Bee-eaters and other strikingly beautiful birds

Sabi Sand | April 2017

Ever since I was a very young boy, I have always been interested in birds, and that interest has grown over the years. I am not saying that I find birds more interesting than mammals, for example, but I do like to appreciate all the beauty that is around me… and it abounds! The sky at dawn or dusk, the magnificent trees, both dead and alive, the impala herds, giraffes, butterflies, wild flowers, leopards, streams flowing over rocks – all of these hold great beauty, which I never tire of seeing. Beauty is of course not only a visually pleasing experience or sensation; it is something, which can be extended into the other sensory levels as well.

While I don’t expect all guests to be keen birders, and I must accept that a small percentage of them will show no interest in birds at all, I believe that the vast majority of guests will have within their make-up at least some appreciation of birds, however latent this appreciation may be. It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to arouse this latent interest, and to take guests a little further on their journey of Nature appreciation, by playing a role in stimulating a renewed interest in birds.

Usually one of the surest ways of sparking a flame of interest in birds for the birding novice, is to point out a few of the really striking birds, whether it be an impressive bird of prey such as a martial eagle, or a highly colourful bird such as a lilac-breasted roller. Saddle-bill storks are also very easy birds to appreciate, because they are large, not particularly shy and they are certainly beautiful. Some of the kingfishers are also brightly coloured, and in the period between mid-November and late March, the brilliantly coloured woodland kingfishers are plentiful, and their calls and courtship displays are certainly attention-getting. These birds are intra-Africa migrants. They are not fish-eating kingfishers (only five of southern Africa’s ten species of kingfishers regularly eat fish – the others are mainly
insectivorous, but sometimes take small reptiles and even mice.)

My personal favourites are the bee-eaters, all of which are very beautiful in their colours. Of these, the carmine bee-eater is probably the most striking. They grace us with their presence for a number of weeks during our summer months. This summer we were fortunate to have them around here for longer than usual, from early December to the middle of March. Their breeding grounds are further north, mostly in steep river banks of major rivers such as the Chobe, Okavango and Zambezi, and I fondly recall some breathtakingly spectacular views of many hundreds of these gorgeous birds moving around us and into their holes in the banks of the Zambezi, while we were drifting along in a boat, fishing for tigerfish. Perhaps not quite as spectacular but still very beautiful is my favourite bee-eater of all, the white-fronted bee-eater.

We see them in the Sabi Sand sporadically throughout the year, usually not in great numbers, although sometimes temporary groupings of up to 20 may be seen. I find their combination of colours (white front, red throat, green wings, gold body and indigo vent) particularly attractive, and I have on a couple of occasions managed to take a few pleasing photographs of them.

European bee-eaters, like European rollers, are summer visitors, and they are extremely colourful, featuring bronze, blue and yellow. They generally fly in large flocks, often very high, and one usually hears them before seeing them. They do sometimes perch low enough on a bare branch for one to have a good look at them through binoculars, but I have yet to take a reasonable photograph of one! The fourth of the bee-eater species that we see regularly is the aptly named little bee-eater. Very small and very cute, this bee-eater is usually seen in small numbers in reasonably open terrain, and individuals will often return to the same perch, usually only a few feet off the ground, repeatedly, between short hawking excursions to catch flying insects.

If guests do appreciate pretty birds, it is well worth spending ten minutes watching little bee-eaters that are sufficiently close to the vehicle. Predominantly green and gold (the colours of the South African national rugby team, the Springboks), a close look with binoculars will reveal further subtle beauty, such as the cobalt blue line just above the eye.

Again, I have yet to take a pleasing photograph of little beeeaters, but some of my colleagues have! Blue-cheeked bee-eaters are seen frequently by guests at our lodges in the Kruger National Park (Lebombo and Sweni), but I have on one or two occasions seen them here too. Visitors to Singita Pamushana in Zimbabwe might see swallow-tailed bee-eaters.

Some of the less easily seen but also very beautiful smaller birds include the golden-breasted bunting, the green-winged pytilia and the males of most of the sunbirds.

It is interesting to note that while in some bird species there is a very significant visual differ between male and female (high level of sexual dimorphism), in many others (including rollers and bee-eaters), the two genders are equally colourful.

I urge everyone to take the time to look at and appreciate some of our feathered treasures out there… we are truly blessed with a huge variety of them. And remember this: Time spent watching birds does not impact negatively on your quest to see high profile mammals… it often actually significantly increases your chances!

Images: White-fronted bee-eater, Carmine bee-eater, Lilac-breasted roller, and Brown snake eagle.