Written by: Miguel Anton
A giant kingfisher stares at the crystal-clear waters of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Eyes focused, bill closed, wings ready. He plunges down with a splash and emerges with his catch… only it’s not what he had expected!
The sun had still not risen when I reached the western shore of the Thamalakane River, a channel of the mighty Okavango, in Maun. It was pure delta magic with palm trees outlined by the sky, doves calling, herons in the reeds. A fish-eagle flew overhead.
And of course, there were the kingfishers; as the sun came up, there were pied kingfishers all around me. Flying, hovering, chasing each other – my camera shutter was on fire!
But then on the far side of a river, I noticed a huge shape perching on a half-submerged log; it was no less than a giant kingfisher! Much larger than their pied counterparts, giant kingfishers seldom reach this south-east extremity of the delta, so they are rarely seen in Maun.
Camera in hand, I tried to approach him but by the time I reached his resting place, he had long flown off. Still, I placed my tripod some 15 metres away and sat to wait. It hadn’t been five minutes when a dark blur came right to the perch. However, it wasn’t a kingfisher but a naughty dark-capped bulbul! Beautiful as bulbuls are, I could only hope that he would not be my only visitor. He had just left when another bird arrived – not the giant, but a pied kingfisher.
I then became too distracted with an open-billed stork wading on the shore to recognise the ‘kah-kah-kaw-kaw’ to my right. So picture my surprise when I pointed the camera back to the perch and saw a female giant kingfisher!
To my relief, she wasn’t scared by my presence. In fact, she appeared to be focused on something approaching from the river. And to my delight, that something was a male kingfisher!
The male had seen something in the water. He was gauging the distance to his target by bobbing his head up and down to counteract refraction. I checked my camera settings, knowing that if he dived, it would be fast. But it was even faster than I expected! All I saw was a big splash, but out of the sparkle came a triumphant diver, feathers soaked in water but propelling upwards. Straight up, straight up to the perch.
But that ‘fish’ seemed to be difficult to carry, and the kingfisher needed to find a sturdier, horizontal perch. So he started flying straight towards me.
But he was already sensing that something was wrong. He perched just five metres away from me and started getting to grips with his catch. But it didn’t look like a normal fish – he’d been fooled by a fish-looking twig!!
Looking puzzled, he dropped the deceptive twig. He stared at the water as if considering a second try but opted for some preening instead. Perhaps he felt that keeping his feathers in good shape would help him to forget this slightly embarrassing episode.
And all this happened on the first day of our 11-day trip. I knew there were more adventures ahead, but that it would also be very difficult to top what I had just witnessed.