Fish eagle

Lake Naivasha

We went to lake Naivasha often as it was an easy weekend out of Nairobi and I still have vivid memories from those visits.

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View of the lake.

Usually we drove down the rift valley wall, passed the catholic chapel built by the Italian WWII prisoners after 50 km, then the junction to Narok and the Maasai Mara (B3). Further we found Mt. Longonot, the volcano on the left and kept driving, already seeing the shiny blue lake in the distance framed by fertile cultivated farmland with the spectacular backdrop of the Mau escarpment.

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Lake Naivasha in the distance on the left behind which is the Mau escarpment.

Gustav Fischer, a German naturalist, found the lake it 1883, while heading north and before the then hostile Maasai found his expedition and forced him to turn back! However, the Europeans kept coming and, after Joseph Thomson arrived, the colonization of the area followed.

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A few kilometres ahead we would drive through the small town of Naivasha and soon we were at the lake. Although sometimes we stopped at the upmarket Lake Naivasha hotel or the Safariland lodge for a refreshment, a bite or simply to soak-up under the shade of their Yellow-barked acacias (Vachellia xanthophloea) [1] or Fever trees. The latter name given by the first pioneers when they blamed them for catching malaria well before the role of mosquitoes in its transmission was known!

Usually we kept driving by the lake to our final destination, the modest Fisherman’s Camp up in a dry hill where at first we “camped” with our rather basic gear under the scanty shade and thorny company of the candelabra trees (Euphorbia spp.)! It was while driving towards this camp that Mabel spotted the “antelope up the tree” [2].

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Our early camp! Note the use of the car seat and absence of chairs that did not dampen our enthusiasm.

After our first rather tentative and exploratory visits, we got to know the area better and participated in a number of activities, many of which with our friend Paul that had a rubber dinghy, an ideal vehicle to explore the lake. It goes without saying that fishing was one of the main activities we practiced at the lake that had been seeded with black bass (Micropterus salmoides) and that it was “crocodile-free”.

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Our first fishing attempt fn a rowing boat from Fisherman’s camp.

These adult black bass feed on crayfish, small fish and frogs and we caught them with a variety of lures and spoons and every fisherman has its favourite. I was not a great bass fisherman and did not find them good fighters compared with the Dorado (Salminus spp.) I used to catch in Uruguay before our Kenya days. Despite this I never refused an invitation to fish and we had great fun doing it. Paul, conversely, was good at fishing in general and had no difficulties getting bass also.

I lacked practice with my casting that very often ended up with my lure entangled in the shore reeds, a feat that I maintain even today and my family expects it from me when we go out to fish! It was during one of these “failed” casts that my green frog-like lure landed on land, even beyond the reeds.

As usual Paul started to make a rude comment but before he could complete it, a long green snake went for my plastic frog! Startled, I pulled and recovered it while we laughed at the incident. I then re-casted to the same spot and, again, the snake attacked it for a second time. This time I was ready so, to avoid hooking the aggressor, I withdrew the lure and continued casting to a different spot.

Although usually we did not catch many bass, sometimes we did and, after a while, we looked for some added entertainment and threw some fish to the very common fish eagles to catch. These birds were usually perched at more or less regular intervals along the lakeshore, in their territories.

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After our best day fishing in Naivasha.

They position themselves high up the trees and there are always watching, not only for fish but also any movement in the water or potential prey of any kind. So, throwing a fish overboard almost instantly called their attention, and before it had moved too far, the eagle will come and take it. This was great fun to watch and we decided to photograph it for posterity!

The idea was to get one eagle at the exact moment that it grabbed the fish with its talons or while lifting it from the water! Easier said than done. I was chosen as the photographer and Mabel and Paul were the observers that would tell me when to shoot as, with my eye in the viewfinder, I could not see very well the eagle approaching.

We used a lot of fish and, needless to say, after several tries I have dozens of pictures of a floating fish or water splashing. The best I could manage is one with a brown blob on the left that was an eagle’s tail! After that attempt, we abandoned the idea and decided to eat the fish!

On one of these fishing trips we witnessed a Fish Eagle attack a Goliath Heron while it was flying a few metres from us. I do not know the reasons for the aggression but the result was unusual. The attack took the heron by surprise and in its effort to avoid the attacker it dived but, being too near the lake surface, it crash-landed on the water rather awkwardly.

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A Goliath heron in flight. The world’s largest living heron with a height of 120–152 cm and a wingspan of 185–230 cm.

Herons, unlike ducks and geese are waders and not built for take offs from water. Worse still, it was totally soaked. So it floated there for a while like a “goliath crested grebe”. Luckily the eagle lost interest and there were no crocodiles at the lake so, once it recovered its wits, it swam rather fast considering its long legs! It soon reached the shore and it just stood there among the papyrus, drying itself with extended wings!

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Elsamere.

Some time later we discovered Elsamere, a beautiful house by the lake shore that belonged to Joy Adamson, hence named after the famous Elsa the lioness. It was run by the Elsa Foundation after Joy’s sad demise a few years earlier. Because of our work we were admitted there and it was very affordable. It was a wonderful experience to stay in such a nice house where Joy had lived. In addition, the personnel really pampered us and served very good food. As a curiosity, Elsamere was next to the Djinn (Gin!) Palace, made “famous” by the Happy Valley crowd years before our arrival [3].

Jock Dawson [4] had been recently designated Honorary Game Warden of Naivasha and lived with his wife Enid very near Elsamere where they had some magnificent Spotted Eagle Owls in their garden. Through Paul we got to know them and spent time in their very interesting company and joined him on a number of activities related with his work as Game Warden.

At Elsamere there were still some animals from the time of Joy Adamson, most notably the Black and White Colobus monkeys that -unusually- would come down from the trees to visit us and feed in the lawn. It was great to see them often and to approach them closely as they were used to human presence. We had great views of females with tiny (woolly white) babies!

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Enid, Mabel and Jock watching the black and white colobus’ antics.

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A colobus mother and baby.

Apart from the monkeys there was also an orphan Zebra, once a baby, that was now a fully-grown animal that maintained its playful nature without realizing its size. So its favourite trick was to surprise guests and try to bite them -soetimes with success-  or engage them in “zebra-play”. Not surprisingly, the decision was taken to relocate it to Nakuru National Park.

The operation was simple as the zebra was easy to catch by the people that fed it daily so we soon ended up with a sedated and tied-up zebra in the back of a Land Rover with Jock at the wheel and Paul and I at the back, with the rather large zebra. It all went well until about half of the journey when our cargo started to wake up as it was under mild sedation.

There was no much room left at the back so when it became more and more restless we asked Jock to go faster but the Land Rover would not cooperate and we were forced to manhandle the zebra to keep it down until we reached our destination! Once there, we rushed out of the car, lucky to have avoided being kicked to death!

At some stage in Elsamere there were American scientists studying animal behaviour and one day they returned with the news that they had seen a lame zebra in one of the areas they were studying. The leg was quite swollen and Jock suspected that it had been snared.

Off we went to have a look and confirmed that it was indeed a wire that was embedded on the foreleg, just above the hoof and the decision was taken to dart the zebra to remove it.

We left the car so that Jock and Paul would do the chasing and darting and re-joined them to help holding the animal while the wire was removed. The animal recovered quite quickly.

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The zebra being restrained with Mabel approaching.

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Posing before the action.

Naivasha was also known for its flower plantations and thousands of carnations were exported by plane to the European market every week but Naivasha also had buffalo and they are herbivorous and enjoyed carnations! So, Jock had received a complaint from a farm nearby that they had suffered a “visit” by a few buffalo that were busy chomping the flowers that were meant for Europe!

Under the circumstances, the only thing that could be done was to destroy the intruders with the hope that the rest would move away to the uninhabited bush higher up in the hills.

That is how I participated in my only African hunt ever as part of a group of curious onlookers that followed the hunters at a prudent distance. Although I did not care for the hunt, it gave the great opportunity to see how the trackers worked while following their quarry. We walked up and down the dry hills for a couple of hours until the order came to stay still and quiet. We then heard a few shots and two of the offending buffalo had been killed and their meat would be shared among the workers of the carnation estate and other nearby villagers.

Our exploring of the lake took us on the road that goes around it, first climbing ridges to get to a small lake separated from the main body of water called, very originally, the Small lake! In this place, away from visitors, hippos abounded among the papyrus and under the shade of a dense yellow-bark acacia forest. It was here that the Great White Pelicans were also found.

Following the lake shore towards the north, we discovered an area that was more remote with abundant game as well as where the Maasai grazed their cattle, often organized into group ranches [5].

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A Maasai group ranch.

We were in posession of a secret. We had been told that there was a Secret lake in the area and that to reach it we needed to enter through an unmarked farm gate! Eventually we found the entrance and went in. We followed a very narrow track uphill and, suddenly, below us we saw a small crater full of water the colour of pea soup.

The lake was fringed by large yellow-barked acacia trees and it seemed to be fed by rain water although the existence of springs could not be ruled out.

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naivasha secret lakeA steep walk down the crater, following a track made by the Maasai when taking their animals down to the lake allowed you to reach the water edge. The Maasai were known to bring their cattle to this little lake as, apparently, its mineral-reach water would do them good, a fact corroborated by Tommi, the Maasai herdsman that worked with me at Intona. He came from this area and he knew of the existence of the lake and the curative properties of its water [6].

We did go all the way round the lake once but this had little more to offer and we decided that we better continued frequenting Elsamere and its surrounding area where we enjoyed our closeness to nature with comfort.

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Small farmers in the rift valley on the way to Naivasha.

 

[1] Former Acacia xanthophloea.

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/08/24/green-eyes-in-the-wild-2/

[3] A classic book about the Happy Valley era was written by James Fox: White Mischief. Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition 320p. The book was made into a movie of the same title by Sony Pictures in 2011.

[4] A well-known professional hunter who transformed himself into a respected conservationist after Kenya banned hunting in 1977, and -after his time in Naivasha- headed the Rhino Rescue Trust in Nakuru. Unknown to me at the time but of interest is that Jock inherited the only gun that belonged to Dennis Finch-Hatton, Karen Blixen’s lover. After Jock’s death in 2004 his son took the gun, minus the case, to the UK. For the specialized, the gun was a .450 3 1/4″ Nitro Express by Charles Lancaster. John Ormiston (a UK gun trader) bought a case with the initials D F-H (Dennis Finch-Hatton) and looked for its missing contents for years until he bought the gun in 2009 to for £ 27,000 at an auction in the UK. For more details see: https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-450-double-rifle-of-dennis-finch-hatton.40240/

[5] Group ranches are defined as a livestock production system where a group of people jointly hold title to land, maintain agreed herd sizes, and own livestock individually but herd them together. Boundaries are demarcated and members are registered. See: http://www.focusonland.com/countries/rise-and-fall-of-group-ranches-in-kenya/

[6] Today the Crater lake is a game sanctuary where you are charged a fee to enter and there are walking paths and camping sites near it.

 

 

 

Carnage at Long pool

In the morning, as expected, we failed to locate the lions again but, driving over a small bridge nearby we found about twenty marabou storks (Leptoptilos crumenifer) congregated by a pond of green stagnant water. That was all that remained from the stream that flows there during the rainy season. As soon as we stopped they slowly moved away to what they considered to be a safe distance from us, away from the water. We moved off to a bend in the dry riverbed to watch them undisturbed. As soon as we withdrew they returned to the pool and resumed their activity.

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The first group of marabou storks we saw.

The storks were feeding on stranded fish, probably catfish judging by the frequent rises they made to breath on the surface, opportunity immediately taken up by the storks that would rush towards the water movement ready to snap one up. We left them undisturbed and continued with our drive. A couple of hours later when we returned they were gone but there were still fish there. The African sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus) are special in that they can bury themselves in the mud when the water evaporates and they can also survive in muddy water as they have a special breathing system that they can use in addition to their normal gills.

However, I am sure that despite their toughness the catfish days were numbered as the next rains will only come in December if the rains are good, far too late for them. At that time the ground would be bone dry. It was surprising that the marabous had abandoned what looked like easy food but we are used to Nature’s ways!

We soon forgot about the storks as we continued with our quest for new sightings. Our hopes of finding the lions seemed to revive when we found their fresh footprints. Judging that they had been left there during the early morning we tracked them for a long while, trying to guess what their aim was, only to lose them when they moved away from the road. Following lions on foot through the bush and without an experienced ranger is not recommended so we decided to leave them alone. As it happened, they eluded us for the rest of the trip.

We normally do not see large elephant herds at Mana Pools. Some family groups come together at the height of the dry season while staying near the river. At the time of our visit, although the rains had not been abundant, there was still water inland and the elephant population was still spread out all over the park. The few elephants we saw were the usual resident bulls that seem to hang around the shores of the Zambezi. It was one of these that we found that morning and we derived entertainment watching it stretch for the apple-ring acacia branches and leaves. The pods, their favourite food later on in the dry season, were still small and immature so they were not the elephants’ target at the moment.

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A bull elephant stretches to feed under the special Mana Pools light.

Returning to camp at about eleven, we saw a large number of yellow-billed storks (Mycteria ibis) in one of the smaller segments of Long pool that usually dries up during the dry season. There was clearly something special going on that attracted such large number of birds so we decided to go and have a look. Getting closer we saw that there were also African spoonbills (Platalea alba), a few herons and also a few marabou storks. “So here they are”, I thought while stopping the car to get closer on foot.

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We saw a large number of storks congregated at Long pool.

The pool was full of birds and it appeared that mostly the yellow-billed storks were -again- catching other shoal of stranded fish.

They seemed to be alternatively “driving” the fish towards one of the narrow and shallow ends of the pond and, once there, they would pounce on their victims. Both the yellow-billed and the marabous seemed to be on the same wavelength and after fish. The few African spoonbills present, however, continued wading in their usual fashion as individuals and they did not seem to take any notice of the other birds.

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The yellow-billed storks chasing the fish in a coordinated fashion.

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Marabous waiting for the right time to join in.

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African spoonbill.

At first we assumed that the prey were catfish as we had seen earlier at the small bridge and on other occasions in Kenya (Maasai Mara) and Mozambique (Gorongosa). We soon saw, however, that this time the victims were silvery fish of 5 to 15 cm that were being picked in large numbers by the birds. Whether they were immature Chessa (Distichodus schenga) or Nkupe (Distichodus mossambicus) both common inhabitants of the lower Zambezi, or perhaps some other small fish I could not be sure. It was interesting to note that, as the pool was dry last year, the fish must have come in during the wet season through a connection between the pool and the Zambezi.

The yellow-billed storks outnumbered the marabous about 10:1 and they strode in groups following what looked like a cooperative fishing strategy. They would wade together towards one end of the pool driving the fish in front of them and then they will pick them from the reduced area they had created. They fished in their usual fashion; by placing their half open bills inside the water and snapping them shut when feeling a touch through a very fast reflex. They frequently caught fish but if they missed they would do a short chase that soon ended with or without a fish being caught and back to their feeding posture.

While this would take place, the marabous watched like smartly dressed supervisors. The moment the fish were trapped they would lose their bogus formality and join in the feeding frenzy with gusto! They would jump or fly in spreading their wings to make room for themselves submerging their heads under water to catch the fish. Often their feeding enthusiasm would be such that they would plunge almost totally in pursuit of the fish. Many of them had their gular sacs[1] inflated and probably their pouches full of fish. Many of them were also flashing a bright red bubble-like sack at the back of their necks, probably a consequence of their excited condition!

Although we witnessed the occasional confrontation between the two stork species, these were minor incidents and we saw no physical contact.

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A brief stand-off or “don’t step on my toes”

Conversely, there was a lot of interaction among the yellow-billed storks in the form of bill clattering, chasing and jumping facing each other. Occasionally the opponents would interlock their beaks as if involved in some kind of courtship. All these encounters were of short duration and the temporary “rivals” quickly got back to feeding. The grey immature yellow-billed storks congregated at the periphery of the pond, not taking part of the adults’ activities but trying their fishing technique as best they could where there were clearly less fish and I did not witnessed any catch.

While the collective fishing took place, a pair of fish eagles, perched on a tall dead tree, watched the storks attentively. They called regularly and, from time to time, they would swoop down among the alarmed storks and, at least once, one of them managed to snatch a fish although we could not see if it caught it itself or it robbed it from one of the fishing storks.

 

The following video gives a dynamic view of what we witnessed.

Note: I recommend that you watch it first as it is and then you use the cog wheel at the bottom right corner of the screen to slow it down and see things with more detail.

 

 

[1] Later, reading about marabous, I learnt that the large sacks that hang under their heads are not crops but gular sacs. The latter are cooling devices as well as used for displaying purposes.

Note added on 3 July 2016. One of the pictures above shows what I thought was a confrontation between a Marabou and a Yellow-billed stork. I saw that the Marabou was rather indifferent but I thought it was because of its size. However, looking at the picture again, I realized that the Yellow-billed stork was swallowing a fish! Additionally, the fish looks like a young Tilapia so the birds may have been feeding on these rather than on the other possible species I mentioned. Bushsnob