Last month I showed you some of the smaller birds we encountered in the Kruger & Cape Point National Parks. This month I’m going to share with you some of the bigger birds we encountered on our 2 day visit. The first bird we saw was an African darter, a very similar bird to our fish eating cormorant, but as we were watching it rest after a fishing expedition, a superb African fish eagle flew in to join the party. This is the African equivalent of the osprey, and this first fish eagle we saw was in amazing condition. As we looked around, an African Jacana suddenly started feeding below eye level, a lapwing size bird with extraordinary feet. The colourful Jacana was just prodding about at the edge of the pool, when glancing to our right, we saw an amazing Squacco heron beautifully camouflaged against the foliage, and in front of this was a delightful green backed heron. We were just so excited and fortunate in seeing such superb wading birds at very close quarters. Ten minutes later near a crossing point in the Sabie River I spotted a beautiful reddish brown plumaged goliath heron just standing silently on its tall spindly legs, eyes down towards the water looking for food. The goliath heron is half as big again as a grey heron, and with its stately stance, was just a majestic creature. Imagine our delight when a few minutes later we came across an even bigger wading bird, a saddle billed stork which appeared at first glance to be twice the size of the goliath heron, but in fact was only marginally taller. What is extraordinary about these sightings is that they were all only a few metres away from us and the birds seemed completely unworried about the presence of people.
We were very concerned for the goliath heron because from our relatively high vantage point we could see a crocodile moving stealthily towards it with hardly a ripple in the water. Luckily nothing did occur at this stage, but as I looked to my right from the trekking vehicle I spotted a giant plated lizard just sunning itself on the riverbed, and just 25m further away a herd of perhaps 60 elephants coming down to drink at the water’s edge. The most common stork we saw during the day were yellow billed storks, and they were joined in a feeding pool in the Sabie river by white, black and woolly-necked storks, several species of egrets and a number of African spoonbills. As these larger species fed, smaller and colourful black winged stilts, Blacksmith lapwings, and a number of other wader species such as wood and green sandpipers prodded about in the mud beside them. I guess that as this was the end of winter, many of these birds were visible because the water level was very low and the vegetation yet to bloom.
Similarly as there were few trees in leaf and branches were bare, we saw far more birds of prey close up than we might have expected. My favourite was the dark chanting goshawk which we watched for five minutes or so sitting just metres away on a bare branch, as brown snake eagles, Martial eagles, black vultures, buzzards and yellow tailed kites, soared overhead, and out across the savannah. These were difficult for us to identify at first, but we were helped out by the knowledgeable ranger who accompanied us. His local and accustomed eyes could identify animals and birds by flight, or movement. He even seemed to be able to see through the camouflage somehow, and could spot creatures in all kinds of unexpected situations. As we spent most of our time following the Sabie river, it was inevitable that the most common bird of prey we saw was the African fish eagle. The hooked beaks of these birds are very characteristic and enable them to tear their prey apart. They are active hunters and use their strong claws and sharp talons to capture and kill their prey. The white head, neck and breast of this eagle are diagnostic, and it has superb russet and brown plumage. It usually feeds on fish, carrion and small animals and is normally seen around fresh water especially rivers and ponds. They are also magnificent fliers and we probably saw over 20 of them in our two days exploring the wonderful Kruger Park.
Yellow billed stork
A Goliath heron
a green backed heron
African fish eagle
Yellow tailed kite
Fish eagle in flight