It was another great afternoon – the sun had already gone down and we were headed back to camp for a delicious dinner. I had just radioed the lodge to tell them that we would be arriving in a few minutes, and we could see the lights of the lodge shining on the ridge. As we arrived at the weir, which crosses the N’wanetsi River in front of Lebombo Lodge, I could not believe my eyes! There, in front of us, was a Pel’s fishing owl! Wow! What an awesome surprise! It then flew up into a large tree near the road and I quickly asked the guests to take a photo of it as I knew that nobody would believe me when I told them what we had seen. My guests seemed a bit confused as to why I was so thrilled, but seeing how excited I was they quickly lifted the camera and managed to get a few great photos of it.
Pel’s fishing owls are extremely large (they are considered to be the second largest owl in southern Africa, after the Verreaux’s eagle-owl) and are bright orange in colour with dark bars across the wing feathers and dark speckles in front. They have big black eyes and a large rounded head. They almost remind one of a feathered, bird-like Garfield (or a cross between Tigger and Owl in Winnie the Pooh).
Pel’s fishing owls are extremely rare owls in South Africa and have a very limited distribution in the country. In South Africa they can mainly be seen along the permanently flowing rivers in the Lowveld region (Kruger National Park and surroundings), along the Limpopo River (the northern border of the country) and in northern Natal. Amongst South African birders, a sighting of a Pel’s fishing owl is almost the same as finding the Holy Grail!
As their name suggests Pel’s fishing owls feed mainly on fish. They are one of only three true fishing owls in Africa (the other two are the vermiculated fishing owl and the rufous fishing owl, which both occur in central Africa). They are predominantly piscivores, although they have been seen to also feed on frogs and crabs on rare occasions. As fishing specialists they tend to have bare legs (un-feathered tarsi), large feet with spiky scales (in order to grip hold of slippery fish) and long talons. At night they tend to perch on branches that lean over the water and when they see fish swimming beneath them they swoop down catching their prey feet-first. They rely predominantly on sight to see the shape and movement of the fish swimming beneath their perch. Pel’s fishing owls do need to be absolutely silent while hunting as the fish cannot hear them, and therefore do not have the downy covering to the feathers that most owls have (which allow them to fly silently).
During the day they perch in densely leafed trees on the banks of rivers, where they are extremely difficult to see, and try to remain hidden from any diurnal threat. Pel’s fishing owls tend to be territorial and live in monogamous pairs. They prefer to nest in cavities or hollows in the trunks or branches of large riparian trees.
This sighting that we had of this incredible bird is possibly the first confirmed record of this species being found along the N’wanetsi River and in our concession.
Photo by Lebombo guests, Sandra and Thorsten Gottwald