Photographing Carmine Bee-eaters on the Zambezi
One of my abiding memories of my time as a teenager in Spain is the sound and sight of European Bee-eaters heading south for the winter. They charmed me with their glorious colours and charismatic flight high over the scented orange groves and tumbling castles of Andalusia.
I spent many happy hours with my back in the warm grass, breathing in the heated aroma of orange blossom and listening to their energetic ‘breep…breep’. Eventually, I was compelled to follow them south and along the way, I discovered some of their equally charming cousins in Africa.
One of these, the Southern Carmine, is a magnificent bird with a long streaming tail, vibrant personality, and glowing, exotic colouring. They are intra-African migrants and breed in large colonies on sandy river banks. They also make spectacular photographic subjects!
Where to photograph Carmines
One of the best places to photograph Carmines is on the banks of the Zambezi river at a place called Kalizo lodge, near Katima Mulilo in Namibia. If you are a really determined driver, as I was, you can make it there in a day from Johannesburg but I’d advise two.
The birds arrive there at the end of September in their thousands and start to excavate their sandy burrows and breed before leaving in November.
It’s a hotspot for bird photographers and Carmine shots have become common, maybe even clichés; it didn’t stop me wanting to find out why!
The great thing about Kalizo is that there is more on offer. Shelley’s sunbird, Otters, Hippos, Crocodiles, Water Monitors, Fish Eagles and the fabulous African Skimmer. You might even enjoy a spot of fishing too!
How to photograph Carmines
The best way to approach the Carmine colony’s (there are three that I came across) is on foot and it’s an easy walk from the nearby lodge even with heavy gear. Just be careful because A, there are some dangerous animals about (Elephant and the like) and B because as ground nesting birds the chicks are very vulnerable; I wouldn’t start walking over the nesting site for example.
I was at Kalizo for a couple of days and, not knowing what to expect, I had almost every camera and lens in my arsenal with me. All except the huge Sigma 300-800 which I couldn’t fit in the car (It was my friend Grant or the lens and although it was a hard decision, the fact that Grant could push the car when stuck in the mud swung it in his favour ;) ).
I tried the Canon 24-105 F4 L IS, 300 F2.8 L IS, 100-400 F4.5-5.6 L IS mark ii, and the Canon 500mm F4 L IS. I mounted these variously on a Canon, 1D, 7D mark ii and 5D mark iii bodies.
I also gave my Gitzo tripod, gimbal head, flash and Better Beamer a whirl for good measure.
In the constant melee of birds flitting from every direction I was grateful for two things. The light-weight 100-400 and the low-light capability of the 5D mark iii and 300 F2.8.
The rest of the gear was good only so long as I could hold it up with my quivering left arm! Plus, the reach of the 500mm was unnecessary as one can approach right to the edge of the nesting area without worrying the birds.
I spent a few morning and evening sessions with the birds, they numbered only in the hundreds during my stay but it was an energetic and enjoyable time. My tactic was simply to lie or sit quietly in the long grass then swing the camera and chase the incoming birds through the viewfinder.
One thing I did note was that the prevailing wind is from the east in the afternoon (rising air over the dry desert region to the west?), so one is presented with back-lit birds approaching the nest site as they land into the wind. I just had to make the best of that and chose to shoot side-lit birds by positioning myself on the North and South edges of the colonies.
A day in the life of a Carmine
Sitting happily on the banks of the Zambezi, my bum planted firmly in the sand, I enjoyed a glimpse into the daily lives of these colourful birds. I was surprised to see that it wasn’t the joyful and exuberant existence that I had imagined. Or at least it was, but also one tinged with tragedy.
Kites patrol the skies over the colony and easily take unwary Bee-eaters as snacks. While water monitors slither up the banks and into the burrows. They treat the colony like a supermarket, always open and stocking tasty chicks and eggs.