Birding’s Holy Grails. They lurk ever-present in our sub-concious as sacred items on an unobtainable, yet highly desirable, list. We pour over photographs, read with envy the eye-witness accounts of the “lucky ones” and fabricate secret plans to abandon our loved ones and embark on expensive trips to track them down. For many birders, the Pel’s Fishing Owl roosts in a lofty position on just such a list. One of the most highly desirable birds in the world, the Pel’s Fishing Owl is a true phantom.
Found patchily in sub-Saharan Africa, this large, ginger-colored owl can never be guaranteed on a trip to the continent. It is classified as threatened in South Africa – where its numbers have dwindled due to loss of habitat and pollution – and is uncommon and localized elsewhere. The Okavango Delta of Botswana, however, provides one of the very best opportunities to catch a glimpse. Even still, there are believed to be only 100 pairs of Pel’s Fishing Owls in the entire delta, an area roughly comparable in size to the US state of New Jersey. Certain parts of the delta have higher concentrations than others and well-known locations include Xigera Camp and Sandibe Safari Lodge.
I’ve been fascinated with Pel’s Fishing Owls since my South African childhood. The bird eluded me for nearly 20 years until I stumbled across one at Phinda Private Game Reserve, where I worked in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The sight of this magnificent bird is etched in my memory but it was the circumstances of the sighting that were truly remarkable. It was early afternoon and myself and a few of the other game rangers were out birding a productive fig forest close to Mkuze Game Reserve, our neighbor to the north of Phinda. We crossed a small bridge in the landrover and that’s when I saw it. In full sunlight, at eye-level and eating a freshly caught fish. Typically these birds hunt at night and are very shy. So my first sighting of Pel’s Fishing Owl was highly appreciated.
Although I had seen Pel’s Fishing Owls a couple of times since, I was a touch nervous when asked by the Botswana Tourism Organization to film one for our Birding Adventures TV Botswana series. Our trip to Botswana produced some great owl species besides the reclusive phantom, including some of the smallest and some of the largest owls in Africa. We heard the diminutive African Scops Owl at various locations at night, its frog-like call punctuating the dark hours of the African bush. During the day we found several Pearl-spotted Owlets, slightly larger than the Scops, but nevertheless still able to fit in a tea-cup! These tiny and aggressive birds are the African equivalent of the Eastern Screech Owl, often active during the day and mobbed determinately by songbirds of all colors and descriptions. When visiting the Makgadikgadi Pans region we spotted several Marsh Owls quartering the pan fringes at dusk and, at Mowana Lodge in the Chobe, we had protracted views of their resident Barn Owl. We also stumbled upon the largest of Africa’s owls, the colossal Giant Eagle Owl (more recently named Verreaux’s Eagle Owl) and often heard its pig-like grunting both during the day and at night.
After filming so many of Southern Africa’s owl species, we were anxious to get into good Pel’s territory. A charter flight took us directly to the spectacular Xigera Camp, a secluded luxury lodge in the heart of the Okavango Delta. As we got off the plane we were greeted by the other guests who hastily told us that they had seen Pel’s Fishing Owls. This news made our crew cautiously optimistic as it meant that the local guides probably had a pair’s whereabouts staked out. After checking into our stunning rooms, we immediately set off with two of the local guides to check some of the surrounding islands for the owls.
We landed on a small island close to the lodge and spent a half-hour thoroughly scouring the tall trees for the owls. Then, in the late afternoon we located a pair of the owls high up in the branches. Nothing can prepare you for this moment, the moment when you first lock eyes with this breathtaking bird. I’ve given some thought as to why Pel’s Fishing Owls are such enigmas. Sure they are uncommon and tough to find. But that’s just one aspect of their appeal. Consider their name for a moment. One of only three true fishing owls, Pel’s Fishing Owls have adapted to their unique hunting techniques in several ways. Unlike most owls, their legs and toes lack feathers, eliminating the disadvantage of heavy, wet feathers. The underside of the toes and feet are covered in spiky scales that help them grip their slippery prey, which consists mostly of fish but can also include young crocodiles and crabs. Since hearing is not vital for locating their underwater prey, Pel’s Fishing Owls lack a distinct facial disc, which many other owls have and which is believed to assist in directing faint sound waves towards the ears. In addition, since their prey lives underwater where hearing is not a defense strategy, the owls lack the soft edges to their flight feathers which provide other owls with quiet flight. Whilst African Fish-eagles are the daytime predators of all things watery, Pel’s Fishing Owls fulfill this niche at night. In fact, they even hunt in the same manner as their daytime counterparts, scanning the water from a perch until prey is located and then swooping down with talons outstretched and grabbing the unsuspecting prey, rarely submerging themselves in the water.
Another appealing characteristic of Pel’s Fishing Owls is their appearance. The second-largest owl species in Africa after the Giant Eagle-owl, they have stunning ginger coloration, haunting pitch-black eyes and a “rounded head” appearance due to their minimal ear tufts. Their call, like everything else about these birds, is very unique and has been likened to somebody vocalizing from the bottom of a well. These bone-chilling calls can be heard from up to 2 miles away and add mystery to an African night spent around the campfire.
Our Pel’s experience deep within the heart of the Okavango was unforgettable. What a place. Botswana truly is one of the most incredible wilderness destinations on the planet and it holds many avian treasures. Stay tuned for a few more posts on this fantastic birding location and enjoy the full Pel’s episode below: