Southern carmine bee-eater

Carmine is the name of the red dye that was originally obtained from the cochineal beetle; described as the colour of tomatoes or rubies. Or blood. The name of a food dye used to colour foodstuffs like yoghurt. And part of the descriptive name given to one of the most beautiful birds in southern Africa – the Southern carmine bee-eater.
Southern carmine bee-eater
The largest of the southern African bee-eaters, with a length of approximately 25 cm excluding the 12 cm tail streamers, the Southern carmine bee-eater has plumage of a magnificent pinkish-red (carmine!) colour, the upper parts being slightly darker than the lower. The forehead and crown are turquoise; the lores and ear coverts are black, so that the birds appear to be wearing a mask. The lower back and rump are light blue; the slender, decurved bill is black and the eyes are dark red. All of which is a rather academic description that does not begin to describe the beauty of a these colonial-breeding birds, particularly seen in bright sunlight.
Southern carmine bee-eater
Southern carmine bee-eaters are intra-African migrants and arrive at their breeding grounds during August or September. We visited one of these breeding colonies on the banks of the Zambezi River in northern Namibia, and the sight of 1,000+ birds occupying a tiny piece of sandy river bank is a memory that will linger a long time. The birds nest in tunnels that they excavate into the river bank, or, as with part of the colony that we visited, into a level patch of suitable sand.
Nesting site near the Zambezi River - Kaliso Lodge
The tunnels are located very close together and are usually between one and two metres deep, ending in an unlined egg chamber. The best time to visit the site is in the early morning or evening, when most of the birds are at the nesting site. The mornings are particularly rewarding as the birds are in constant motion, flying off and returning with insects gripped in their beaks; or scrambling around between the nests. Morning or evening, some birds were to be seen working on their tunnels, using their feet in a bicycling motion to form the hole and shooting a spume of sand out behind them.
Nesting site on the bank of the Zambezi River - Kaliso Lodge
They are fairly noisy during this period of activity, and the sheer number of birds results in an uninterrupted chorus of sound. Their call is a load “gro-gro-gro”.
Southern carmine bee-eater
Of course the number of birds in a completely exposed nesting site is a bonanza for raptors, and several yellow-billed kites were to be seen circling overhead or perched high up in nearby trees. Terrestrial predators too are a constant threat. On a visit to a smaller colony of Southern carmine bee-eaters that had excavated their nests into the bank on the Kwando River, we found one of the nests occupied by a water monitor that was probably on the prowl for eggs or young birds.
Water monitor in nest - Kwando River nesting site
Nesting site near the Kwando River - Namushasha Lodge
We also visited a small colony of Southern carmine bee-eaters that were nesting in burrows that they had excavated into a vertical clay cliff-face at the rubbish dump at Katima Mulilo, well away from the river. The excavation of tunnels here must have been much more challenging than in the softer sand of the sites on the Zambezi.
Nesting site - rubbish dump at Katima Mulilo
Southern carmine bee-eaters are thought to be monogamous, and the female lays a clutch of between two and five white eggs.
Southern carmine bee-eater
The birds have a fairly complex migration pattern and do not remain at their breeding sites for more than a few months. Around November they will move south for a few months before heading northwards into Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding areas of equatorial Africa until the next breeding season arrives.
Southern carmine bee-eater
Southern carmine bee-eater
The diet of the Southern carmine bee-eater is primarily (surprise!) bees and other insects that they hawk while in flight, often hawking from a perch such as a tree, pole or fence. They are also attracted to fires because of the insects that are flushed ahead of the flames.
Southern carmine bee-eater
The scientific binomial of the Southern carmine bee-eater is Merops nubicoides; Merops from the Greek for a “bee-eater” and nubicoides from the Latin for “like nubicus” referring to Merops nubicus which is the scientific name for the Northern carmine bee-eater which is found in northern Africa. Thus a bee-eater that look like another bee-eater.


One thought on “Southern carmine bee-eater

  1. Pingback: Kalizo Carmines | Howie's Wildlife Images

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *