I was fortunate enough to spend five wonderful days on the Chobe river photographing wildlife from CNP’s photographic boat with some super people who were passionate about their photography and wildlife, and loved being out in the “bush”. This blog is the first of five and shows a few images of the many Fish Eagles we saw while on the boat cruising the Chobe river.
“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”
– Sir David Attenborough
The African Fish Eagle is not a ‘true’ Eagle but belongs to the Haliaeetus genus of Sea Eagles, alongside seven other species worldwide that include the American Bald Eagle and the Eurasian White-tailed Eagle. This is one of the most ancient genera among all living birds. Eagles are seen as living symbols of power, freedom, and transcendence and admired for it. Watching these incredible raptors in the wild it is not difficult to understand why!!
Adult African Fish Eagles are large raptors, readily recognizable, with their pure white head, neck, chest, and tail, dark chestnut brown body, and black primaries and secondaries. They have broad, relatively long wings, and a fairly short, rounded tail. The face is mostly bare and yellow, as is the cere, The eyes are a dark auburn and the feet are light yellow covered in what looks like scales.
African Fish Eagles are kleptoparasites, which is to say they habitually steal prey from other species. Common victims of this piratical behaviour include Goliath Herons and Saddle-billed Storks.
A Fish Eagle’s toes, similar to the Osprey, are coated in sharp barbs, called spiricules, which help it to grasp fish and other slippery prey.
Fish are not the only item on the menu of this versatile predator. Other prey includes ducks, terrapins, baby crocodiles, mongooses, small waterfowl and even – in the soda lakes of East Africa – Flamingos.
This bird’s conspicuous nature and charismatic presence ensure it figures prominently in the folklore and heraldry of several nations. You will find it on the coat of arms of Namibia, Zambia and South Sudan.
With its distinctive plumage and evocative cry, the African Fish Eagle is probably the most recognisable bird of prey in Africa. This was the male of a pair which had caught a large catfish and were feeding on it on the ground. It must have been too big to carry up to the safety of a large Jackalberry, of which there are many along this river.
“Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.”
~ Jimmy Carter
The Fish Eagle is a perch hunter. Usually it is seen perched majestically on a high branch on a waterside tree. From its elevated perch it can watch for fish moving close to the water’s surface. Once prey is sighted, the African Fish Eagle launches from its perch, swoops low over the water, and at the critical moment throws both feet forward to seize hold of its target with powerful talons. African Fish Eagles normally take their fish in long shallow dives and prefer snatching them from the surface in one fluent movement. They usually target surface-feeding fish such as tilapia and catfish and mostly catch individuals that weigh between one-and two kilograms. They have very powerful wings and talons to deal with this form of hunting. Larger fish are usually dragged across the water to shore. If the fish is too heavy, the fish eagle has been know to use its wings to paddle to shore.
Adult African Fish Eagles are normally seen in pairs, but on large, productive lakes and rivers such as the Chobe, nests and roosts can be only a few hundred metres apart, and many birds can be found together in one area. The nests are usually built in a large tree and constructed with sticks lined with grass and water reeds. It can be used year after year, growing in size over time with the addition of reeds, papyrus heads, bulrushes and sometimes Weaver nests.
This raptor stands up to 0.7m tall and weighs up to 2.8kg. The female is the larger of the two. There is no sexual dimorphism in their colouring, only their size.
Calling and duetting, whilst perched or soaring, is an integral part of the breeding display, and is combined with dramatic aerial dives and falls, with pairs interlocking talons in mid air. I have still to capture this interaction with my camera – tomorrow!!!
African Fish Eagles can live up to 24 years. Their range is throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. These are confident raptors as shown with the adult Fish Eagle unfazed by all the Impala grazing around it.
“Nature is part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery, man ceases to be man.”
The African Fish Eagle is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List with an estimated 100 000 and 200 000 pairs in the world, probably because of their long life expectancy.
It is very seldom a Fish Eagle flies straight towards you. This was one such occasion. You really get the sense of the power of this eagle.
It is also a reminder that the bird is three times the size when its wings are extended compared to when it is perched on a branch. The wing are very wide apart, ideal for soaring and catching thermals which fish eagles often do and climb to great heights in these modest twisters.
The bird has broad, slotted wings. These wings are best for soaring and gliding because they can use warm air updrafts to fly using almost no energy. Birds with these types of wings include Hawks, Eagles, and Vultures.
“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery – not over nature but of ourselves.”
On our last morning on the Chobe, we came across this Fish Eagle which had caught a sizeable fish and was busy eating its breakfast.
It did not seem to fuss about us and we were not too close as we were using long lenses. Nevertheless, this character started to ruffle its feathers which seems to re-order them. They often do this before flying away.
Sure enough, shortly after its shake-down it took of prey in its talons.
I am not sure what type of fish it was feeding on as it had eaten most of it.
There was obviously enough meat left on that fish to make it worthwhile carrying it away,
There are many pairs of Fish Eagles along the Chobe. Though they do seem to congregate between the entrance to the park at Kasane and Puku Flats. If you travel up river beyond Puku Flats down towards Serondela you are not likely to see Fish Eagles.
“Only when the last tree has been cut down
Only when the last river has been poisoned
Only when the last fish has been caught
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.“
– Cree Indian Prophecy
A special thanks goes to Johan Greyling who was our guide on this CNP trip – you were great and I continue to learn from you – thank you.
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter -connectedness and let it be.
Thank you for sharing this magnificent sequence of photographs, they are superb.
Thank you Sue! I hope you have a wonderful time up in Mashatu- I think it will be really hot though. Have fun, Mike
You have done these majestic birds justice with awesome images Mike! We sometimes get “spoiled” a bit by seeing them so frequently along the Chobe River. It takes me back to my first photographic encounter with a Fish Eagle and the unforgetable feeling I experienced to have captured that image. Special! Thanks for sharing.
Thanks Elana – I never get tired of seeing these huge raptors in action.