The wonderful family Meropidae contains 27 dazzling species, of which Africa is endowed with no less than 20 species, the balance occurring across Asia and with one as far afield as Australia. These charismatic, colorful and finely formed birds are favorites amongst birders from experts to novices, and lie within the group of birds whose beauty even non-birders really appreciate.
Arguably Africa’s most decadent bee-eaters, they used to be considered a single species but are now split, the principal physical difference being the green versus red throat of the Northern form. These bee-eaters nest in colonies, usually in holes in the steep banks of rivers. These colonies can consist of thousands of individuals (over 10,000 birds at some colonies!) forming one of the world’s greatest bird spectacles. Nothing is quite as exciting as seeing hundreds of these brilliant crimson birds filling a tree like Christmas ornaments or taking off in a massive, coordinated flock of hundreds of red arrows, all emitting their cheerful throaty calls.
They forage over grasslands and Acaciasavanna, and are well known for the ingenious use of ‘beaters’ to chase up grasshoppers, dragonflies and other prey species. These beaters usually take the form of grazing herds of game and domestic animals, and large flocks of carmine bee-eaters may gather overhead. They also use various creatures as convenient mobile perches from which to swoop off, snatching insects flushed by their ride.
Northern Carmine Bee-eaters in particular are masters of this trait, and rides range from elephants, donkeys and goats to Kori and Arabian Bustards, Abyssinian Ground Hornbills and a variety of other larger birds and mammals. Carmine bee-eaters occur throughout most of Subsaharan Africa, and many populations migrate widely post breeding. Excellent places for finding Southern Carmines include Shakawe in the panhandle of Botswana’s Okavango Swamps and along the Zambezi in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip (a particularly large colony exists near Kalizo Lodge). The Northern Carmine is readily seen in Ghana’s Mole National Park, Ethiopia’s Rift Valley and in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park.
The cryptic and elusive Black-headed Bee-eater by Adam Riley
Another pair of species that until very recently were considered conspecific, these ravishingly beautiful bee-eaters are also inconspicuous forest dwellers, most often found in mid-levels of the interior of tropical rainforests where their dark coloration makes them very tough spots. The former occurs from Kakamega Forest in Kenya westwards to Cameroon and the latter from Cameroon westwards to Sierra Leone. The most obvious differences are the short tail streamers of Blue-moustached and the paler forehead of Blue-headed. The best places to see these birds are the aforementioned Kakamega Forest for Blue-headed, and Ghana’s Atewa Forest or Cameroon’s Korup National Park for Blue-moustached.
“Central African” Blue-breasted Bee-eater by Adam Riley
The rather different “Abyssinian” Blue-breasted Bee-eater by Adam Riley
Two forms of this bee-eater are known and I consider it quite ridiculous that they are still considered the same species. The typical form is a smaller bee-eater with a green forehead that prefers to live in and around swamps and rank grasslands of Central Africa. The second form is a larger, more colorful bee-eater with a blue forehead that inhabits forest edges and moist woodlands of the Ethiopian highlands. The former can easily be seen in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park and the latter on the forested edges of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley lakes.
These sister species forms a north/south assemblage of stunning birds, much in the same way as the Northern & Southern Carmine Bee-eaters. In fact they regularly share nesting colonies with their twinned carmine form (Red-throated with Northern Carmine and White-fronted with Southern Carmine).
This is one of the world’s most widespread bee-eaters, occurring from Senegal in the west to Vietnam in the east, but with its range restricted to a fairly narrow latitudinal belt across Africa and Asia. Numerous subspecies exist within this long range, and birds vary from a light green coloration to an off blue. Their preferred habitat is dry woodlands and scrublands. In Africa, they are most easily seen along Egypt’s Nile Valley.