearded Bee-eater is native in Sumatra and  the Borneo Island. One Bee-eater who is not from the family of Meropidae. This Bee-eater is a beautiful bird with an ugly voice.

But now it is common to see them in the Malaysian jungle. Unlike other Bee-eater, the Red-bearded Bee-eater prefers dense forest for its perch. But same as other Bee-eaters, this bird too, would choose bare branches and vantage points. Normally at canopy level.

Occasionally, it will make harsh calls. It is also with this call that I detect their presence. Once knowing that they are around, it rather easy to search for their exposed position led by the bright pink and red patch on the breast. The bird would stay in one position for some minutes. It would not feel threatened at their height and could detect any unfavorable action that we may proceed with next. When the bird feels more comfortable, it will fly to another or even nearer branch to check out the reason for my presence.

Red-bearded Bee-eater are not known to migrate. Their availability at known spots are quite predictable. Unlike other Bee-eaters, they may stay in the same position for a long time, never the whole day. But I cannot explain why it is not easy to spot during certain time of the year.

Most Red-bearded Bee-eaters were seen in the sub-montane environments of Old Pump House Road, Awana Golf course and in Frasers Hills [several parts], the lowland forest of Rengit and Ampang recreational Forest.


Record of bird's call :-    and Video

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 1

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 2

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 3

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 4

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 5

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 6

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 7

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 8

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 9

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 10

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 11

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 12

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 16

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 17

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 18

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 19

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 20

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 21

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 22

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 23

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 24

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 25

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 26

Red-bearded Bee-eater # 27


Quite obvious that though the Red-Bearded Bee-eater is commonly named as a Bee-eater, unlike the other 3 birds, it is not a "Merops"


There are a few practices common among these 3 birds. Together, they form colony, leaving and returning to their roosting area each day. It is quite obvious particularly in the morning when the flock of birds about 10-15 birds announcing their arrival. In the day light hours, once they are out, each pair would fly out to some suitable vantage points, spread themselves out over large patch of open country, to wait for the victims. More often, while in different perches, the members of the group are not very far away from one another,

Next point, it is common for them to build their nests in burrows of steep sides of land or cliffs, on hillsides and river banks. Some prefers ground of sandy nature while others prefer clay.

The Blue-throated were seen building nest in places with huge sand mounts or cliff sides. This would those in abandoned areas with little human movements. I have seen them now up in the hills in Ampang forest, deserted open country in Bidor and next to the coast in Pulau Indah among the mangrove forest.

Both species, the Blue-tailed Bee-eater and the Blue-throated Bee-eaters do the Spring migration from south to north each year. Starting from Singapore in January and would be passing through Malaysia in February and should be through Thailand in late March to be in Indochina or China by May. Apparently the Blue-tailed tapers off the season within a couple of weeks earlier than the Blue-throated. But important point is that both species are flying north during the same period of time.

The Chestnut-headed had made used of the water outlets opening on the walls of the Kek Loke Si Temple in Penang but none seen for the Chestnut-tailed that we get to see in the largest number.