Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
The birdie I bring you this week, is one of Africa's most beautiful – a Southern Carmine Bee-Eater, Merops nubicoides. It is sometimes considered a subspecies of Merops nubicus which is otherwise considered a separate species, the Northern Carmine Bee-Eater. In South Africa we just call this a carmine bee-eater. This species lives in savannah, open woodland, marshland and farm fields in Africa south of the equator; in South Africa it's mainly a species of the warmer northern parts. It is most easily seen in the Kruger National Park, where huge flocks sometimes congregate. Their beautiful pink-crimson colour make them unmistakable if seen at all well.
Carmine bee-eaters are sometimes seen riding on the backs of other animals; this is especially true of the northern carmine bee-eater, whose mount may be a Kori Bustard, an ostrich, or any of a number of other large, walking birds and mammals. These serve as moving perches from which the bee-eaters can spy out the land. They don't eat only bees, but many kinds of insects: locust and grasshoppers, flying ants and termites, cicadas, shield bugs, butterflies, dragonflies, and yes, honeybees, carpenter and other bees, and wasps. The large birds and mammals, as they browse and forage in the grass, often disturbs insects, which fly out – and then the bee-eaters swoop down and catch them! The birds will also follow galloping antelopes, cars and tractors, or humans walking through the grass.
Followers of the Flames
An even bigger attraction for these bee-eaters is an outbreak of a bush fire. The birds seek out the very flames so many other things are fleeing from – because those critters are in desperate flight and thus easy to catch. The bee-eaters sometimes even seem to dive into the flames. In Gambia, carmine bee-eaters are called 'cousin to the fire'.
But they're also fond of water. They will glide over the water surface and then quickly dip in and out again, in flight, to bathe. They will even catch small fish in the same way! (Bee-eaters are relatives of kingfishers, though not specialized for fishing per se). After bathing, they will sit on a perch to preen themselves, and then fluff their feathers to dry out in the sun.
Strength in Numbers
Carmine bee-eaters are the most social of South African bee-eaters. They usually hunt in large flocks, though these can be spaced out over large areas so the individual birds aren't very close together. They are proficient flyers and hunt almost entirely on the wing, rather than sitting on a perch and making sallies for specific insect items, like some other bee-eaters do. They have a beautifully streamlined shape, comparatively large and long wings, the long tail with its two narrow extensions being a boon to quick manoeuvring. They can flap, swoop and soar, buoyant in the air, making quick dashes to catch prey items. They can even remove the sting from a bee in mid-flight, and then swallow it (the bee, not the sting). Only comparatively large prey they will take to a perch, to beat to death or to remove noxious parts from, prior to eating it.
As they hunt, so also do they breed, in big numbers. The breeding season is during the spring and early summer, when rain falls, plants grow, and insects abound. Males and females pair up for life. The male courts the female by bringing her food, to show that he's a good provider. The couple often twitters and chatters during this courtship feeding. They excavate deep holes in steep riverbanks; suitable sites can host thousands of nests. On a few occasions, they've been seen to dig nest holes in level ground. They tend to dig a new nest hole every season, using their bills to peck out hollows to start with, and once they can fit inside, scooping and kicking dirt out with their feet.
The nest consists of a tunnel, usually 1-2 m/yards long but sometimes 3-4 m/yards, with a chamber at the end where the female lays her 2 to 5 eggs. Only occasionally will she line it with a few bits of grass, but after the chicks hatch, it will accumulate the remains of insects, and excrement, to the point where it can be very smelly and unsavoury. The chicks start out naked and blind; their eyes open when they're about a week old. They are fed insects by both parents, and occasionally also by a nest-helper or two which might be older siblings. Their feathers emerge encased in sheaths that look like quills, giving them a hedgehog-like appearance. These sheaths remain around the feathers for some time, to protect them from all the awful gunk in the nest.
The chicks fledge at the age of about a month, but they stay with their parents for a considerable time afterward. This is so they can learn the special skills of fast aerial hunting, which includes being able to remove the stings from bees and wasps.
Carmine bee-eaters are migratory birds. Unlike many others, that move between Europe and/or Asia and Africa, they confine their migrations inside Africa. The birds breed in warm regions just north of the tropic of Capricorn; after breeding, they move a bit further southward, where they feed; then when winter arrives, they move closer to the equator, where it remains warm. In South Africa, this bird is therefore a non-breeding migrant, coming down from the colonies mainly in Zimbabwe and northern Botswana, appearing here in late summer and remaining until autumn, then dispersing to equatorial regions for the winter.
At present, these bee-eaters still occur in large numbers and are known to breed in numerous colonies over a large range. This means they are pretty secure, not to mention merely pretty. Still, for this and other reasons, we should watch them carefully!