This is the seventh post from my recent trip with CNP Safaris to northern Botswana. At least once each year, I make my pilgrimage to the Chobe river which is a photographer’s paradise and playground. On this particular Chobe trip we added on three days at Kalizo. It is in Namibia about 20 kilometres from Katimo Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Kalizo Lodge is known for its exceptional bird life being located on the banks of the Zambezi river. There are numerous inlets along the river and three pans close to the Lodge. We did not go to the pans because we only found out about them on the last of our three days at the lodge. Our focus this trip was on Carmine Bee-eaters and African Skimmers.
This post offers a selection of images taken of the Carmine Bee-eaters. Earlier, I published a separate post focusing exclusively on African Skimmers.
There are nine types of Bee-eaters found in southern Africa. Some are resident like the Swallow-tailed, Little Bee-eater and White-fronted Bee-eater and others are summer visitors such as the Carmine, European, Blue Cheeked and Olive Bee-eaters. I have yet to see a rare vagrant like the White-throated Bee-eater and have not seen a Bohm’s Bee-eater which is found north of the Zambezi river in Zambia and Mozambique.
There are two types of Carmine Bee-eaters, the Northern and Southern species. Both are equally beautiful, both have the gorgeous carmine colouring but the colour combinations on their heads are different.
Within a few hundred metres up river of Kalizo Lodge are three Southern Carmine Bee-eater colonies or three parts of one big colony, I am not sure which.
I do not know how many Carmines were nesting there but thousands, five thousand – perhaps more. It is nigh impossible to count them because there is a constant flux of birds flying in and out of the colony breeding area. There are two colonies on top of the embankment a short distance away from the Zambezi river and the third in the river bank directly above the river.
The Southern Carmines are inter-African migrants which come down to southern Africa in summer to breed and are also attracted by the increase in the insect population. I had never been to Kalizo in October and the daytime temperatures were above 40 degrees centigrade. The Carmines were nesting in the sand so you can imagine that the surface of the embankment was like an oven for those birds and they needed to cool off which they did in the Zambezi river.
The Carmines would fly out thirty metres or so over the water and dive in head first. It was a shallow dive almost belly flopping.
This all took place in a split second after which the Carmine powered itself out of the water. There was a distinct skill acquired to photographing these speedsters.
Unfortunately almost all of the birds dived some distance from us and the few that did dive close to us were so fast that we invariably missed them.
“Not all who wander are lost”.
~ J. R. R. Tolkien
The Northern and Southern Carmine Bee-eater populations are separate and do not overlap. The Northern Carmines breed in the savanna woodlands just south of the Sahara while the Southern Carmines breed in open dry country in interior southern Africa.
The colours of these Carmines are just exquisite. They have carmine upper parts and belly, an azure rump and under tail coverts. On the upper wing, the visible part of the tertial flight feathers is green-blue, and the primaries and secondaries area brownish-carmine-red combination with a black trailing edge. The underwing-coverts are cinnamon-buff and also have a black trailing edge.
The tail is carmine with longer central streamers.
What I found surprising is that there were enough insects in the area to feed all the Carmines in the three colonies. At Kalizo, the Carmines hawk flying insects, everything from wasps to bees and dragonflies.
The Southern Carmine is the largest of the southern African Bee-eaters, with a length of approximately 25 cm excluding the 12 cm tail streamers. The evolutionary purpose of tail streamers is thought to be for increased aerodynamic and flight performance, rather than for mating display.
I had been hankering for over 50 years to see a Carmine colony again. When I was 11, long-standing family friend Mike Condy’s father John Condy took a couple of us youngsters to see a Carmine colony outside Beatrice, south of Harare in Zimbabwe. I was so beguiled by the colour, noise and activity that I wanted to see this spectacle again. Fifty years later I got the opportunity and it was every bit as beguiling half a century later – same species, different place, different colony.
Carmines hunt from perches, chasing and catching flying prey in mid-air before to returning to the perch where the insect is beaten and swallowed. They are also known to perch on mammals and even some large birds too. I have seen a wonderful image of two Carmines perched on a Kori Bustard’s back as it was walking through the grass.
This was a narrow view of one of the colonies nesting in an open field. It was extremely hot so other than bathing in the Zambezi I presume the Carmines sit in the adjacent trees and bushes to catch any passing breeze.
These birds seem to be able to tolerate extreme heat, though even they start panting after a while.
“You are the sky, everything else is just the weather.”
Like all other Bee-eaters, the Carmine has a de-curved bill, allowing unobstructed sight of its prey until the point of capture.
This male Carmine had just brought back a meal for his partner who was busy digging their nest. They dig with their bills and scrape the sand out behind them with their small feet.
Our Kalizo routine was that we would go and photograph the Carmines early in the morning and later in the afternoon. We would spend about two hours at each visit. During each visit Yellow-billed Kites would patrol the colony regularly looking for an opportunity to raid. We only saw the “Yellow-bill” catch one Carmine. When a raptor approaches, the colony explodes into the air in a blur of colour and noise making it very difficult for the raptor, usually a Yellow-billed kite, to focus in on one individual.
“To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe.”
~ Mark Twain
Marabou Storks, Water Monitors and snakes are also the Carmines’ natural predators. The Carmines have no defense against either aggressive predator. As is normally the case, humans are the Carmines’ main threat. There is even a guard at the colonies who has a lookout tower to watch the goings on and chase off potential human raiders. The nests on top of the embankment have a much longer tunnel, probably to make it more difficult for predators to get at the eggs and chicks. Presumably there is also a more constant and cooler temperature much deeper in the sand.
Carmines are gregarious and breed in communal areas, forming colonies. The same area is used annually, although new tunnels are dug each year. The nest is either in the face of the bank of the river or on top of the embankment. Colonies of bee-eaters may consist of only a few nesting burrows, though it is more likely that the colony will consist of hundreds, and even thousands, of nesting tunnels.
These Carmines have their beaks open as they are panting because it was extremely hot, over 40 degrees centigrade, and the nests on top of the embankment had the disadvantage of the surface sand acting as an oven from mid-morning until late afternoon.
The Northern Carmine Bee-eater looks very similar to its southern cousin from its lower neck to tip of its tail. Both have a black bill and black eye mask. Both have a greenish blue head and but the Northern Carmine has greenish-blue throat feathers whereas the southern Carmine has carmine coloured throat feathers.
“Colours are the smiles of nature.”
~ Leigh Hunt
Once they catch their prey they invariably land and beat it on the ground or branch to kill it and then rub it against a rough surface to remove the sting. They have rudimentary feet and short legs so cannot use their legs and feet as a raptor would.
Carmines have pointed wings enabling speed and long tail feathers with one long streamer feather extending from the centre of the tail. This bird is fast and a highly agile flier, necessary skills to hawk flying insects.
These Carmines appear to love playing with the wind, gliding and managing to hover into the wind with open wings.
It was fun to watch these Carmines as there are many squabbles with neighbours especially when they return to their nests after the colony was disturbed by a predator. Location was important because it was where they were building their temporary home to raise their young.
There is little or no sexual dimorphism except the males are slightly bigger.
The Southern Carmine Bee-eater forages in effortless sailing direct flight, circling at times. They can soar and use thermals just like falcons.
” In nature’s infinite book of secrecy.
A little I can read.”
~ William Shakespeare
The tunnels are located very close together. The tunnel in the side of the embankment is slightly inclined to prevent water from entering.
The ever-present Yellow-billed Kite having regular sorties through the colony. It is remarkable how agile these Kites are but nine times out of ten the Carmines were faster.
This was the embankment leading down to the Zambezi river. The Carmines were constantly flying in and out. It was never quiet and still, the colony was in constant flux. When the Yellow-bill flew passed you would see an explosion of colour from the bank.
You can just see the tails of a few of the Carmines which were busy digging out their tunnels.
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”
The nest is excavated by both sexes, and consists of a one to three metres long tunnel, ending in an unlined nest chamber. The nesting chamber is separated from the tunnel by a small lip, preventing the eggs from rolling out (http://www.wilkinsonsworld.com/southern-carmine-bee-eater/). The Carmines lay one to six eggs, which are incubated by both sexes, for 11-13 days.
The better perspective was looking down on the Carmines as they flew along the embankment. We were very fortunate one morning to have quite strong wind blowing directly up the river. This slowed up the Carmines in flight in one direction making the photography much easier.
The experience of seeing and hearing the Carmines after over 50 years was every bit as fun and exciting as when I was a child bedazzled by thousands of these flying jewels. I am definitely going back. I also want to see the pans which are supposed to be teeming with bird life and we did not get to see the Ospreys just up river!!!
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.