Kruger park – the “little herons” at Lake Panic

Lake Panic is a small dam which filled after an earth wall was constructed in 1975 across the small stream which flowed through the golf course past Skukuza rest camp down to the Sabi river. Two dams were formed along this stream. The upper dam was called Lake Panic because not long after it was constructed a huge volume of water from a cloudburst overfilled the dam and threatened to breach the dam wall causing panic among the Skukuza rest camp staff. The earth dam wall held then and still holds back the water today. Further down the same stream another dam was built in the Skukuza golf course which is located just west of the Skukuza rest camp, the main administrative centre of Kruger Park.

Lake Panic was formed by the dam across the stream which was given the name Mafunyana creek. The creek was nicknamed after L B Steyn, a hard, tough Afrikaaner who became park warden in the 1940s. He was given the nickname Mafunyana, meaning he who eats greedily.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you will live forever.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Lake Panic is filled naturally by rain water but if it gets too low it can be filled with water pumped up from the Sabi river which flows passed the Skukuza rest camp.

There are eleven bird/game-viewing hides in Kruger National Park but Lake Panic is arguably the best known. The lake itself is host to a plethora of wetland and savanna bird life, and larger reptiles such as Nile crocodiles, terrapins, Nile monitors, and mammals such as hippos, elephants, and a diverse group of woodland antelope, and predators. The bird hide at the upstream end of Lake Panic is one of the most scenic and productive photographic and bird watching spots in Kruger.

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew i would never see it again?.” Rachel Carson

This post focuses on the “little herons” we saw at Lake Panic. The “little herons” are a group which are smaller than the large herons such as Black-headed, Grey, Purple and Goliath herons, but larger than the bitterns. The large herons vary in height from 90cm to 140cm, as in the case of a Goliath heron. The “little herons” vary in height from 40 to 60 cms while bitterns are around 25 cms in height, with the exception of the Great bittern which is similar in height to the “little herons”.

These herons differ from storks and ibises in having a long, spear-like bill, a pectinate middle toe claw, a generally more slender body with a long neck, and an elaborate variation in display feathers on the head, neck, and back.

The classification of little herons and egrets has no clear clear consensus as evidenced by the interchangable classification between a Black egret and Black heron, the one with the unique canopy hunting technique.

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow..” ~ Rachel Carson

The group of “little herons” include the Green-back, Squacco and Rufous-bellied heron which vary between being diurnal and crepuscular, and the purely crepuscular and nocturnal Black-crowned night herons and White-backed night-herons. Needless to say because of the gate opening and closing times in Kruger (sunrise and sunset) we did not get to see night-herons. We were treated to superb sightings of Green-backed and Squacco herons.

Green-backed herons are shy and do not seem to like being in the open for too long. Fortunately, there is a fallen tree in front of the hide which is a perfect platform from which to hunt which the Green-backed herons actively used. These herons are very well camouflaged and difficult to see in the shade inside bushes overhanging the water’s edge.

The Green-backed herons have a similar hunting style to the Squaccos and are real reed and branch acrobats.

These herons must be able to accurately judge the refraction of light in the water. As the light passed from the air into the water it changes direction which alters the perception of depth. If the heron does not adjust for this it will stab and miss its prey swimming under the water surface. Normally the light bends towards the surface as its passes into water so the prey looks shallower than it really is. Just think of the natural intelligence required to adjust its aim to directly hit the fish swimming under the surface of the water. This Green-backed heron hunting on the edge of fallen tree trunk was in a classic place to see its unique technique of baiting its prey. Sadly, we did not get to see this hunting technique in action.

“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.” ~ Chinese proverb

These “little herons” have large feet with long claws which enable them to hang onto branches and grip the side of a fallen logs. The Green-backed heron tends to be a crepuscular hunter but occasionally hunts during the day – especially early in the morning for Lake Panic photographers.

The adult Green-backed heron has a dark grey-green back and lighter grey neck and breast feathers. Its secondary and covert wing feathers are a striated green colour. It usually has a thin streak of white feathers down the front of its neck. It has a very dark green crown with long crest feathers. Its underparts are a pale grey color. This heron has a long pointed bill with a black upper mandible and and lighter coloured lower mandible which varies in colour from yellow to a light fawn colour. It has yellow eyes and yellow lores. The lores are the space between the nostrils in the bill and the eye of a bird. They are featherless on wading and water birds. Often they change colour in breeding season. Also in the breeding season, the eye becomes orange and the legs change from yellow to a orange-red colour. It makes you realise the degree of hormone changes take place to cause these colour changes?

“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” ~Francis Bacon

The Green-backed heron tends to be solitary and is normally seen flying furtively along the edge of the waterway. They are shy waders which fly low across the water and usually along the river from one set of bushes and trees with branches overhanging the water to the next. The Green-backed heron is highly territorial.

The juvenile Green-backed heron is brownish, with a well striated neck, and with white and buff coloured spots on its upper wings. Its throat, neck and chest are streaked with brown and white. Its legs are a greenish yellow. This particular character was alarmed by a Malachite kingfisher which was giving it a few close fly byes.

The other “little heron” we saw at Lake Panic was the Squacco heron. According to Trevor Carnaby, in his “treasure trove” book ‘Beat about the bush: Birds’, both the Green-backed and the Squacco herons have been seen baiting their prey.

“To make knowledge productive, we will have to learn to see both the forest and the tree. We will have to learn to connect.” ~ Peter Drucker

The Squacco is usually found close to water. Its non breeding plumage is a buff-brown back and its neck is streaked with long dark brown and buff coloured feathers and its underparts are white. It has a grey bill will a black tip and its legs are yellow-green. In the breeding season this heron’s plumage takes on attractive long golden brown plumes on the back of its head and golden plumes on its neck and chest. Its bill becomes cobalt blue and its lores turn green. Judging from the Squacco in the next image it was in the process of taking on its breeding plumage.

This bird has a specially adapted bill which helps it hunt for fish, crabs, tadpoles and other aquatic animals in the water. It will also eat insects. Unlike a kingfisher which beats its prey to death on a branch, these herons seem to just swallow their prey whole once it is immobilised.

“These birds are usually quiet. If you want to see them you have to pay attention. Mother nature is watching you. Once she can see you are paying attention she will begin to reveal her wonders to you.” ~ Mike Haworth

These herons frequently hunt from branches overhanging the water. As you can see they are quite acrobatic.

Looking at this Squacco one would never expect their incredible ability to stretch that apparently short neck. The very long neck feathers are a sign there is more to that neck than meets the resting eye.

When food sources are abundant, Squaccos feed in small flocks but the birds are well spaced out. I have seen along the Chobe river where roughly every ten to 15 metres apart there was a Squacco in the reeds. Usually though when at Marievale Bird Sanctuary or Lake Panic, we only see individuals which is probably a sign that food is not abundant. Incredibly these herons can stand stand motionless at the water’s edge, or hidden in the tall vegetation for extended periods. When prey comes within striking distance they jab at their prey with exceptional speed, reach and dexterity.

We do not normally find the Rufous-bellied heron in South Africa other than in the Nyl river flood plain in the Limpopo province. I have seen one in the reeds along the Chobe river. This species of “little herons” is least seen of the three in southern Africa.

“It is only when you sit quietly and patiently, almost in mediation, that you start to see things in front of you that you never noticed before~ nuances. A subliminal layer of activity, interaction and intelligence becomes apparent subtly revealing some of nature’s mysteries.” ~ Mike Haworth

Don’t forget it is Global Birding “Big Day” on Saturday 9th of May. Please help them with their bird count project. eBird Mobile app is a worldwide bird checklist programme used by millions of birders. It compiles sightings into a single massive Global Big Day list and at the same time collects data to help scientists better understand birds and their distribution. Download the app and help them while you are in lockdown.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ~Aldo Leopold

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

2 thoughts on “Kruger park – the “little herons” at Lake Panic

  1. Very interesting and your photographs are a real joy to see. The hide at Lake Panic can get very crowded at times, so one has to be patient to get a good viewing point – many photographers ‘dig in’ there for hours at a time.

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