African skimmers were once permanent residents along the Sabie River and most likely occurred in the Kruger National Park from time to time.
Over recent years they have disappeared from South Africa, but every now and again make an appearance for a lucky few to witness.
This time around, photographer Johannes van Niekerk was one of them. “It was totally by chance,” he explains. The party stopped at Mopani for breakfast and scanned the Pioneer Dam for birds. This is when they spotted it.
“We were very excited about the sighting. Another birder was very thrilled that we confirmed the bird as an African skimmer. He was afraid that nobody else would believe him if he reported it,” explains van Niekerk.
It was perched on a sandbank in the dam and sat unrecognisable for ages before turning sideways.
“These birds forage for fish using a unique technique and this was also the final evidence to confirm identification,” says Van Niekerk. “They fly low with their lower bill slicing through the water. If they touch a fish, their bills shut instinctively, capturing the prey.”
While African skimmers used to occur in South Africa, changing conditions might have caused them to move further north. The last breeding pair was recorded in St Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal in 1944, according to Trevor Hardaker of South African Rare Bird News. “The reasons for their local extinction are not known for sure, but it is probably a combination of habitat degradation and human disturbance,” says Hardaker.
They are very particular about their habitat and only breed on open sandbanks free from vegetation when rivers are low. Dam building, fishing and boat activity affect their distribution and as a result, they are currently listed globally as near threatened.
Since their disappearance, there have only been sporadic records across the country, of which two was from the Kruger. Hardaker says that the first was an individual at the Engelhard Dam near Letaba between August 8 and 12, 1995. The second record was of two birds on September 11, 2014 along the Limpopo River in the Makuleke Concession.
According to Hardaker, the latest record is a fantastic one for the park. The occasional sightings of these birds however, do not indicate that they are returning.
“African Skimmers do make short distance migrations as they are dependent on open sandbars in wetland systems to roost on and nest on. In periods when water levels are too high, they will move elsewhere. These are probably displaced birds that have gone further south than they intended to or have gotten lost for whatever reason,” he says.
Written by René de Klerk – SANParks Times Reporter
Pictures: Johannes van Niekerk
Content courtesy of SANParks Times: www.sanparkstimes.co.za