Monday, March 28, 2011

Our most brilliant birds are back

The glorious Golden Oriole is back from West Africa, or very soon will be.

For such a vividly coloured bird, the Golden Oriole does a good job of keeping out of sight. It's mainly a heard-rather-than-seen species of open woodland and orchards. Thrush-like in size, it feeds and nests among high foliage and is usually only glimpsed as it dashes from tree to tree.

You are more likely to see males than females. He's a very handsome chap. The brilliant yellow of the body contrasts with the jet black of the wings and tail. The much drabber female is mainly green with some yellowish and greyish bits. Before nesting begins, you may see a male pursuing a female at high speed, both displaying great aerial agility. It's their courtship behaviour.

The commonest give-away that orioles are back is their song. It is as distinct as that of the Cuckoo, though very different in tone. Tropical rain forests may come to mind when you hear the flute-like warble, short but loud, often repeated at ten-second intervals or so. Their other frequent calls are much harsher, more reminiscent of cats than rain forests.

The Golden Oriole's Portuguese name, Papa-figos, derives from one of its favourite foods – ripe figs. When suitably ripe fruit is not available, orioles will happily eat a variety of insects.

Another plentiful and extremely vivid summer visitor just back from Africa is the Bee-Eater. Travelling or hawking high overhead in loose flocks, Bee-eaters announce their presence with their distinctive bubbly trill.

As their name suggests, bees are a prime target, but so are all sorts of other flying insects. With their aerodynamically tapered profile and great manoeuvrability, Bee-eaters are well designed for feeding on the wing.

They are built for speed but, given their colouration, hardly for stealth. Their plumage is positively riotous. Both sexes are the same with great splodges of turquoise-blue and patches of bright yellow, green, chestnut and black.

Bee-eaters can be seen feeding over any kind of countryside but the best close-up views are to be had near sandbanks when nesting. Not only fine aviators, they are accomplished burrowers when it comes to family planning.

The arrival of Golden Orioles and Bee-eaters is all the more welcome because it is early confirmation that summer is really here.

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