Wondering what a day in the life of a Kruger saddle-billed stork might be like? Step one: search for fish. Step two: catch fish. Step three: defend your meal with everything you’ve got!
Earlier this year the Kruger National Park was the setting for a spellbinding standoff between two saddle-billed storks and a fish eagle. Wild Card members Fanie Maritz and Coleen Williams from White River were fortunate to witness the action as it unfolded.
“At a small dam on the S65, at a low-water bridge that crosses the N’waswitshaka River, we came across a pair of saddle-billed storks. Fanie had a blast photographing them as it was the closest we’ve ever been to these beautiful birds,” Coleen recalls.
“At one point the male managed to catch himself a rather large fish. Fanie was already zoomed in on the action when the bird placed its meal on the sandbank – presumably to rearrange and figure out just how he was going to deal with the not-so-small catch.”
“Next thing a chestnut, black and white flash appeared. A fish eagle had swooped in and seized the opportunity to steal the fish. As the fish eagle and the storks had a brief tiff, the fish made the most of the conflict and attempted to escape.”
“The fish eagle didn’t appreciate the fish’s unruly tactics and quickly put a stop to it by swooping in yet again and grabbing a solid hold of the prey. The storks, clearly not impressed with the thieving fish eagle, were now in defence mode and stretched out their wings.” [The saddle-billed stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) has a wingspan of 2.4–2.7m; while the wingspan of the African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) measures 1.9m. – Ed.]
Before Fanie and Coleen could say snap, both storks retreated allowing the fish eagle to escape with its stolen prize. “Neither of us had ever witnessed anything like this before. What amazed us was the sheer size of the birds and the fish eagle’s impeccable timing. It had obviously been sitting and watching, carefully planning the heist.”
Wisdom from the wild
“What was quite amazing is how the storks just carried on as if nothing had happened – a lesson we could all learn from nature… Just let it go,” says Coleen.
There’s no predicting what you will see in the bush, but it helps to be prepared. Fanie has the following advice: “When you’re zoomed in close on a subject and your partner starts yelling ‘SHOOT! SHOOT!’, just start shooting wildly – even though you have no idea yet what you’re supposed to be aiming at. Spend some time at the sightings, look around and be patient. You never know what may happen.”
Canon 600D with 100-400mm Canon lens
According to field guide and nature author Trevor Carnaby, the African fish eagle has the “dubious distinction” among mainland birds of stealing prey from more species than any other. The birds harass and steal fish from storks, pelicans, kingfishers, herons and osprey. They will also take other types of prey from other eagles and marsh-harriers. This behaviour is known as kleptoparasitism.
Check out this video of a fish eagle stealing a meal from a saddle-billed stork, courtesy of Kruger Sightings.