Seeing is believing: Mike Unwin pursues the African finfoot
hat is it about the African finfoot that gets birders so excited?
Granted, finfoot is a catchy name. To me, at least, it has always suggested a Marvel Comics aquatic superhero. I imagine the movie trailer, in deep Hollywood tones: “Trapped by a mutant alien octopus, only Finfoot could save them!”
But the fins in question are no super-power accessory: just fleshy lobes on the bird’s toes that allow it to pursue an amphibious lifestyle, either paddling through the water or clambering through branches along the bank.
Otherwise, apart perhaps from the bright red dagger of a bill, this bird is nothing special to look at. Neither does it do anything obviously impressive – dive from a great height, say, or sing like a nightingale. It just potters around at the water’s edge, discreetly minding its own business as it forages for watery titbits.
But it is this very discretion, of course, that explains the bird’s appeal. Birders love a species that presents a challenge and the African finfoot certainly does that. Though not especially rare – it is widespread across much of Africa wherever suitable habitat occurs – its skulking habitats make it notoriously hard to find, let alone photograph. Indeed, finfoots seem to shun your lens like disgraced celebrities avoiding the paparazzi.
Prime habitat for these secretive birds comprises the shadowy margins of quiet rivers and backwaters, generally with rocky, fast-flowing stretches and overhanging vegetation. Here they skulk along the bank or swim off in short foraging excursions, seldom emerging into the light or open water. Views are invariably brief, the bird disappearing into cover again before you can lay binoculars on it.
My finfoot sightings remain red-letter days. The first, many years ago, was upstream of Victoria Falls along the Zambezi. I didn’t realise then how lucky I was. In fact, I had barely heard of the bird, and remember leafing fruitlessly through pages of ducks, grebes and gallinules in my field guide until I twigged what I’d glimpsed.
Since then, in 30 years of watching African wildlife, I can recall only six more: two along the Sabie River in the Kruger Park; two along the Kafue River in Zambia; one in Hluhluwe Reserve, Kwa-Zulu Natal; and one along the Meru River in Kenya. Only the last of these provided a decent snap.
So, if not duck or grebe, then what exactly is an African finfoot? To ornithologists, this species is one of just three that make up the Heliornithidae family, the others being the masked finfoot of Southeast Asia and the sungrebe of tropical America. This exclusivity – being the only member of its family on an entire continent – also boosts the bird’s appeal.
If you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse, you’ll see a bird that seems to have borrowed parts from other aquatic species: not only the lobed feet of a coot, but also the serpentine neck and broad tail of a cormorant and the dagger-like bill of a diver. Binoculars – if you’re quick – will reveal darkish slate-grey and brown plumage, embellished with fine spotting and barring, and a single white stripe that runs from the eye to the base of the neck.
Finfoots feed on aquatic invertebrates, plus some small fish and amphibians. They breed when river levels are high, building a messy nest of twigs and reeds on branches low above the water. The female lays two to three eggs, and the chicks are good to go a few days after hatching. Beyond these basics, however, little is known about these secretive birds. Hence, scientists are unsure about their conservation status: some fear that vulnerability to disturbance and the declining health of many rivers may mean that they are in decline.
So, I wish you luck in your finfoot quest. The places I mention above are all known hotspots. There are many others – including the Gambia River, where the bird also frequents tidal mangroves. Hotspot doesn’t equal sighting, however. Wherever you go, be quiet and patient. Find a hidden position overlooking the far bank of a river – ideally with a sandwich and a good book to hand. Who knows: you might just spy a superhero.
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.