I love birding. I love how much richer the world becomes when you realise that there is an abundance of life fluttering just beyond your consciousness. I love that excitement that you feel when you realise that you are looking at a living creature that you have never before laid eyes on. Unfortunately for me, I am not a very good birder. I do not dedicate enough time to it. I often treat birding as a side activity when I am on safari, and rarely give it my full attention. As a result, my birding ability is frozen in time at a relatively basic level, and this is something that I am continually committing to remedy.
It was in this context that I decided to dedicate a whole afternoon to the bird hide at Lake Panic outside Skukuza camp in the Kruger National Park. The name is misleading, as this is really a calm, expansive dam alive with hippos, crocodiles and an abundance of bird life. There are few things more peaceful then sitting in silence near a beautiful body of water watching the birds go about their business. It is usually a calming activity, but if you wait long enough, nature will usually reward you with something spectacular. Little did I know that on this occasion, she had something particularly special in store for me.
I sat in the (honestly very uncomfortable) hide, camera at the ready, watching the lives of a variety of aquatically inclined creatures unfold. A flock of about 20 white faced ducks landed adorably in the pond, their high pitched whistles announcing their arrival. Their presence was not welcomed by a couple of grouchy, beady eyed Egyptian geese, who felt their smaller cousins were intruding on their turf. At one point, the geese’s aggressive movements sparked a natural chain reaction. They made a sudden flap at the ducks, whose aborted take-off caused a nearby bushbuck to bolt noisily through the water, causing every bird in the vicinity to explode into the air in a cacophony of noise.
Directly across from me, a grey heron stood statue still for close to an hour, its white, grey and black feathers blending into the shadows of the undergrowth. Then without warning, it came flapping into the light, a decent sized fish grasped in its beak. It then proceeded to swallow the hapless creature whole. As if in celebration, a few minutes later it let out a deep, gravelly call which sounded more like a croak then a song.
African jacanas plodded their way over the expansive water lily leaves with their bizarrely over-sized feet, their cinnamon red wings and blue forehead glistening in the sun. A black crake ran busily around, its tail standing comically to attention, and its bright red eye standing in exquisite contrast to its jet black face. A squacco heron posed unmoving at an acute angle on a low hanging branch, its body creating an amorphous russet shimmer on the rippling water surface. Every few minutes, the sharp beak would shoot out, snatching at a small creature at the water’s surface. Twice I saw it pull back, and gulp down a wriggling silver fish.
Off to the left, atop a large tree sat a pair of magnificent fish eagles. They were mostly still, but now and then, one would toss its head back, releasing the emotive cry that is so symbolic of the African bush. It has long been a dream of mine to witness a fish eagle snatching a fish from the water’s surface, so when one of the eagles took off and soared purposefully across the water, I swung my long lens around and started snapping away like a maniac, hoping to catch that magical moment.
My heart was beating out of my chest as it swooped low to the water near the far bank, and as it approached the surface it was greeted with a violent splash by something evidently sizeable. The eagle aborted its attack and alighted in the shallows, before taking off again and trying a second attack. Another swoop, another splash, another failure, and the eagle flew off and landed on the bank defeated. I had assumed that its intended quarry was a large catfish feeding in the shallows, but to my absolute astonishment, when I zoomed in on the scene on my small camera screen, I saw clearly that the eagle had been attempting to hunt a young crocodile. The crocodile looked to be about 80cm long, a massive target for a fish eagle. In the photos, I could see that the croc had spotted the eagle’s approach, and had lunged at the eagle with its gapping mouth when the deadly talons approached. This was something I had never seen or heard of before. I knew that fish eagles would hunt fish and small birds and mammals, and pirate the kills of other water birds. But a crocodile! That just seemed too dangerous a proposition.
Thinking I had witnessed something never before seen, I returned home and delved the depths of the internet to try find other evidence of such an event. To my amazement (and slight disappointment) I found solid photographic proof of a fish eagle hunting a crocodile of a similar size to the one I saw (you can see the story here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/9595671/The-moment-an-eagle-snatches-a-crocodile.html)
Despite that, I believe this is an extremely rare and special event, and witnessing it live has left an indelible mark on my memory.