Picture this. Jane and I are reclining on a sofa-bed in the open air pub at Oddballs Camp in the Okavango Delta, beer in hand, looking out over the water in the late afternoon sunshine. In the distance we hear the classic cry of the African fish-eagle, one of the most easily recognizable sounds of the African bushveld. Then a second cry, somewhat louder. The huge brown and white eagle appears, flying low above the water; it swoops and in split second it has a fish firmly gripped in the vice of the talons of one foot. In a few more seconds it has disappeared from view, leaving Jane and me with a powerful and enduring memory. What a wonderful moment!
The African fish-eagle features on the coat-of-arms of Namibia and is also the national bird of both Zimbabwe and Zambia. These classic symbols of Africa are found, usually in pairs, on most of the larger rivers, lakes, pans and dams of Africa south of the Sahara, and also in many coastal lagoons and estuaries.
They are big birds, the females slightly larger than the males, being up to 73 cm in length and with a wingspan of over 2.3 metres. They are most often seen during daylight hours perched on tall trees near water where they spend much of their time.
The well-known call is most commonly heard at dawn and at dusk, with the male and female sometimes performing a duet, but they call less frequently at any time of the day, often while in flight. As described above, they stoop to catch fish, usually those of less than 3 kg in weight, seizing the fish in their powerful talons while their legs are thrown well forward, usually taking those within 10 or 20 cm of the surface of the water without even slowing their flight.
Rather less dramatically, fish-eagles also eat carrion, eggs, nestlings and even occasionally adult water-birds, frogs, insects and rarely even dassies and monkeys. They are very agile and are quite capable of taking birds in flight. They are also not above stealing fish from other birds, including pelicans and storks. Kleptoparasitise, if you want the correct word for this chicanery.
The fish-eagles mate for life and their nest, which they re-use from year to year, is an untidy bowl of sticks up to 1.5 metres in diameter, lined with grass and leaves, located high above the ground, usually in the fork of a tree near the water. Most commonly two or three eggs are laid and they hatch after an incubation period of about 45 days, but often only one chick will survive. Life expectancy is estimated to be around 20 years.
The scientific name of the African fish-eagle is Haliaeetus vocifer; “haliaeetus” being from the Greek words “hals” meaning “salt” or “the sea” and “aetos” meaning “eagle”, and vocifer from the Latin “vocifero” meaning to “cry out aloud”. Hence “the Sea-eagle that cries out aloud” – Perfect!