The rainy season in the Zambezi Valley is a great time of year for bird-watching, and around Victoria Falls is no exception. Known as the green or emerald season, the rains bring life, and colour, to the bush and offer rich rewards to the traveller.
In addition to the already varied resident bird species, the rains bring new species to the banks of the Zambezi. Many boast bright colourful plumage, with pure vibrant hues and glossy metallic sheens - seasonal jewels of the African bush.
The bee-eaters are an exquisite example, their multi-coloured forms ranking them among the most beautiful of our bird families.
Bee-eaters feed on flying insects, and have a penchant for bees and wasps. They are adept aerial hunters, hunting from a perch, catching their prey on the wing and returning to their perch to discharge the sting before devouring. It has been estimated that a bee-eater will catch over 225 bees a day when raising young.
Bee-eaters often live in complex communities, nesting in large colonies where non-breeding birds help related family members raise their broods.
Of the three resident species in the region, the white-fronted bee-eater (Merops bullockoides) is closely associated with the Zambezi, being a familiar sight all year round along the river and breeding in colonies in its sandy banks. Consider yourself unlucky if you don’t see these birds on your Zambezi river cruise.
The little bee-eater (M. pusillus) is found in small family groups throughout the region, and is probably the commonest member of the family in the wider region. The rarer swallow-tailed bee-eater (M. hirundineus) is the only bee-eater with a deeply forked blue tail, but it is still often overlooked.
The resident species are joined in September/October by the European bee-eater (M. apiaster), which breeds in the northern hemisphere and migrates south to escape the cold northern winter. Their arrival is a familiar seasonal sign of the oncoming rains, and the birds remain in the region until March/April.
Watch out for the rarer blue-cheeked bee-eater (M. persicus), another European visitor which passes through the upper Zambezi region and is occasionally seen as far downstream as the Victoria Falls.
In addition to the European migrants there is another group of visiting birds, the intra-African migrants, which move within the continent following seasonal changes. Some species breed during their time here, others only passing through the region.
The unmistakeable carmine bee-eater (M. nubicoides), with its amazing rosy red plumage, is a special bird of the Zambezi, breeding in the sandbanks of the upper and middle sections of the river. It is absent from the immediate vicinity of Victoria Falls, but Chobe day-trippers should be lucky enough to find them across the border in Botswana between August and April.
The Madagascar, or olive, bee-eater (M. superciliosus) occurs irregularly in the region, mainly on passage, although it is often overlooked. Dr David Livingstone recorded this species as breeding on the Upper Zambezi, however there are no confirmed records since then, and only occasional breeding records from the Middle Zambezi.
More on birds and birding from the Zambezi Traveller:
More from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (December 2013)
More from the Zambezi Traveller:
Victoria Falls Destination Profile