Creating the Carmine Bee-eater Colony
September is upon us again and that means the Southern Carmine Bee-eaters (Merops nubicoides) are busy establishing their colony once more. Downstream from Kaingo Camp, on a north-facing wall of the Luangwa River’s banks, the Carmine Bee-eaters have nested here before and those arriving early know that they are guaranteed the best spots. And as usual Shenton Safaris are there too, with our specially built hide set upon an aluminium hulled boat, moored in mid-stream. Once you have been canoed out to the hide, you are within 10 metres of the action, as the birds burrow and squabble and squawk on the wall.
The best places on the wall are in the centre of it, away from the top edge of the bank. This puts them out of the reach of Monitor Lizards, Civets and Genets. Also far above the bottom of the bank, out of the reach of Monitor Lizards and Crocodiles. The birds tunnel into the sandy bank, using their beaks primarily, but also their feet, to dig a tunnel over 1 metre in length. This places the eggs and chicks out of reach of the African Harrier-hawk’s questing talons. At the end of this tunnel they hollow out a small nesting chamber and lay 2 to 5 white eggs on the unlined surface. The backwards shoveling of dirt, using their feet whilst balanced on a tripod of their wings and beak, creates a signature appearance to the entrance of the burrow.
This unique features differentiates the nests from other birds with similar nesting habits that occupy the same river bank, namely the White-fronted Bee-eater. And the larger Carmine will often utilise its greater size to usurp unfinished White-fronted’ tunnels, even in one noted case, usurping a finished nest by evicting the altricial chicks from the nest, to provide food for hungry Catfish below.
Another regular visitor to these sites are the Wire-tailed Swallows, who start to establish their own nests immediately once the Carmine Hide is set in place. They build mud-daubed, cup-like structures on the frames of the hide and then complain bitterly when our guests inhabit the hide.
The best viewing times at the colony are early morning and late afternoon, especially in the 6 to 8 weeks that it takes the newly-hatched chicks to fledge. Anita and Gunther Schreier were some of our earliest visitors to the hide this year and they took the below footage, showing the colony in its fledgling stage.