Friday 25 September 2015

Birding: My search for the Pel's fishing owl

On a philosophical level, when I eventually got to see the mythical Pel's fishing owl, it wasn't the sighting of the bird that moved me the most...

Pel's fishing owls like large trees next to slow-moving rivers
The Pel's is a curious bird: a large ginger owl that makes its living by catching fish in pools on slow-moving rivers in the far north-eastern part of South Africa, parts of Botswana and Zimbabwe. It's one of the Big Six of the Kruger, large charismatic birds that you fancifully can tick off like the Big Five of the mammal world. The other birds on the list are the martial eagle, the ground hornbill, the lappet-faced vulture, kori bustard and saddle-billed stork, all relatively easily spotted, unlike the Pel's. 

Tree magnificence
My first real effort at finding the owl was while on the Nyalaland wilderness trail near Punda Maria in the Kruger. Our guide took us to Crook's Corner (on the border of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique) where he said he'd seen the owl roosting close to the Limpopo River. Notwithstanding the fact that we were in buffalo country, he led us through chest-high grass to a clearing. All we found was a single ginger feather lying on the forest floor.

My next concerted effort was on yet another wilderness trail close to the Olifants River, also in the Kruger. Once again, the guides said they knew where a pair of owls roosted, but due to rather dramatic floods, the large trees in the area had been damaged, and there were hippos to worry about. Nevertheless, my ever-patient travel companions indulged me as we scoured the river bank. Everyone was rather relieved when we gave up that particular search and headed up the hill to more open country.

Then, most curious of all, a Pel's fishing owl turned up in Cape Town and in the garden of a friend where it had been feasting on her goldfish. Along with the rest of the birding fraternity, I duly spent a night on her veranda waiting for the owl to put in a return appearance, but by then it had moved off to the Spanish ambassador's garden in another part of the city, and shortly after was never to be seen again. The mystery of how it got to be so far out of its range was never solved.

The viewing deck at Guma Lagoon Camp in Botswana
Fourth time unlucky was in Botswana on the panhandle. We were staying at Guma Lagoon Camp and went out of an afternoon for the shortest of boat rides to an island the owl was said to inhabit. Nada.

Finally, looking in the right place
And then, finally, my luck changed. The exact location cannot be shared but this was my best chance yet. A first attempt at finding the owl one evening was to no avail, but I returned alone early the next morning. My expectations weren't high, given my record to date, until suddenly I saw a flash of orange as the owl was flushed from its daytime perch. It settled some distance away but I was able to get a good view through my binoculars.

Not the best picture ever but it didn't matter...
It was a bit too far for any decent photographs and I didn't want to spoil the moment fussing with my camera. Instead, I sat down on a fallen log to take it all in. I was surrounded by a kind of Pel's cathedral of riverine forest. All I could hear was the sound of my own breathing as a trail of ants picked their way through the leaf litter at my feet. I realised then that this search had not been so much about the owl, but about the all the places it had brought me to and the deep friendships that went with that. It was about those incredible trees that towered over me and the clean water the owl relied on. It was about the fragility of it all. I felt both uniquely privileged, and more than a little bereft that my hunt was finally over.

Still playing hard to get

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