Birding with Pompie: Carmines and the art of being a novice bird guide

Picture Perfect Pitstops in Swakopmund
March 5, 2019
When I finally got to go Birding with Pompie
March 6, 2019
Text and Photographs Pompie Burger

I have changed my opinion on tour guides and engaged people, and have myself become a very sympathetic tour guide and marriage counsellor on the side. To start off, I had the dubious privilege of having two guests who have been engaged for two weeks join me on a recent birding trip – no names, no pack-drill. One might say that if you can survive this you would be able to handle anything. Luckily there was no need for counselling for the engaged carmines.

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I must confess that taking guests on a birding trip to see Carmine Bee-eaters is probably the easiest thing a guide can imagine. Having said that and referring back to the first paragraph, there were the odd handicaps regarding my guests. The least problem was the carmines’ migration from sub-equatorial Africa, an annual spectacle, to their destiny at the most obvious and visible place at Zambezi Mubala Lodge. First, to get your guests out of bed to see the sun rise and the carmines start getting active was not that easy. I got up at 4 am to get everything ready for the day and do some research on the carmines. Coffee was served in bed for the couple, and then we were finally on our way to the promised land of carmines. With the sun rising over the Zambezi River in brilliant colours, we arrived at the bird colony full of expectations. 

The main colony is built on the sandy plains next to the river, while a smaller colony builds downstream in the riverbank. Unfortunately we were not the first spectators at the scene of the crime. A team of bird ringers was ready to start their activities with mist nets in position and rings ready to clamp around 500 carmine feet. Somehow my engaged couple was more interested in the ringing (makes sense). To summarise the whole spectacle, one can say without any doubt that science is a cruel and mean necessity. The visit of an African Marsh Harrier to the colony was an additional performance, although the damage done by these beauties did not make a dent in the population of carmines. 

Getting back to my guiding, I had some difficulty making my way through all the carmines pushing and shoving to a presentable spot to view these amazingly beautiful birds, which were in a frantic hurry to get their nests ready for the breeding season. I pitched a gazebo with air-conditioning close to the colony and served a champagne breakfast. Trying first to explain what a Carmine Bee-eater is (the biggest bee-eater in the world), and that this is the biggest known colony in the world, did not impress them. Trying to show them how the bee-eaters where busy digging in the sand to build their nesting tunnels, some up to 13 metres long, with sand flying through the air, did interest them a bit, probably thinking about the house they were planning on Luxury Hill in Windhoek. These nests are not reused every year but rebuilt. My guests are planning to buy an old house to renovate, but maybe they will now reconsider. 

Seeing over 2000 carmines fly up from the colony, the sky darkening so much so that you might think it’s time for a sundowner, is a spectacle you are unlikely to see anywhere else in the world. This is not to mention the other 1000 sitting in the surrounding trees waiting and probably speculating where they will get a spot to pitch their claim for a nest. During the building phase they roost away from the colony in smaller groups, returning to the colony early in the morning.

An unwanted visitor to the colony - an African Marsh Harrier
It was not just carmines that entertained us, being the good guide that I am, I was able to show my guests this majestic Fish Eagle feasting on his catch-of-the-day.

In between all this activity they also had to do some courting (aerial display and courtship feeding), mating and fighting, all extremely significant for my soon-to-be married couple. I tried to explain some of the details of these activities, but they seemed well educated in the matter, i.e. the fighting obviously. When texting messages on their cell phones (to each other?) got more interesting than the carmines, I decided to call it a morning, but there was more to come in the afternoon 

When I wanted to show them a Schalow’s Turaco in the camp it was too much of an effort for them to look up into the trees to see it. Well, I rested my case and decided to rest my body in the coolness of my tent. Our next outing was scheduled for 15h30 and I had time to do some more research. Apparently, before laying eggs, the carmines add to their diet with sand and snail shells with a high calcium content (research!). The eggs are laid after the nests have been completed, and hatch within three weeks. The nestlings start to appear by mid-November. 

With a lot of force I managed to get the couple out of the bar and start the new adventure awaiting us at the colony. The carmines were just getting back after a day of hunting in the sun, some still having the odd drop of honey dribbling from the corner of their bills. During the heat of the day there was not much activity at the colony, they preferred to do their mating, nest building and fighting in the coolness of dusk and dawn.

There is a separate colony a few hundred metres downstream in the wall of the riverbank, which has a different approach to their building style. First of all, starting the nesting hole was a bit more complicated, because the wall was much harder than the soft sand of the plains. They use their long decurved bill for the initial digging. Once inside, the rest of the digging takes place with some legwork, cycling out the sand from inside the hole. Having finished their nests, this group tends to leave the colony earlier in the morning straight from the nests, to return only late afternoon, contrary to the other colony which remains in the area building for a few hours during the day.

The nests in the wall are built much closer to each other than the sand nests on the plain, probably because of the stability of the surrounding soil. It was also obvious that the train tracks at the entrance to these nests showed the foot marks of their toes digging in the sand.

Why I decided to do the trip with an engaged couple during the carmine mating season (September) remains a mystery to me. Maybe after the eggs have hatched and the feeding process has started will be a better time, because most young people somehow never learn to raise kids properly (discipline). But my two guests are so clever they already know everything, so this might also be redundant.

One must always keep in mind that Africa is a tough country, so maybe next time I will be more seasoned in coping with guiding and birders, and hopefully they will not be able to identify birds before and better than me. For myself, I will come back again and again to be mesmerised by this wonderful event that takes place year after year from mid-August until mid-December, with or without Elzanne and Sean. I can promise any potential visitor that they will have difficulty in tearing themselves away from this unforgettable sight. Even the engaged couple struggled to leave the carmines, and the bar.

This article was first published in the Summer 2018/19 issue of Travel News Namibia.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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