Fish Eagles of Lake Kariba

The landscapes of Lake Kariba are vast and varied, despite the area seemingly encompassed by water that stretches to the horizon. There are islands inhabited by various species, formed naturally or through the rising waters of the lake. When Lake Kariba was dammed, its levels rose to create islands and consequently trapping animals on their shores. Local rangers and volunteers formed a rescue team, led by Rupert Fothergill, saving over 6000 animals, from rhino to lion to impala, warthogs and snakes. These animals were delivered to Matusadona National Park; their new home and sanctuary.

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The one animal which did not suffer the mise of the flood to such a great degree were birds, unless they occupied specific habitats. Most were able to fly themselves to safety, nesting on various islands, or simply relocated to the Matusadona forests and shoreline. The riverine birdlife of the park and Lake Kariba as a whole is impressive, species living along the water’s edge, feeding off the creatures within the lake as well as in its reeds and mud. Witnessing the wonders of their ways can keep one entertained for hours. Bird viewing is often best experienced at dawn, as the birds serenade in the sun, often seated upon the branches of the petrified forest along the shoreline. One can hope to find the African finfoot, spurwing goose, great-white pelican, goliath heron and the quirky jacana, among many others in and around the lake. There is also the birdlife inland – living and breeding in the woodlands, forests and plains of the national park. The combination homes around 260 bird species in total.

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One of the most iconic species is the fish eagle. As the national bird of Zimbabwe as well as the resonating sound of Lake Kariba, the fish eagle’s cries remain with you long after your houseboat safari ends. Waking in the morning, moored to the banks during your Sovereign Houseboat experience, you are welcomed by its evocative call, summoning curiosity and presence. It remains with you throughout the day, a reminder of gratitude and place. Its stature is bold, its coat following in suit, giving it an air akin to royalty.

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Gus Le Breton, the ‘African Plant Hunter’ speaks to us about the aforementioned fossilised trees, explaining their nature as well as showcasing where fish eagles tend to nest. Being monogamous creatures, which means they mate for life, the pair is usually seen together. They return to the same nest year in and year out, beginning new nesting material to the existing structure. This can result in quite an impressive nest size, held in the branches of riverine trees. The female will lay 1 – 3 eggs, and after a 45 day incubation period, if all is well, the eggs will hatch; the future fish eagles of Lake Kariba.

Fish eagles have ‘spiricules’ or ‘sharp barbs’ on their toes which allow them to hook their prey. These help with large fish or other slippery meals. They are extremely efficient hunters, however, are not shy to occasionally steal other birds prey, thieving from right under their beaks! Perhaps it is their royal demeanor that fuels such entitlement, living as kings and queens of the lake.

One cannot embark on an African safari and leave without the sound of the fish eagle etched into their hearts, forever calling them back to Lake Kariba shores.