It's not easy to catch professional ornithologists off-guard in a country as small as Israel, so kudos to an eagle-eyed member of the public for alerting them to a new phenomenon.
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The blue-cheeked bee-eater bird has been spotted in the northern Negev this summer, the first time it has been found nesting there at that time of year for nearly 50 years.
The discovery has caused bird lovers to call for increased efforts to preserve the sandy areas of the Negev where the beautiful birds have been spotted.
Until now, it had been known that the bird had been nesting in small numbers further north, in the Jordan Valley. However, it has been seen in the Negev infrequently in the spring, during the migration season. As its name suggests, the bird feeds on bees, and makes its nest in sand dunes or sandstone.
Ornithologists Yaron Charka and Dominic Standing were surprised to find the bird flying over the Negev this past summer as well – after the migration season – which would suggest it might be remaining to nest in the region.
“The finding surprised us,” said Eyal Shochat, of the Hoopoe Center of Ecology and Ornithology, Yeruham. “But we needed proof in the form of an active nesting hole.”
This month, a bird-ringing event was held near Lake Yeruham, where birds were labeled after being caught in special nets. The rings help ornithologists identify the birds anywhere they might go. During the event, a flock of blue-cheeked bee-eaters suddenly appeared overhead. The ornithologists rushed to their nets and played recordings of bee-keeper birds to attract the birds. Six were caught and tagged.
Among those in attendance was Nehama Baruch, a resident of Moshav Naveh in the Western Negev. She immediately recognized the green bird with the red eyes as a species of bird she had spotted near her house, three years ago, while it was digging a nest on a mound of earth.
She had taken a picture of the bird nesting at the time, and showed the photos to the ornithologists at the Yeruham event, providing proof that the species not only flies over the Negev but also nests there.
“Her photo came at the perfect time, together with the appearance of the flock of bee-keepers, and they helped us solve the mystery,” Shochat noted. “This also taught us that there are mutual relations with the public. We not only give orientations for members of the public and teach them, but also learn from them. Nehama and her family documented an unknown phenomenon of nature.”
To find out more about the extent of the presence of the blue-cheeked bee-eater in the northern Negev, ornithologists will have to wait patiently until the spring, when the birds return from Africa. They plan to carry out a comprehensive survey of the species' population, with the help of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, in an effort to find additional nesting holes.
The Pithat Shalom region of the Western Negev, where Baruch lives, provides a wealth of nesting places for the blue-cheeked bee-eater, but agriculture is also encroaching on the sand dunes. Shochat and his colleagues hope the bird provides additional proof of the importance of the preservation of open spaces, so it will continue to nest in the region when it returns from Africa.