One of the things I most enjoy about summer in the Lowveld is the increase in the amount of waterbodies due to the higher rainfall. The surrounding vegetation is also incredibly dense and supports a myriad of animals. But a few days ago, the animals we were in search of were birds. A guest of mine and I went out after breakfast to go and look for birds in a series of waterholes very close to camp. It was a very hot day and our expectations were not too high as a result. Nonetheless, we were interested in adding a few more birds to the list.
On the way to the waterhole, we passed a small stream, and were searching for green-backed cameropteras, yellow-breasted apalises and other small birds which inhabit the thick scrub around water. Suddenly, the shadow of a large bird swooped down through the trees and vanished behind a clump of reeds. All that we heard was a splash.
The next thing we saw was a young African fish eagle fly up out of the reed, holding a huge catfish in one of its feet. African fish eagles are well known for their iconic behaviour of swooping down low over the water and grabbing fish just beneath the surface. However, what truly struck me was the ability of the eagle (with a wingspan of up to two meters) to manoeuver through the trees and catch a catfish in such a secluded stream. This usually happens on larger, more open bodies of water. Once the eagle had caught the fish, it managed to perch on top of a dead tree with the other foot. The catfish had no chance. When a fish eagle catches a fish, its sharp talons (which can be up to 5cm in length) form a trap-like grasp that the fish cannot escape from.
It turns out that being able to navigate dense bush to catch fish is not the only adaptation that fish eagles use to catch fish. Not only can they compensate for the refraction of the water to judge where the fish is exactly beneath the surface, but it has also been reported that if an African fish eagle catches a fish that is too large for it to pull out of the water, the eagle may even drop down into the water and attempt to swim to a nearby bank before letting go of its prized catch. This is, however, extremely uncommon – most likely due to the high density of crocodiles that are also found in the water the fish eagles hunt.
They are also extremely territorial birds, occupying a very specific section of river or a water hole. Fish are not the only animals that need to keep a watchful eye for these eagles, as they have been reported to also catch other birds on the wing, small crocodiles and even monkeys. Furthermore, I have witnessed them stealing fish from storks and herons on several occasions.
It is often the case out here that when expectations are slightly lowered, the most incredible things seem to happen. In all the times I have seen an African fish eagle catch a fish, it has usually been out in the open, and there has never been a serious birder nearby. Sightings like these truly are a highlight for most of us who work out here and I am glad I got to share it with Larry, who was blown away by the birdlife at Londolozi.