14 October 2012 – seeing is believing…
Local residents had reported a Pel’s Fishing Owl in their garden in Newlands in early September. Unfortunately, the photos they took of it were not clear enough and no detail on the bird could be seen, but they did retrieve a feather from the bird which seemed to definitely belong to the species. Although it is not an uncommon species in Southern Africa, it is restricted to the north and east of the region and doesn’t occur anywhere near Cape Town. The closest resident populations would be in northern Zululand or along the thickly wooded river courses of the Kruger National Park, although there have been a handful of vagrant records down along the coast into the Eastern Cape over the years. There is also an historical claim during the late 1940’s by Dr Leonard Gill from Cape Point, but there are no other records from the Western Cape at all, so obviously, this was of interest to us…
Unfortunately, the Newlands bird never got seen again, so that was kind of the end of that. However, this morning, I received a call from Peter Steyn saying that a couple of residents in the area had found fish with their heads eaten off lying in their gardens. Peter had recognized this instantly as a very Pel’s-like characteristic and phoned to suggest that we should mount a little search for the bird. Well, it sounded particularly interesting, so we jumped at the opportunity and met up with Peter this evening outside the residents’ homes. It was a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, but we’ve never needed an excuse before to go looking for a bird, so this time was no different!
We entered the first house and the owners took us out on to their back deck. They were still busy pointing out to us where they had found the fish when a large ginger owl flushed out of the tree overhanging their fish pond! We couldn’t believe our eyes and luck! Without even really putting in any effort, we had found the Pel’s Fishing Owl…! The only problem now, of course, was that it had flown off and we had no proof!
We raced around to one of the other properties to try and find it, but they had apparently just flushed it out of their garden as well, so we were not in luck. After scanning around for a little while, we decided to go back to the first house and just wait around for a while in the hope that it might return there. We positioned ourselves on the deck and sat back in the hope that the bird would return. We were still busy discussing all the possibilities when a large shape came flying back across the yard and straight into the tree that we had flushed the owl out of. It was initially hidden behind branches and we couldn’t get a clear view of it but, eventually, it moved out on to an open branch and revealed itself as a cracking Pel’s Fishing Owl. The camera shutters started going crazy!!
Once the proof shots were there, we got ourselves into slightly better positions and then proceeded to take more photos of the bird and watch it as it eyed out the fish pond. We waited around for a couple of hours in the hope that we may see it feed, but it never moved from the tree unfortunately and, eventually, we walked away from it. Just a totally bizarre and incredible evening with some of the best views we have ever had of this normally very difficult to see species. And, no doubt, a new record for our Western Cape lists and an absolute cracker to get on to our challenge list…:)
Unfortunately, the droves of twitchers that made their way there over the next few nights were not as lucky and the owl was not seen again in 4 successive nights of trying. Who knows where it has moved off to, but it is bound to still be in the general area and will, no doubt, eventually show itself off to some lucky people in the future again.