The winged rainbow that shakes you with its sheer beauty


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The Independent Online

Occasionally the natural world can trigger feelings in us that are so intense they are hard to explain. These are not everyday sentiments, and you might not experience them on your ordinary country walk – although then again you might, as I imagine Wordsworth saw his daffodils, and Shelley heard his skylark, in the course of what were probably, in other aspects, ordinary days.

For myself, the most intense such experience I have known has been listening to a nightingale singing, in the heart of a wood, in the dead of night. Everything is black, and everything is still, except for this small bird with the incredibly loud voice, doing a duet with silence. I’ve had this experience three times and each time it has left me shaken, and I cannot really account for why.

Recently I had another such encounter – in terms of the feeling of intensity – in quite different circumstances. It was on a day bathed in bright sunshine, and it was with bee-eaters. You’ll probably need to be a birder to be fully familiar with a bee-eater, so let me tell you at once that this is simply the most beautiful bird in Europe.

It’s a winged rainbow. It has a shining blue-green breast topped with a brilliant yellow throat, plus a back of yellow and chestnut, with long wings, a long decurved bill and projecting middle tail feathers, and the most vivacious, animated flight, in pursuit of big insects.

It’s a bird of the Mediterranean summer, migrating from African winter quarters (although occasionally a pair will overshoot the normal range and end up somewhere like Britain: since the millennium, three pairs have bred or attempted to breed here). I’ve seen them before in Corsica and I’ve seen them in Spain, but this time I saw them in Italy.

It was on the family holiday, a fortnight ago. We went to the Marches – Le Marche – that part of eastern Italy across the mountains from Tuscany and Umbria, facing the Adriatic. There aren’t as many Renaissance altarpieces as there are in Tuscany and Umbria, but then there aren’t as many English Hooray Henrys either, and the landscape is lovely with little-known but enchanting hill towns such as Montalto and Ripatransone and Offida.

We hired a house for a week, that is self, wife, wife’s mother, and daughter, 21, and son, 17, and the thing was, the bee-eaters came with the house. It was on a small hill of its own and when we got out of the car, on very first arrival, they were flying around the hill, calling, a flock of about 20 of them, and upon glimpsing the flashing colours and realising what they were, I was so elated I had to sit down to let my heartbeat get back to normal.

It was like finding that the house had an amazing swimming pool, or a fantastically equipped kitchen, only infinitely better, infinitely more privileged.

I imagined the advert: Marches house, sleeps 8, pool, patio, views, bee-eaters. I thought they would be there all week, but alas, they were a migrating flock heading back to Africa, and in two days they were gone.

Yet all week, the elation remained. It was such a strong feeling I can’t explain it, and I feel it deserves a name of its own, which naturally, will need to be in German, as German is the language most fitted to expressing unfamiliar new concepts in fancy compound words.

So on the analogy of Schadenfreude, misfortune-joy, I declare that what I have been experiencing is Bienenfresserfreude, bee-eater-joy. I can’t really rationalise the strength of it, but take my word for it that it’s real, and I wish that if you head for Spain or Italy or Greece or anywhere in the Med for your holiday next summer, you may be lucky enough to experience some Bienenfresserfreude of your own.

Twitter: @mjpmcarthy