If there is one bird that has become one of the Holy Grails of the Bird-watching fraternity it is the African Finfoot – Podica senegalensis. The largest of a small group of three species it is the only one found in Africa.
Apart from one or two Duck-like attributes it is, in appearance and mannerisms, reminiscent of a cross between a Grebe and a Cormorant. Two of its most striking features are its beak and its feet, both of which are bright red. Its feet, furthermore, are of a strange design and, no doubt, played a part in the common naming of the bird though, I must confess, I cannot personally see why. One would have thought with that name that the feet would have been strongly webbed like a fin, but rather they are heavily lobed somewhat like a Coot and no doubt assist it in one of its locomotary behaviour patterns of seemingly “running” across the water surface.
I have seen similar behaviour with the Falkland Islands Flightless Steamer Duck which also “runs” across water, but in this case the behaviour is labelled as “steaming” – hence the name.
The Finfoot has an extremely wide distribution in sub-Saharan Africa but due to its strong territoriality is nowhere plentiful. Whilst the population is officially recognized as declining it is deemed to be “not yet vulnerable” and is officially listed as of “Least Concern”. The above facts would probably sound optimistic to a would-be Finfoot Spotter as they are well nigh impossible to see and watch for any length of time. Their abnormally secretive nature and ability to disappear underwater at the drop of a hat have led to its being one of the most difficult birds to “Spot” in Africa.
They are supposedly monogamous (partner for life) and usually choose a habitat of river, pond or lakeside with fairly dense overhanging foliage. This not only helps from a secrecy point of view but also provides easily reached perching for many of its preferred food items. It is something of an opportunist feeder and includes on its chosen menu crustaceans, aquatic insects and their larvae (especially species such as Mayflies, Dragonflies and Damselflies), as well as amphibians, fish and even a certain amount of aquatic vegetation. They usually nest in a fairly basic construction a few feet above water level on a stump or fallen tree with a clutch size normally of two.
From the point of view of this blog entry their most salient point is that we have them nesting only a couple of hundred meters upstream from the Lodge here at Pamuzinda. If you are lucky you can sometimes spot one working its beat either from the river banks or from a Canoe. If you are after meaningful photographs then you need your camera set up ready to take advantage of the moment because that is about all it is likely to be. I was fortunate enough recently (Oct/Nov ’18) to see the female with one well developed youngster in tow and obtain the attached images.
Unlike most Wildlife Photography, acquiring images of this species is, in large part, down to luck as opposed to skill but it certainly gives you an edge if you know for sure that they exist in the area. As a word of warning I feel that I should point out that, other than the occasional “grabshot”, it has taken nearly 20 years to obtain the attached images. I would shudder to think how it would cost out commercially – but then that’s not the point of it – is it?!!!