Southern carmine bee-eater colony, Kalizo Lodge, Caprivi – For non-birders, Namibia’s Caprivi strip may seem like a long way off to photograph a bird, even a particularly beautiful one like the southern carmine bee-eater, but nevertheless, every year from mid-August to late November, visitors from far and wide flock to see them nesting along the banks of the Zambezi River.
Though many of the birds that international enthusiasts travel great distances to see are quite hard to find (their habits or habitats keeping them hidden from all but the most determined twitchers) these gorgeous crimson bee-eaters can be wonderfully obliging. A large colony near Kalizo Lodge have taken to building their nests on a sandy horizontal patch above the water rather than in the vertical cliff faces they usually use, allowing visitors to skirt their breeding ground on foot with minimal complaint.
You don’t really need to leave the lodge grounds for a good look at one of these busy and exquisitely beautiful little birds, but it’s worth taking the short boat-trip out along the Zambezi to experience one of the greatest bird spectacles in Southern Africa.
You may experience a frisson of fear as you’re skimming along just inches above the crocodile and hippo infested waters of the Zambezi, but twenty minutes later you’ll be reduced to a walking sigh, standing on the very edge of a maelstrom of crimson wings in a bubbling cacophony of throaty birdsong. Every tree and bush in the vicinity blossoms with vibrant red and the ground shifts and wavers as hundreds of adult and juvenile bee-eaters duck in and out of their holes and the un-coordinated aerial display of beautiful feathers overhead. Even the most phlegmatic non-twitcher would find it hard not to be moved by such an experience.
The entire region along the Zambezi and around Katima Mulilo is said to have some of the best birding in Namibia. Back at the lodge, a stroll through the gardens or just relaxing beside the pool can turn into a birding extravaganza. Kalizo’s well-tended grounds lure local species such as white-fronted bee-eaters, white-crowned lapwing and white-browed robin-chat, and even rarer species like Shelley’s sunbirds. Remember to cast an eye out on the water now and again, where small flocks of gawky yet graceful African skimmers gently graze the surface of the water with their long and odd-looking beaks. Better still, grab a rod, gird your loins, and try your hand at snatching up one of the Zambezi’s tiger-fish brutes to earn yourself a place on the wall of fame at Kalizo’s cosy waterside bar.
It’s a long way to go for a bird, even if that bird is the southern carmine bee-eater, but they’re worth it, and once you take into account everything else the Zambezi has to offer you’ll find it’s a journey you’ll be happy to take time and time again.
Photographing Kalizo’s bee-eater colony has certainly been one of the highlights of my wildlife photography career thus far, not only because of the birds’ extreme beauty, but because of the sheer numbers, proximity of the colony and, most of all, the time you have to photograph it. The standard boat cruise gives you at least two hours with the birds, with enough time to spare to photograph the resident skimmers and crocodiles en route. Because there’s so much action, close and further away, I used my 70-200 mm and 100-400 mm lenses the most. Remember to not only zoom in, but take some wide shots that show the surroundings of this unique bee-eater colony as well. Try to get there during the early morning hours when the light is at its best and remember to bring with some cash – each person has to pay a small fee (R20/p when we were last there) to the guardian of the colony.
If I want to go:
Where? Approximately 40 km east of Katima Mulilo, on the banks of the Zambezi in Nambia.
GPS co-ordinates: S 17.54033° E24.56619°
When? Southern carmine bee-eaters arrive for the breeding season in early August and are around until late in November.
Camping: from R100/person/night
Self-catering: from R400/person/night
DB&B: from R630/person/night
• Large camping ground with 18 shady stands, ablution facilities with hot and cold running water, washing area, braai areas, power points and electric lights.
• Bar, restaurant, swimming pool and chalets all located on the bank of the Zambezi.
• Self-catering units are fully equipped with basic cutlery, crockery, linen, fridge, and two-plate stove.
Phone: +264 66 686 802