A few of these photos and a brief synopsis of this encounter have been featured in a few periodicals overseas, but I thought it was time to share the full story with here.
During my visit to South Africa earlier this year, I visited a couple of new destinations in order to do some scouting for future tours. It’s important to get a sense of what certain parks or reserves may offer in terms of photo opportunities for my clients. There were a couple of relatively young game reserves in South Africa that I’d been hearing about recently that piqued my interest. One of them, Zimanga, had made a name for itself by building some state-of-the-art photographic hides. It made sense to check it out to gauge its potential for a future photo tour.
On my first afternoon at Zimanga, I had a session scheduled at the Lagoon Hide. This was an underground bunker, accessed via a large corrugated pipe. Once you enter the hide, you find yourself in a small elongated room with windows on both sides. These windows are made of one-way glass, allowing you to look out to both sides of the lagoon in front of you without giving away your presence to the animals outside. The lagoon is quite small, so any visitors to the lagoon are actually quite close to you. With larger birds, this sometimes meant my 600mm lens was too long, so I spent a fair bit of time switching between three different lenses on my two camera bodies.
It didn’t take long for photography to commence. The Lagoon Hide is popular with birds in particular. Though we could see larger mammals in the distance (warthogs, kudu, elephants), we only encountered avian species at the lagoon. Smaller waders such as jacanas and stilts patrolled the far edge of the pond, but soon an African fish eagle arrived.
This is a very handsome bird, reminiscent in some ways of our own bald eagles. Though I had seen a few photos of fish eagles taken at the Zimanga hides, I figured I’d have to be pretty lucky to see one at close range like this (much less right off the bat!). This particular perch was situated only a few meters from the hide window, so it was quite easy to snap some close portraits.
The handsome raptor was a strange character. I expected it to maybe swoop down on a small fish or frog and then fly off. Instead, it stayed with us for some time. It seemed preoccupied with patrolling the pond, flying back and forth (directly over our heads) to each shore.
The fish eagle would land on the perch, on the opposite shoreline, or sometimes even on the roof of the hide! It’s too bad we didn’t have a skylight in our bunker to photograph it from below. It was a real treat to have so many opportunities to photograph such a beautiful raptor at close range (and from a low angle) like this. Little did I know that the hide shoot would soon get even better.
About an hour into our session, a new visitor arrived at the lagoon.
Those massive legs belong to the Goliath heron, so called because it’s the world’s tallest heron species (note how it dwarfs the fowl-sized African jacana above, even with the skewed perspective). The heron showed up and began strutting about, occasionally dabbing at the water in attempts to catch a meal.
Meanwhile, the eagle kept flying back and forth across the lagoon. So eventually these two large birds ended up on the same side.
I had wisely switched to my 24-70mm lens at this point, in order to capture both birds in the same frame. Somewhat surprisingly, instead of keeping its distance, the heron strode through the water directly at the eagle. A confrontation was suddenly inevitable.
The Goliath heron is a massive bird, so I don’t think it felt particularly threatened by the fish eagle (a Martial eagle might be a different story… they’ve been known to kill antelope!). But it was intent on claiming the lagoon for itself. This may have been more about eliminating the competition for food than trying to curb a direct threat.
The attack was a stunning moment, but the battle wasn’t over. The eagle flew back over to the other side of the hide, and it wasn’t long before the heron waded back across the lagoon. Soon they were at it again.
Because of the low-hanging roof on this side of the hide, I could barely fit the combatants in the frame. In fact, the eagle hovered directly above the heron at one point, but we couldn’t see it because of the awning. I suppose the hide designers didn’t expect such a moment to occur at the lagoon!
At last, the heron drove the eagle off, after which things settled down. A couple of small wading birds skirted the edges of the pond, but the Goliath heron had proven that it was king of the lagoon.
See more of these two birds and plenty of other avian species from my 2016 South Africa adventure in the photo archive.