During my two years spent guiding at Pafuri Camp in the extreme north of Kruger, I took the opportunity to wallow in the wealth of diversity that this unique area holds. The area is a hub for a number of specials ranging from mammals to plants to avian wonders. Amongst the many ‘specials’ for the area is the Pel’s fishing-owl, for which Pafuri is fast becoming famous as the ‘go to’ place in the birding fraternity.
Whenever I didn’t have guests I would head out into the field, often taking solo exploration trips on foot. As we didn’t have to deal with the joys of bush clearing and road maintenance (thanks to the Kruger team), my daily ‘chores’ consisted of rhino tracking and various other research opportunities just waiting to be picked by an enquiring mind. For me this was the perfect opportunity to develop my passions and interests as it allowed me the privilege to gain valuable hours on foot and hone my skills of tracking and trailing, as well as birding, photography and ethology. I soon took a very keen interest in the elusive Pel’s fishing-owl.
I became obsessed with recording as much data and learning as much as I could on this mysterious bird. I quickly built up a substantial database which included information on established breeding sites, breeding seasonality in the area, home range and territory size, seasonal movements, DNA, individual identikits, preferred prey species etc.
My research ran in parallel with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), which carries out an annual survey/census on the Pel’s populations in Kruger. This survey takes place every year during the first two weeks in June, as this is the ideal time to walk the 20 km strip along the Luvuvhu River, often criss-crossing the crocodile- and hippo-infested waters, not to mention walking straight through the dry-season haven of a huge population of migratory pachyderms that had arrived from ‘less’ favourable conditions in Zimbabwe and Mozambique as well as further south in the Kruger… It really doesn’t get more wild and primal than this.
The plan was to break the trail up into three sections over three days during the mornings, as the fishing-owls would be roosting after hunting during the darkness of night and the elephants would not be flocking to the river until the heat of the day arrived.
The first day of the census arrived and we were up at sparrow’s f… and, boy was it cold. We had heard lion audio the entire night, so we were all wondering if we might bump into a feline or two whilst scouring the riparian vegetation for a Pel’s. Just after sunrise, we jumped off of the camp’s main deck and started our trail along the river. The characteristic ‘POP’ call of a displaying African goshawk overhead carried through the cold morning air, as it mixed with the dust from a small herd of buffalo walking along the river bank. The team of Kruger rangers, EWT researchers, section rangers and camp guides planned to walk in two teams along the northern and southern banks of the river simultaneously, scanning the ground for tell-tale signs of whitewash (droppings), feathers, fish scales and remains and occasionally flushing a bird or two.
The river was still, reflecting the cirrus clouds from above, only to be broken by the nostrils of a curious hippo that bobbed up and down, keeping an eye on us while we walked along the banks. As the sun rose, so did our hopes and expectations, and I felt the warmth of being involved in such a special project. We walked for some time without seeing any signs of Pel’s activity until we reached a favourite fishing spot of a pair that had often been seen late at night. We found a beautiful primary feather and a number of secondary feathers at the base of the perch. Part of our plan was to collect any Pel’s feathers and send them for DNA analysis to monitor post-natal dispersion of Pel’s in the area.
The weather had started to warm up, which was very welcome – for us and the wildlife that started to flock to the river. We were blown away by the amount of activity along the river as we constantly encountered nyala, impala, kudu, bushbuck, baboon, hippo, crocodile and buffalo dotted all along the river banks.
As we scoured both banks of the river, we found a number of potential nesting sites as well as a couple active roosting spots. I had a good idea of where we might find our first sleeping Pel’s, as these birds are creatures of habit if left undisturbed in optimal conditions. As we approached the large sausage tree where I thought we might get lucky, we literally bumped into an ill-tempered buffalo bull that just wanted to be left alone. Luckily for us, the large bulk grazer was busy ruminating and possibly day dreaming. This allowed us to make a hasty and silent retreat without being noticed. It’s quite a thing when you can smell the mixture of mud and dung on a buffalo when on foot! We gave this formidable creature a wide berth and headed out of the thick vegetation… for a breather. As we were leaving the riparian vegetation, a curious flock of Retz’s helmet-shrikes followed us, probably trying to figure out what we were doing. After composing ourselves, we entered the riparian thicket again and made it to the large sausage tree without any other unplanned meetings.
As we got to the base of the tree, its dense canopy shaded out the sun and drowned out any ambient noises from around. We immediately noticed some fresh whitewash, followed by some fish scales and the remains of a tilapia. As I was starting to look up into the canopy, I remarked that this was a fresh meal. The timing couldn’t have been better as my eyes found the silhouette of a Pel’s immediately. I alerted the group, and everyone got their cameras ready in a hope to get some pictures – for identification purposes of course. The Pel’s had noticed the intruders into its daytime hideout and peered down at us with its great black eyes. I recognised this individual as a female that I had previously recorded. Pel’s fishing-owls can be individually identified fairly easily as every individual has unique carpal patch patterns (lightly coloured blotches on the wings), much like the unique pixel (whisker) patterns that felines have. The pescivore* entertained our curiosity for a brief while before flushing out of the tree canopy and flying to the southern bank of the river, perching in an exposed position before disappearing into the darkness of the canopy once again. What a fantastic sighting and everyone was amazed by the sheer size of the bird’s wingspan – it’s the biggest owl species in the area. Interestingly, the Pel’s is not a silent flyer like other owl species as it doesn’t rely on silent stealth to locate and catch prey – so when it flies, the wing beats are quite audible.
The encounter provided some great photographs and data in terms of GPS locations, feathers and prey preference.
As we approached the end point for the day’s walk, we heard an eruption of activity at the water’s edge, which was echoed by the alarm calls of a nearby baboon troop. We rushed to the scene for a closer look, and it appeared that a large crocodile had sprung out of the water and got a mouthful of some doves that had come to the water’s edge for a drink. Shortly after this, the group of surveyors on the southern bank found a very shallow spot in the river and crossed back to the northern bank – keeping a sharp lookout. As the group sat under the shade of an impressive nyala berry tree, sharing tales and stories, a large breeding herd of elephant arrived at the river in front of us for a drink and wallow, concluding the first day of the annual census in grand style.
*Pescivore – fish-eater