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Crimson and Cerulean Skies

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

Carmine bee-eaters are iconic of the African skies. With their turquoise top-hats, vivid crimson wings, and trailing tails, they are impossible to miss. Here in Botswana, Carmine bee-eaters are known as “Morokapula”, or “rainmaker”, since their arrival precedes the onslaught of the dramatic rainy season. During the preceding winter months, these migratory birds flew north to Equatorial Africa to capitalise on food availability. Now, having disappeared for months on end, their sudden return brings a beautiful splash of colour back to the harsh dry season. These harbingers of change are here for the most important duty of their lives: to lay their eggs and raise their chicks.

A Carmine bee-eater swoops past an elephant, catching the insects it has stirred up. Photo credit: William Steele

Carmine bee-eaters form enormous colonies in specific locations dotted around Southern Africa. As a (supposedly) monogamous bird, the mating pair may split up during the arduous adventures north, so their arrival at these pre-determined spots includes the joyful reunion of long-distance Carmine couples. Nesting sites include large pans or cliffs on the edge of rivers. The key ingredient they’re after is clay. This malleable material provides the perfect nesting site, and the Carmines will burrow nearly two metres into it to lay their eggs in order to protect them from predators. In the cliffs, these holes are built at an angle and their eggs are pointed, so they cannot tumble out of the nest. Underground, while this isn’t so much of a problem, the eggs must be laid deep to protect them from lurking predators.

Carmines and fire: an eternal love affair.

Two years ago, one of our cameramen spent hours with one of these carpets of Carmine bee-eaters for “The Flood”, a documentary we filmed and co-produced for National Geographic. Disguised within his hide, he was privy to their everyday, uninterrupted natural behaviour. Namely, their deliveries of enormous quantities of large, crunchy insects for their insatiable chicks. But, of course, there was trouble in paradise as a monitor lizard discovered the easy targets- check it out for yourself to see how that story ended! It’s not just monitor lizards the doting parents must worry about, however. Eagle-eyed birds of prey soar above and the clumsy footsteps of an elephant can wreak havoc to an entire colony.

Using a technique called ‘hawking’, carmine bee-eaters swoop down from elevated perches, like this Kori Bustard, to snap up their prey mid-flight. Photo credit: William Steele

As the rainy season approaches, lightning will set ablaze high wildfires, that spread easily in the parched tinder grass. The Carmines, however, couldn’t be happier about it. Darting into its fiery depths, the brave birds swoop to pluck the escaping insects out the skies. Barely visible through the thick smoke and mirage, they emerge victorious, with fat grubs in their beaks ready to carry back to their fledglings. This isn’t their only feeding technique however. A lumbering elephant provides the perfect partner in crime. They fly alongside their companions, swooping in and around their immense bodies, ready to capture those evading insects. They’ve even learnt to do it to us. It is an incredible feeling to drive through the grassy plains and sandy roads of the Okavango Delta, with a Carmine bee-eater flying alongside you. Of course, you should have gathered by now, what they’re up to. Every now and then you’ll see them rapidly change direction and with a flick of their turquoise heads, the insect is firmly in their beaks. Next time you’re on safari, keep an eye out for them. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Written by Hannah Gormley


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