I visited the Kruger National Park in November of 2018. I had always wanted to one day visit the world-famous Kruger but it seemed to me like a distant dream I had no road map to. It was a dream come true, a living adventure for me to travel to the Kruger for the Raptor Research Foundation Conference. You know the kind of ideas you did not realise you always had because you thought they were too far out of reach until they just happen when you least expect them to. This was how my trip to the Kruger happened, serendipity.
At the Kruger I quickly made friends. Like on the first day, I found my friend JF from Hawk Mountain in the lobby where we registered and by mistake, he told me a wrong house number to where he and his family were staying. So after freshening up, I thought I’d visit them and say hie to their adorable kids. I was surprised to find a party of people having drinks and sharing stories. They were all so friendly and happy to add to their number, they would not take no for an answer and I ended up joining them for sundowners on that first evening. At that, the tone was set for the rest of the week, we were all just scientists, passionate about birds of prey and surrounded by Africa at its best, teeming with wild things with only the next person to enjoy it with.
I made an unlikely friend, I think on the first day of talks, a German called Bjorn no last name (never got to know). He said his name meant Bear which he totally looked like, very tall and heavy built. He was studying under Oliver, an academic from Germany and he was really not an academic or ornithologist but rather a carpenter at a raptor research conference. You can imagine, it took a lot of effort for him to stay focused and captivated by the talks unlike most of us. Bjorn was very kind and shared everything from braai steaks to drinks and fortunately for me, his and Oliver’s car for game drives with one of Africa’s best raptor spotters (Me of course!), this led to one of the best birding mornings of my life on lake Panic.
Lake Panic is just a short drive away from Skukuza rest camp, it has a hide, a little deck where you can sit quietly and watch all the inhabitants of this neighbourhood go about their day while you take stunning photos. When we got there at 6am it almost looked like it was going to be an uneventful morning, We sipped on our coffees and watched people arrive while Bjorn was paging through his bird guide. There were a few African Jacanas around hopping from one lily to another until we noticed the magnificent African Fish Eagle (Hungwe to Zimbabweans) national bird to Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is said that you have not been to Africa if you haven’t heard the beautiful melodious call of the African Fish Eagle. After a short while of perching close to the viewing deck, the adult flew across the lake to his mate and two scroungy looking big babies, fledgelings.
I have seen fish eagles a lot in the wild but never as a family, it was an excellent sight and everyone on the deck was excited though Bjorn occasionally ruffled some feathers with his volume and questions. We continued to sit and watch some through mega-zoom lens snapping photos and some through the humble binoculars. The eagle parents kept to their tree perches as the young ones were exploring and playing on the bank, nothing graceful like you have seen fish eagles do to things in the water, just literally walking in. All of a sudden we all jumped up and one lady yelled CROCODILE! as one of the fledgelings survived the jaws of a crocodile by just a few inches. The whole family was very startled, I wonder if that chick had any interest in a fishing career after that traumatic near-death experience in the water.
The Fish eagle family, note the chicks are on the ground (evidently, I need a better zoom lens, any good Samaritans?)
As we watched the Fish Eagle family’s drama, a rather sad scene was unfolding right before us. A very unlucky terrapin had gotten stuck on pieces of wood on a fallen tree probably while sunning itself just above the water. The poor terrapin was struggling to free itself the whole time we were there and all we could do was watch and wonder what would happen to him. The sun was rising and it being November, it sent its rays with good scorching heat, it is unfortunate that he probably had a long gruelling struggle in the sun if he was not found by a hungry predator, I do hope a predator did find him because the external interference would have given him a chance to wriggle free and run, or he gave someone a good meal on his way out.
A sad struggle for life as other residents look on unable to help.
Kruger is well known for its large mammals, thus we bird-lovers could not escape the mammals even at this beautiful hide made with birdwatching in mind. We saw a few antelope species on the fence edges leading up to the hide and over where the fish eagle family was, coming for their morning drink. Also, the whole time we were there, a pod of hippos were granting just behind the curve of the lake where they were hidden by the small island close to the hide. I never saw them although they sounded closer each time, such a tease!
We were treated to some fantastic drama before we had to run off to our last day of presentations at the conference hall, a small raptor (looks like an Ovambo SparrowHawk to me let me know what you think it is) ambushed a little Woodland Kingfisher just as we were watching it. It all happened so fast, we were showing each other the Kingfisher and then he was under the scaly grip of this hawk’s talons. Adrenalin! This SparrowHawk must have been a young inexperienced bird too like the Fish Eagle with the crocodile from earlier. He just stood there clutching to his prey and looking around, almost like he was surprised he actually caught it. What happened next was hilarious, a fairytale ending for the kind of bird lover that does not like the non-vegetarian processes of life. The Kingfisher played dead (stopped fighting) and made of quickly as the hawk loosened its grip. Again, this hawk was left surprised looking around almost in embarrassment at his successful-failed kill.
We saw many other birds that morning in just an hour and a half thanks to the wonderful diversity of the Kruger National Park. It was truly a spectacular birding place, especially for raptor lovers and I look forward to when I can go back there again.