The Instinctive Catch

Wildlife Spotlight | 24th October 2019

This is the sixth in a series of posts from Ranger Sean Jones, sharing his experiences at Shambala Private Game Reserve.

There are various intriguing sightings when going on safari in Africa, but none more welcoming than a beautifully coloured bird displaying and calling in flight. The White-fronted Bee-eater is beautifully green with a white and crimson throat. The white section is just below the beak and eyes, which is where the ‘White-fronted’ name comes from. The rump (the section of body of the bird immediately above the tail) appears as a beautiful striking blue. These colours are sensationally noticeable when this marvellous little bird twists and turns in flight. There are various kinds of Bee-eaters that one can find in southern Africa, with some being summer migrants and others local residents. During a drive back to the lodge, my guests and I were lucky enough to witness one of these beautiful birds fly across the front of our Game drive vehicle.

This rather vocal bird turned from one way to another as it put on quite a show for us. Making various ‘creaking’ noises sounding like ‘qerrr’ or ‘querry’ some of them appeared in communication with each other. It was then that we noticed they are not just merely flying about, but instead looking to find breakfast. With plenty of insects now coming to life in the summer time, food is plentiful for these insect eating birds. The Bee-eater swooped down toward the ground from a branch where it was perched in an effortless motion, hovering just above the surface. In the blink of an eye it suddenly had something in its beak. It was such a quick and instinctive catch, where if you’d turned your head for a moment you would have missed it. The poor wasp never saw it coming, and the Bee-eater was now perched back on the branch with a full beak.

Just as we thought the action had concluded, this interesting little bird shook its head rather vigorously from side to side. I noticed the reason it was doing this was to remove the sting from the wasp it had caught by rubbing it against the branch. These clever little near passerine birds (in the family Meropidae) often retract their tongues, and then remove the sting from the insect before swallowing it – an intelligent way to prevent harm, and still enjoy a meal. These Bee-eaters are quite gregarious and have quite a complex social organisation, often rejoicing with vocals after a successful catch. A family of these birds consists of one pair, male and female, and up to five helper birds. They form close bonds with other families and together they make a ‘clan’. This clan then fearlessly defends its feeding territory against other clans. These birds are almost always in pairs or groups, and are often found perching shoulder to shoulder on branches.

The White-fronted Bee-eater is a common resident in Grassland and Savanna areas, and is usually found near rivers and wetlands. Their conservation status indicates that they are not threatened and their range has expanded along rivers and associated irrigation schemes, where they were historically absent. White-fronted Bee-eaters are typically associated with vertical sandy riverbanks and sometimes dry watercourses, as this is where they build their nests, along eroded gullies, perennial rivers and seasonal streams with wooded banks. They build their nests on the side where the gully is and carve holes in the sand along the embankment. They are also found in woodlands and wooded grasslands and can enjoy bushy pastures.

After witnessing such an action packed feeding display, we then entered the lodge to have some breakfast of our own.

Ranger Sean Jones
Shambala Private Game Reserve


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