On 25 June this year seven Bee-eaters were found at a quarry in East Leake, Nottinghamshire. Although rare visitors to the UK, Bee-eater sightings are on the increase, pushed north by climate change and since 2002 there had been five breeding attempts in England most recently at a quarry in Cumbria in 2015.
The East Leake birds were soon seen mating and three nests were confirmed. The RSPB set up a 24-hour watch and organised a car park and a view point allowing an estimated 10,000 people to see them. Everyone was delighted when between 20-26 July all three nests successfully hatched chicks.
On 1 August though it seemed something was wrong. The birds were no longer visiting the nests as frequently and much to everyone’s dismay it was soon evident that the nests had unfortunately failed. It is thought that the failure was linked to food provision for the young, rather than predation probably due to the spell of bad weather. All seven birds had departed the site by 4 August. They were then relocated around 12 miles further south at Ulverscroft, Leicestershire on 7 August where they remained until the final record there of five at 8.30am on 15 August.
And so to Hertfordshire!
It was the following day, 16 August, and Terry and Maureen Wyman were sitting in their garden in the village of Bayford, near Hertford. At 14.15pm they had some very surprising visitors…
Maureen Wyman: ‘While sitting in the garden we heard an unusual bird call. We quickly got the bins out and discovered five bee-eaters! They stayed around for about 30 minutes and we were able to get some good photos.’
The news was out late the following morning and two Herts birders – Chris Beach and Mike Ilett – were soon on site hoping that the birds had remained overnight and were still present in the area. They were not to be disappointed!
Mike Ilett: ‘I had been in meetings most of the morning and when I checked my phone I had five missed calls and after checking twitter saw there had been 3+ Bee-eaters reported from Bayford the day before. There were no details but thought it worth checking out. I spoke to Chris Beach who had just arrived in Bayford so we arranged to meet up and, as we were the only two there, decided to split up. After a drive around I decided to head just out of the village and for no reason stopped at a gateway. As I got out of the car I immediately heard the distinctive call of a Bee-eater and then saw one flying in front of me, followed by another then another until I had seven birds which landed in a nearby tree. I quickly called Chris and he joined me within a couple of minutes, tweeted out the news and phoned a few locals. I left around 1.30pm and was amazed to hear that they all flew off just after 2pm.’
Chris Beach: ‘After receiving news late morning of 3+ Bee-eaters being seen in a private garden in Bayford the day before I decided to have a look for myself. Not knowing where the birds were originally seen, I parked by the church and intended to walk through the village, scanning fields and gardens on the way. I arrived in the village at 12.30 and was shortly joined by Mike Ilett who decided to drive the area first in order to cover more ground. At 12.50 I received a phone call from Mike to say that he had found them and I could tell by the excitement in his voice that it wasn’t a wind up. Within five minutes I had joined up with Mike and we watched the group of seven birds doing feeding forays from the top of a partly dead ash tree about 200 metres away. By about 13.15 we started to be joined by other birders. At about 13.40 the whole flock took flight in a tight group and gained height and we were certain that they were about to depart but they seemed to change their minds then dropped and drifted towards the village. A couple of us walked down the road and I could hear them calling from a group of trees but couldn’t see them. Convinced they were in these trees I stuck it out, a few more birders arrived but by now the birds weren’t very vocal and a good 10 minutes had gone by without a sighting. Then suddenly the birds took flight and again gained height but this time they seemed more spread out and then slowly drifted overhead before dropping height and lost to view behind some trees as they headed in the direction of Little Berkhampsted. Around 15 birders managed to see the Bee-eaters before they disappeared with other birders arriving at the same time. At about 14.30, and with no further sightings for at least 20 minutes, I too moved off. I went back twice the next day (early morning and lunchtime) but unfortunately no Bee-eaters to be seen in Bayford, I also checked out the neighbouring villages but nothing their either.’
As there were seven birds is was clear that these were the East Leake birds stopping off on their migration south. Incredible! As Chris later put it on twitter ‘I still can’t believe that I was watching the Nottinghamshire 7 this lunchtime in Herts. What a county tick’.
Although this species has been recorded in Hertfordshire on four previous occasions, two of those records were over a century ago and the last was a single observer sighting at Stevenage on 29 June 1973. This therefore represented the first opportunity for Herts birders to see this beautiful species in the county.
Let’s hope there are many more to come!