Southern Carmine Bee-Eater Migration

16 Jul 2015

Every year, on exactly 22 August up to five thousand Southern Carmine Bee-Eaters, Merops nubicoides, converge to the banks of the mighty Zambezi River in northern Namibia to breed, feed and raise the next generation. Along with them, avid photographers flock to this immense gathering to photograph them throughout their breeding cycle.

Around late September and early October they start breeding and digging their nests, which can be up to one and a half meters deep! During this time, males combat with each other and put on spectacular aerial dogfights for breeding rights and to prove to females that they are most fit to breed and raise her young

These dogfights are few and far between and don’t last all that long so having the correct equipment and setup is of the utmost importance.

Two southern Carmine bee-eaters fighting in the air

In my camera bag:

Body: Nikon D3s, Nikon D4 or Nikon D4s or any other high performance body.

Lenses: Nikon 200-400mm f/4, Nikon 80-400mm f5.6, Nikon 400mm f2.8, Nikon 500mm f4, Nikon 600mm f4 or Nikon 800mm f5.6

My most likely equipment combination would be a Nikon D4, Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 and Nikon 200-400mm f/4. As I do not yet have the resources to buy my own camera kit (which could fetch over R300 000). I make use of the wonderful ODP Rentals department.


(For Canon body and lens alternatives, see the bottom of this page)

Southern Carmine Bee-eater

Southern Carmine Bee-eater patterns:

One and a half kilometers from the 4-star Kalizo Lodge, about 35km out of Katima Mulilo is the Zambezi River floodplain. These sandy patches are where all the nests are dug and where most of the image possibilities are. Several times a day, particularly in the late evenings, individuals head to the close-by river to bathe. This, if close enough, could give you wonderful images of splashing water. I would recommend a lens with a long reach, as they could plunge quite far away from the shore.

A hide or camouflaged outfit could help you to get close-up images of these usually skittish birds.

Two southern carmine bee-eaters

While digging their nest, a large amount of adults stay on the ground. When predators like Yellow-Billed Kites (Milvus parasitus) or Tawny Eagles (Aquila rapax) fly over, or come too close to the nesting area, the whole colony takes off, usually in unison or in the same direction, creating beautifully synchronised patterns. A wider angle like a 200mm would be ideal.

A flight of Southern Carmine bee-eaters flying across the sunset

The setting sun, combined with the constantly flying Carmines could produce amazing landscape opportunities.

When using large and heavy lenses,making use of a tripod or monopod with a gimbal head to assist with stabilization in low light situations and prevent muscle fatigue when using the heavy gear for extended periods of time.

Swarm of Southern Carmine bee-eaters taking of from the ground

About the Author:

My name is Juan van den Heever. I was born in Nelspruit on the 9th of December 1999. After moving to Johannesburg in 2000 my father, Wim van den Heever, became a full-time photographer. I received my first camera on my 6th birthday and was commonly seen clicking away at scenes around the house of whatever I found interesting. On a family vacation in 2008 to Knysna and Wilderness I fell in love with photography. From then I have accompanied my father on many of his safaris. I used my first professional kit on a safari to the Masai Mara in 2011. In 2012 and 2013, after entering the Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice Photographic competition, I received a "highly honoured" certification in the Youth Photographer of the Year category. In 2014 I was awarded the overall grand title winner in the Youth category of this competition. In 2015 I received the overall winner and first runner-up in the "Youth 13-18 years" category in the Nature's Best Africa Competition.


  1. Lynne Steyn 3 Sep 2015 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    THANK you!!!

  2. Mads 13 Sep 2015 at 10:23 pm - Reply

    Isn’t the Zambezi rather geographically misplaced in this otherwise excellent little article? It seems to me like there is a long way from Northern Namibia to the Zambezi…

    • Mads 13 Sep 2015 at 10:24 pm - Reply

      Sorry my bad – long river 😉

  3. Gideon Viljoen 12 Oct 2016 at 10:41 am - Reply

    It is so amazing to see and read about a young professional photographer. Keep it up, you have a bright future ahead of you.

    From an old man who can only dream of taking pictures like yours.

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