Pel’s Fishing Owl

The Pel’s Fishing Owl is a bird I didn’t expect to be seeing during my time in South Africa. They live in dense forest, like most owls they’re nocturnal, and they’re rare. This is perhaps the most sought after species among birders in sub-Saharan Africa. Their main prey is unsurprisingly fish, but one has even been observed to hunt a small Nile Crocodile. On a side note, I really recommend reading Tony Park’s novel ‘The Prey’ (or any other of his African novels), which is about illegal gold mining in South Africa, and features a pair of Pel’s Fishing Owls on the edge of the Kruger NP which play a key role in the outcome of the planned opening of a mine.

View across the Olifants River

On arrival at Olifants rest camp, just as the huge bat roost was leaving the thatched roofs of the various buildings, I quickly set up the camera and began taking shots of the action as a Walhberg’s Eagle appeared in the quickly disappearing light to try to snatch bats in flight. Here, the view is spectacular, as the hillside drops away to reveal a panoramic view of the Olifants River below. Meanwhile up above, at eye level to me, the eagle and a Bat Hawk made repeated attempts at hunting the growing numbers of bats, which were now being joined by Fiery-necked Nightjars too. This is one of those scenes that will stay with me forever.

Another birder appeared, and we watched together as the action slowly died down as the bats dissipated away. Eventually we introduced ourselves to each other, and he said, “so you’re here for the Pel’s then?”. I was surprised as I had no idea that this area was one that was associated with Pel’s Fishing Owl until he elaborated. He explained that if I were to go to the camp office and let it be known that I was interested in seeing the owl, one of the staff knew a place where there was a chance of finding it high up in its roost site. I hadn’t even got the luggage out of the car before I was in that office trying to locate this person. He wasn’t there, but I was assured that he would be the next evening, and that he might be able to take me out the morning after that.

The next day came and arrangements were made for me to meet him at 4am outside the camp office the following morning. The prospect of seeing a Pel’s Fishing Owl was a totally unexpected surprise and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. This wasn’t something that was advertised as such, presumably partly so as not to infringe on the owl too much, and partly because special access permission was required to go to the area in question. The rest of the day was spent exploring.

The ford crossing over the Olifants River

After dinner it was time to go out wildlife spotting in the dark, something that had become a daily routine in the Kruger. We joined the S92 and headed south until we reached a junction that would lead us to a river ford crossing over the Olifants, taking us from the Limpopo province into Mpumalanga. I switched on the spotlight to see what might be found on the river. Almost straight away I picked up a reddish-orange eye-shine at ground level about a third of the way across the river but only metres from the ford on which we were driving. Getting closer it became apparent that despite the large size, this was not another mammal. Once close enough for the spotlight to actually illuminate the target I was amazed to see that it was a huge Pel’s Fishing Owl with freshly caught prey – a large Barbel. I was able to fire off a couple of photos and watch for a few moments until it picked up its prey and moved from the small grassy island it was on to another just a very small flight away, where it stayed for a couple of minutes. No amount of planning could have produced a sighting like this, and it joins the list of once-in-a-lifetimes events that I will never forget from the short time we stayed in this area of the Kruger.

Knowing that this was an encounter that I could never hope to repeat or improve upon, instead of going off in search of a roosting Pel’s the following morning, I instead joined the same ranger at 4am as planned, showed him some photos of the previous night’s Pel’s and he agreed that this couldn’t be bettered, so instead we went exploring the river on foot, finding Aardvark burrows, watching Hippopotamus, bee-eaters, storks and occasionally checking my camera’s memory card to make sure that the images from the previous evening were still there!