Now, searching for the Pel’s Fishing Owl can make you feel like Indiana Jones searching for some long lost artefact only to be thwarted at every turn. We have spent many, many hours over the years slowly driving through prime habitat in search of this elusive bird and have always come off second best.
Upon arrival at Mapungubwe National Park on the 25th of June, and while completing the usual formalities at the entrance gate, I enquired about whether there had been any recent sightings of Fishing Owls in the Park and whether we might book a special guided drive to search for them in case there was. Without hesitation the kind receptionist picked up the phone, and minutes later we were being escorted down to the banks of the Limpopo River by Leonard Luula, one of the excellent guides at Mapungubwe.
Leonard’s expert eye quickly picked out the bird that has eluded us for so long sitting in a tall riparian tree. We were ecstatic.
We went back to the same area early the following day and were very grateful to see the owl once again before it shuffled out of view along its perch to behind the screen of leaves.
As its name suggests, the Pel’s Fishing Owl subsists on a diet of fish (and the occasional frog, crab and even baby crocodile!) which it catches at night by swooping down over the water to snatch its prey from it. They live in riverine forests on the banks of large rivers and swamps.
Pel’s Fishing Owl usually nests in deep cavities or old hamerkop nests in tall trees near the water’s edge, mainly during the months of summer and autumn. The female incubates the clutch of two eggs for around 5 weeks while being provided food by the male. Both eggs usually hatch, but only one chick survives to fledging as the parents feed mainly the stronger chick and neglect the weaker, which dies of starvation within a few days of hatching. The chick remains in the nest for almost 10 weeks and is dependent on its parents for up to 9 months months after fledging. Due to it taking so long to raise a chick, pairs generally breed only every second year.
Pel’s Fishing Owl is the second largest owl on the African continent (after Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl). Adults have a wingspan of around 1.5m, sit about 60cm tall, and weigh approximately 2kg. Their call can be heard up to 3km away.
While overall Pel’s Fishing Owl is considered to be of least concern, it is listed as endangered in South Africa, with a population estimated at only between 70 and 100 mature individuals. Here, these enigmatic birds are found in the north of Kwazulu-Natal, along large Lowveld rivers – notably the Olifants and Luvuvhu – and along the course of the Limpopo on the border with Zimbabwe and Botswana. Thankfully, most of this restricted range is covered by formal protected areas, such as the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Kruger National Park and of course Mapungubwe National Park. They are very sensitive to human disturbance and threatened by habitat loss. Beyond our borders, Pel’s Fishing Owls are found widely, if somewhat patchily, over much of sub-Saharan Africa.