And if excess is what you want, the Luangwa Valley in Zambia will surely supply it. Let me describe the bird: it’s about the size of a thrush, but shimmering rosy-red with electric blue patches on the crown and under the tail, plus a bum-patch of the same startling colour. The eyes are picked out with black, like kohl. The wings are sharp, the tail decorated with a single long streamer. The bird can fly with great skill and agility, for its job is catching insects in flight. All in all, it is perhaps the prettiest and most elegant bird you will ever see in your life.
Now multiply it by a thousand.
These are carmine bee-eaters and they nest in colonies on the steep crumbly banks of the Luangwa River, digging out burrows in line and one above the other, so that the cliff-face looks like a man-o’-war. And as we walked out from Tafika camp we passed a colony of carmines and they filled the air: more than a thousand, twice that.
The beauty doesn’t extend to their voices: they bark like especially petulant Yorkshire terriers. But when you hear two thousand barks and you know that means two thousand birds of supreme beauty – well, you begin to hear it as the sound of beauty.
You see carmine bee-eaters all the time at the end of the dry season. But rarity isn’t everything. The more you look at nature the more you understand that bioabundance matters just as much as biodiversity. Here the world was teeming: and it was teeming with beauty. My notebook is normally a pretty sober sort of record: as I checked back I found I had forgotten myself so far as to write the words “transcendent joy”.
Very sound piece of observation.
- I was co-leading the Ultimate Luangwa safari for wildlifeworldwide.com. Next year I will be co-leading https://www.wildlifeworldwide.com/group-tours/sacred-combe-safari and I will also be participating in https://www.wildlifeworldwide.com/group-tours/festival-of-wildlife-zambia