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Battle at the Lagoon: African Fish Eagle vs. Goliath Heron

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.

African Fish Eagle

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.

African Fish Eagle

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.

African Fish Eagle

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.

Goliath Heron

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.

Goliath Heron

Meanwhile, the eagle kept flying back and forth across the lagoon.  So eventually these two large birds ended up on the same side.

Goliath Heron and Fish Eagle

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.

Fish Eagle vs. Goliath Heron

Fish Eagle vs. Goliath Heron

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.

Fish Eagle vs. Goliath Heron

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!

Fish Eagle vs. Goliath Heron

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.

Goliath Heron

See more of these two birds and plenty of other avian species from my 2016 South Africa adventure in the photo archive.

10 Comments

  1. Reny November 15, 2016 Reply

    That must have been great to witness Max, what an cool battle!
    Love all the shots but especially the light on that 2nd heron shot and the black and white.

    Great job !

    • Author
      Max November 15, 2016 Reply

      Thanks, Reny. It was often tough for photography in there. There was a fair bit of backlighting (especially during the second battle on the back side of the hide), and also a lot of softness and distortion since I was shooting through glass. I’m thankful at least a few images turned out okay.

  2. Claudia Potgieser November 15, 2016 Reply

    wow, wow, wow!!!! But how do they keep the windows clean?
    My favorite? ALL of them!

    • Author
      Max November 15, 2016 Reply

      Thanks, Claudia. The windows open inward, making it possible to clean them. I had to do that a few times at their overnight hide after birds kept splashing the window there. They’ve really put a lot of thought into the designs.

  3. Marshall Cherrington November 15, 2016 Reply

    This is freaking awesome. Love it.

    • Author
      Max November 15, 2016 Reply

      Thanks, Marshall, and congrats on the big win.

  4. Oscar November 17, 2016 Reply

    Fantastic series! What a battle! I loved the point of view on these shots, too.

    • Author
      Max November 17, 2016 Reply

      Thanks Oscar!

  5. Dolores Mohammed January 16, 2018 Reply

    I had to spend quite a bit of time admiring these gorgeous pictures which filled me with wonder. The written commentary, too, tells a dramatic tale of the wild. I am showing the story and pictures to my students who have been reading about beautiful birds of Africa. I have set questions for them to answer after the reading. Would like to share some of their feelings about the pictures.
    As a photographer, you are a true artist!

  6. Francis Gachoka Mwangi February 15, 2018 Reply

    Truly, it seemed like quite a thrilling moment to witness. Clear & sharp images of what goes on in the wilderness. Nature can be captivating, at times.

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