Thursday, February 2, 2012

Nature in Action: an Anhinga Catching a Fish at H.P. Williams Roadside Park

This was amazing. I still cannot quite believe how lucky we got to observe this great nature spectacle: a bird’s fight with a fish, and then with its own limitations to eat the fish.

As we were walking along the boardwalk in H.P. Williams Roadside Park, out of the corner of my eye, I registered a movement in the nearby river. I turned my head in that direction, but the only thing I saw was the calm water surface. A few seconds later, the scenario repeated, but this time I was quicker and I caught a glimpse of . . . something. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what it actually was that I saw, as whatever it was, it was super-quick: as quickly as it emerged from the water, that quickly it disappeared under its surface. But at least by then I was sure that I was not hallucinating, and that there was something, something interesting, happening in the water.

My brain kept on wondering what it could have been, and after excluding a Loch Ness Monster, and other mystical creatures, it concluded that it must have been a snake. Well, as I was about to find out, I was not too far off with my speculation: it was a bird called “anhinga,” which is also known as a snakebird! At least now I know how the bird got its nickname ;)

The anhinga's nickname "snake bird" is well-deserved.

Seconds later, the neck of the anhinga emerged above the surface of the water, again making rapid, snake-like moves, apparently due to its fight with a fish. The battle continued for a second or two, and then both the bird and the fish disappeared under the water. And just as we thought the spectacle was over, and we were about to move further, the bird, with the fish in its mouth reappeared, and the battle continued. And then the fish gave up and stopped fighting. It was dead. The anhinga had won.

As if this spectacle was not exciting enough, the anhinga decided to impress us even further. It came out of the water directly in front of us, some two to three meters away from where we were standing, and it started eating the fish. Or I should say: it started attempting to eat the fish. Surprisingly, eating the fish seemed as challenging as catching it. The fish was big, too big for the anhinga to swallow it whole.

The anhinga trying to swallow the fish.

The anhinga looked tired, and I think it wanted to rest. Sadly, it couldn't, as a big white egret noticed the fish in the anhinga's mouth, and decided that it wanted a piece of it too. I’m not sure if the egret wanted to steal the fish from the anhinga, or if it simply noticed what we noticed too: that the fish might be too big for the anhinga and that was why it waited nearby to make sure that it would get the fish if the anhinga abandoned it. In either case we sympathized with the anhinga.

The white egret was coming closer and closer to the anhinga.

The anhinga’s struggle with the fish was amazing: using only its beak it was tossing the fish up and then catching it, again and again, I guess hoping that, in the air, the fish will turn and position itself in a favorable way for the bird to swallow it. Minutes went by, and the fish was still not in the anhinga’s stomach, while the egret was slowly coming closer and closer. And when I was almost sure that this was it, that the egret would steal the fish, and the anhinga would be left with nothing, the anhinga made one final attempt and it managed to swallow the fish!

Success! The anhinga managed to swallow the fish!

I was very happy that the events took this course, as the anhinga truly deserved its meal, after quite an epic battle. The egret, on the other hand, looked very disappointed. Well, maybe in the future it should consider catching its own food, rather than trying to steal it from smaller birds.

Look how the fish moves down the anhinga's neck!

The white egret was clearly disappointed.

Amazingly, while Anil and I and a few other passers-by watched this fascinating spectacle, the majority of the park’s visitors were completely oblivious to what was happening, and instead were taking photos of a large alligator lying nearby. It made me wonder how often we fail to seize the amazing opportunities that life presents to us, because we focus on the large and the obvious?

A very large and old alligator.

In the park we also saw several turtles and a few interesting birds.


Another turtle.

A gracious wood stork.

The anhinga drying out its feathers on the tree.