Getting to know the Chobe Fish Eagles

I don’t think there is any uniquely African sound as the call of the African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocoder) that lets you know that you are in Africa.  The Fish Eagle is found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa with an estimated 300 000 birds spread across the area where there are large expanses of open water.  This magnificent bird is revered in Africa and is the national bird of no less than 3 countries i.e. Botswana, Zambia and South Sudan.  The African Fish Eagle is placed in the Sea Eagle genus Haliaeetus.  The female is also significantly larger than the male weighing in at between 3.2 and 3.6 kg with the male lighter at 2 – 2.5 kg.

Encountering these beautiful birds and hearing their cry is so special and this is certainly true of the CNP Safaris on the Chobe river where the call reverberates across the Chobe River and invariably is answered by another Fish Eagle.

An African Fish Eagle calling  from the banks of the Chobe River with CNP Safaris.

An African Fish Eagle calling from the banks of the Chobe River with CNP Safaris.

On the stretch of the Chobe river were we, CNP Safaris http://www.cnpsafaris.com operate our photographic safaris , there are at least 18 adult Fish Eagles which we regularly see either as single birds or as many as 4 birds together.  From my observations over the 2013 period, I have deduced that the Fish Eagles are quite territorial and generally tolerant of each other for the most of the year.  We have come across up to 4 individuals sitting together quite calmly in the late afternoon sun.

Three African Fish Eagles fighting on the banks of the  Chobe.

Three African Fish Eagles fighting on the banks of the Chobe.

On one other occasion in June 2013, we saw quite a serious fight between 2 individuals and a 3rd bird then also joined in the fight.   This could have been a fight over territory of a lady.

Fish Eagle are monogamous so mate for life.  Both adults will collect nesting material to add to their nest which are built from large sticks and can be 2m wide and up to 1.2 m deep.  The female lays up to 3 eggs which are incubated by both parents and will hatch by day 45.  As siblicide, the killing of an infant individual by its close relatives, does not occur in this species, they can successfully raise all the hatchlings.

It is very interesting to observe them collecting nesting material which can be a single stick, a large branch or clumps of grass which is forcefully ripped from the earth.

An African Fish Eagle collecting grass for its nest. NIKON D800, Lens (mm): 600, ISO: 500, Aperture: 7.1, Shutter: 1/5000, Exp. Comp.: -1.3

An African Fish Eagle collecting grass for its nest.
NIKON D800, Lens (mm): 600, ISO: 500, Aperture: 7.1, Shutter: 1/5000, Exp. Comp.: -1.3

I think they are very efficient as they are always carrying something back to their nest after they have come to ground to bath, to eat their catch or scavenge on any food left by the crocodiles.

Once they have eaten or taken a bath they then look around for nesting material, pick a branch or clump of grass and then fly off to the nest.

African Fish Eagle with White-faced Duck

African Fish Eagle with White-faced Duck

Speaking of diet, I have observed these birds catch fish, White-Faced Ducks, African Jacanas, Allen’s Gallinule, Reed Cormorant and then seen images of them catch a Water Monitor lizard.    They will also scavenge on any carrion left unattended.  The image on the left was taken when we saw a Fish Eagle feeding on something but we couldn’t see what what it was.  The next moment it took off and caught me by surprise as I wasn’t expecting a White-faced Duck to be hanging from its talons.

I have seen on a number occasions that Fish Eagles pick up discarded cat fish heads.  The cat fish heads are broken off by crocodiles as they toss the fish about to kill it and break the prey into smaller pieces.  Off course this free meal also draws in other scavengers like Marabou Storks, Hamerkop and the Grey-headed Gulls.

Of course Fish Eagles are renowned for their fishing style of swooping down with open wings, legs stretched out and talons ready to plunge into the fish.  We all long to capture those iconic images of a Fish Eagle taking a fish from the surface of the water.  The majority of those images featured in the wildlife magazines are all as a result of baited fish cast to Fish Eagles habituated to the call or whistle of a boatman signalling a meal.

After a patient wait the Fish Eagle came off its perch and took a fish from the Chobe a short distance from the boat. NIKON D4 Frame #: 9128 Lens (mm): 600 ISO: 640 Aperture: 6.3 Shutter: 1/4000 Exp. Comp.: -1.3

After a patient wait the Fish Eagle came off its perch and took a fish from the Chobe a short distance from the boat.
NIKON D4, Lens (mm): 600, ISO: 640, Aperture: 6.3, Shutter: 1/4000, Exp. Comp.: -1.3

Having said that it is indeed fortunate if everything works out and you get to photograph a Fish Eagle hunting even if it doesn’t end in a successful strike.

A Fish Eagles attempts to catch fish were in vain after many attempts.  The fish would see it coming and then scatter ay great speed. NIKON D4, Lens (mm): 600, ISO: 1000, Aperture: 5, Shutter: 1/3200, Exp. Comp.: -1.3

A Fish Eagles attempts to catch fish were in vain after many attempts. The fish would see it coming and then scatter at great speed.
NIKON D4, Lens (mm): 600, ISO: 1000, Aperture: 5, Shutter: 1/3200, Exp. Comp.: -1.3

The image on the right was taken while we we shooting Carmine Bee-eater bathing and this Fish Eagle decided to try and catch some of the large fish against the opposite bank.

It swooped down time after time but missed every time as the fish saw it coming and scattered at great speed in different directions.  The fish would then school again and the Fish Eagle would launch the next attack.  I think this must have been a school of catfish in the process of spawning as they were very visible on the surface.

But photographing Fish Eagles is not only about getting the shot of them taking a fish, i also about the other behaviours like the whole bathing ritual, feeding, taking off out of the water, in-flight shots, landing and also if you are fortunate the mating ritual.

A Blacksmith Lapwing attacks a Fish Eagle near Chobe Safari Lodge. Model: NIKON D4 Lens (mm): 400 ISO: 400 Aperture: 6.3 Shutter: 1/8000 Exp. Comp.: -1.3

A Blacksmith Lapwing attacks a Fish Eagle near Chobe Safari Lodge.
Model: NIKON D4, Lens (mm): 400, ISO: 400, Aperture: 6.3, Shutter: 1/8000, Exp. Comp.: -1.3

These apex predators are also the most unpopular birds on the Chobe and are hounded by every other bird species.  These attacks can make for world class photographs, so be prepared and keep your eyes open and camera trained on the action.

African Skimmer attacking a Fish Eagle. NIKON D4, Lens (mm): 600, ISO: 1000, Aperture: 5,  Shutter: 1/3200, Exp. Comp.: -1.3

African Skimmer attacking a Fish Eagle.
NIKON D4, Lens (mm): 600, ISO: 1000, Aperture: 5, Shutter: 1/3200, Exp. Comp.: -1.3

Their primary attackers are Blacksmith Lapwings and African Skimmers who will dive down onto these large birds of prey time and time again until they abandon their perch or position.

From a photography point of view, all the images featured here were taken with Nikon equipment from the specialist CNP Photography boats.  The boats are stable flat bottomed boats with swivel chairs and Wimberly supports for the professional fixed focal 600mm lenses and cameras.  Minimum lens length required is around 500mm, but we regularly add a 1.4, 1.7 or 2.0 extender to shoot at around 800mm and beyond.  I always try and shoot at the highest shutter speed achievable in the AV mode and ISO around 800.  Also keep in mind that the wingspan of a Fish Eagle can be up to 2.4 meters so ensure you are shooting with enough depth of field for the situation.

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