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Isle of Wight bee-eaters rewrite the record books

Last modified: 02 September 2014

Image: Andy Hay

Bee-eaters nesting on the Isle of Wight have successfully raised eight chicks - the most successful breeding attempt on record in the UK. 

Three chicks have now fledged from one nest and another five chicks have fledged from a second nest.

The birds are expected to leave for Southern Africa within the week. They will fly hundreds of miles across France, Spain and Gibraltar to reach their winter feeding site. 

Bee-eaters, with their kaleidoscopic and very colourful plumage, are one of the most beautiful birds in Europe, and a very rare visitor to the UK. This is only the third record of this European bird successfully raising young in Britain in one hundred years.  

Normally found nesting in Europe, bee-eaters were last recorded successfully breeding in the UK in 2002, when a pair nested in a quarry in County Durham and two young fledged. Before that, two pairs were recorded raising seven young in a Sussex sand-pit in 1955. 

An adult bee-eater was first spotted at Wydcombe on 15 July by National Trust dragonfly survey volunteer Dave Dana. And chicks were first sighted a month later on the 15 August. There were originally thought to be nine chicks but one has not survived. 

Dave Dana: “I'd just come from counting golden-ringed dragonflies at a stream and I thought ‘that bird looks a bit different!' Its flight path seemed almost triangular. I didn't really appreciate the bird until I got home and looked at the photos. I'd always wanted to see a bee-eater in this country but I never thought it would turn out to be a major wildlife event."

Over the last six weeks the National Trust has worked very closely with partner organisations including the RSPB who helped open part of the site to public viewing once the eggs had hatched and the egg collector threat had subsided.

Many volunteers and staff gave up more of their free time, and often their nights, to assist with vital 24-hour surveillance to protect the birds and their eggs. 

Since news of the bee-eaters’ arrival broke, over 3,000 people have made their way to the Island to catch a glimpse of the colourful visitors. Until a few days ago, the National Trust reported a 100% viewing success rate. 

Ian Ridett, National Trust Isle of Wight Ranger, said: “As a lifelong birdwatcher and passionate naturalist the last six weeks have been amazing.  To have these very special birds breeding on the Isle of Wight and successfully raising eight chicks is a dream come true. 

“Hundreds of people have come to see the bee-eaters from across the UK.  It’s been great that so many people have been able to share the experience of seeing these colourful and charismatic birds.”

Keith Ballard, the site manager at the RSPB’s Brading Marshes reserve on the Isle of Wight, said: Having four bee-eaters arrive on the Isle of Wight, nest safely, and return as 12 is a fantastic result, exceeding all expectations. It’s been hard work but a great pleasure protecting these birds whilst allowing people to enjoy seeing them as well.”

The bee-eaters set up home in the sandy hills on the Wydcombe Estate, where the soft ground, rolling landscape and stream access provided ideal conditions for their nest burrow. Bee-eaters feed on flying insects and at Wydcombe they found a plentiful supply of wasps, dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and bumble bees. 
Matthew Oates, wildlife adviser at the National Trust said: “Climate change may well lure other Mediterranean birds, and migratory insects, to our shores. There are exciting times ahead for UK nature lovers.  

“Bee-eaters are usually faithful to breeding sites so we’re hoping that they return in 2015, but this will be dependent on weather and other perils of migration that birds face.”

Further information and images of the Wydcombe bee-eaters can be found at https://www.facebook.com/IsleofWightNT. 

The designated public bee-eater viewing point at Wydcombe has now been closed. 

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