Saturday, 10 March 2018

Kek Lok Si Temple: The most ornate Bee-eater colony

Kek Lok Si Temple is a Buddhist temple situated in Air Itam, Penang Island,  with its elevated position facing the sea making for impressive viewing. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and was built over a period from 1890 to 1930. Two of the most striking features are the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas and the 36.57 metre tall bronze statue of the Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.

Around Chinese New Year the entire complex is festooned with a myriad of coloured lights which make very impressive viewing and a 'must-visit' tourist attraction

Another colourful sight, in and around Penang, is the endemic Chestnut-headed Bee-eater  (Merops leschenaulti). There are 5 colourful members of different Bee-eater species found in Malaysia with three of these regularly seen in Penang. 

The Penang Bee-eaters; Blue-throated Bee-eater, Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters and Blue-tailed Bee-eater

The Chestnut-headed Bee-eater is a resident breeder in the Indian Subcontinent and adjoining regions, ranging from India, to Southeast Asia, including Thailand. Northern Malaysia and Indonesia.

These Bee-eaters breed in sub-tropical open woodland. often near water. They are a gregarious species nesting in small to large colonies in sandy banks.

Like other Bee-eaters they are master fliers and catch all their prey on the wing. They eat insects, especially bees, wasps and hornets as well as butterflies and moths. They will land with their prey, beat it on a branch and toss it in the air to get it in a position to consume.

In late November the species will form pairs and centre their activities around breeding areas prior to raising their young. Egg laying occurs in January and the breeding season in Malaysia ends in May. If the conditions are right two broods of chicks will be raised.

At certain times in the courtship and egg-laying period the male will bring gifts of insects to the female. Sometimes this precedes mating.

Nest building is an arduous task that may take a month. They nest in tunnels gouged into sandy banks. This type of construction uses picks and shovels. While their beaks make excellent picks their tiny ballerina feet make poor shovels. To shift loosened dirt they use their beaks as anchors, form a half-pipe with their wings and kick furiously with those dainty feet.

The resultant nest consists of a tunnel, around a metre long that leads in a nest chamber where  4-5 small white eggs are laid. They eggs take around 28 days to hatch.

The chicks are fed in the nest by both parents and often an uncle or aunty. Sometimes chicks from the previous batches join in as providers. Fledging also takes around 28 days and usually as the chick grows the providers seek bigger prey, such as dragonflies.

When the chicks are more mature they will wait near the entrance of the tunnel. The composite image below is a chick's view of an incoming parent.

Chicks generally have the adult colouring other than green feathers on the front of their heads. 

The fledging chick leaves the nest cavity and immediately flies off.

This type of nesting is not without difficulties with predation and pests. However on colony of penang Bee-eaters have made intelligent choices.
Back at Kek Lok Si an arrow on Google map indicates a road that bisects the temple complex. This road provide access the the Goddess of mercy statue and smaller temples.

The image below shows a view looking downhill along the steep access road. The elevated section on the left has an extensive concrete retaining wall system that is punctuated by regularly spaces drainage holes.

Closer examination of these, mainly dry, drainage holes reveals their structure as indicated below.

Careful observation also indicates that the decorations for Chinese New Year have colourful additions. It is estimated that there are over 100 Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters around the temple complex. They squeak, relax, preen, romance, glide, tumble, flirt and hunt around the ornate decorations and high into the blue sky and surrounding green woodland.

This smart colony have adapted a man-made structure into a ready-made nesting colony. The PVC pipe diameter just happens to be the right size to accommodate this smaller species of Bee-eater. The pipes are around 1 metre long and there is loose sand/dirt at the inner end of the pipe. All it needs is the addition of a nest chamber and there is ample evidence these are being constructed as loose dirt is kicked out of the entrance.

In March/April/May there is further evidence that this has been a successful adaption as insects are transported into chicks in the breeding chambers. There is safety in numbers in a colony and less predation and less stress in this permanent construction. 

The adaption to drainage pipe tunnel breeding has also been observed in a smaller scale on other parts of Penang Island but none are as large as the Kek Lok Si Temple colony.  This adaptive strategy most likely contributes to the very high 80% adult survival rate of this species on Penang Island.