Namibian owls: Creatures of the night

Leaping lizards
July 18, 2016
Long live the fairies!
July 20, 2016
Leaping lizards
July 18, 2016
Long live the fairies!
July 20, 2016

Text and Photos by Pompie Burger | Main photo: Barn owls

This is about possibly the most fascinating group of birds, the owls, with their almost human faces and incredible night vision.

Barred owlet

O nce you’re hooked on owl watching, you’ll never look back, unless you’re a pearl spotted owlet with a separate set of ‘eyes’ at the back of your head, or a marsh owl, which always look back over its shoulder after take off. Although owls are relatively common, very few people have ever actually seen one.

For a creature with night vision three times greater than ours, the ability to locate its prey in pitch dark from a distance of seven metres and to fly with almost silent wing beats, it definitely deserves more than the label of ill omen we humans have given it. Over centuries, owls have intrigued us to such an extent that they have been branded as the wise old men of nature. They have also been the main characters in many a fable and folklore, even featuring in the film Lord of the Rings! Some people still believe that if an owl perches on the roof of your house, it means that someone is going to die.

While the call of an owl at night can be terrifying, for the bird watcher it means there is life. Owls tend to be quite vocal, especially during their breeding season, and if you have the ability to mimic their call, you will definitely entertain your friends, as well as the local owls. The only exception might be the barn owl, whose visit to your camp in the middle of the night could be rather scary, due to its eerie screeching call.

There are more than 130 owl species worldwide and Namibia is fortunate to have a wide variety, eleven to be exact, about 33% of the total found in sub-Saharan Africa. There is probably not an area in this country where you will not find an owl of some sort. At Shamvura Rest Camp alone some nine species have been recorded. Unfortunately, owls are the birds that are most susceptible to road kills, because of their nocturnal hunting habits along the road.

Because of its adaptability to different habitats, the most common owl in Namibia is the spotted eagle owl. With the exception of the barn owl, this owl is also the best adapted to human surroundings. Its call is so typical that ‘whoo hoo’ has become the layman’s term for ‘owls’. The Cape eagle owl, the spotted eagle owl look-alike except for its large feet, orange instead of yellow eyes, more boldly mottled chest and bigger size, also occurs in Namibia, but only in the far south along the Fish and Orange rivers.

The world’s most common owl species, the barn owl, is also relatively widespread in Namibia. Interestingly enough, the pellets of barn owls are very special, both for ornithologists and for environmentalists, because the first traces of a Grant’s golden mole was found in such a pellet.

Marsh owls are my favourite owl species, because of the many hours we watched them hunt on the Nina road. Incidentally, this also caused us some rather anxious moments one night when we where mistaken for poachers instead of owl watchers. Their habit of sitting on the road looking for insects entertained us for hours on end, as did their comical habit of flying off looking back curiously at their intruders.

The so-called bushveld owls, namely the African scops owl, pearl-spotted owlet and white-faced owl, are all specialists in the entertainment business. Incidentally, these owls are employed by Nature Conservation to entertain visitors at their different camps throughout Namibia. At night they can be seen, or at least heard, in virtually all the game parks. The ‘pearlies’ are one of the owl species that is relatively active during the day, supposedly because they have a second set of ‘eyes’ behind their heads. The frog-like ‘krup’ sound repeated at short intervals after dark is a definite sign that you are in scops owl country. The white-faced owl, like the scops owl, has the ability to change its appearance during the day by ‘slimming’ its body, resulting in a very different looking and well disguised little creature.

The wood owl, named after a certain Colonel Woodford, ended up being called the wood owl because of its woodland habitat. It is found only in northern Namibia, along the Kavango, Kwando and Zambezi rivers. The barred owlet tends to favour the same area with some sightings further south as well. It looks a lot like the ‘pearly’, but lacks the false eyes at the back of its head, and is also more nocturnal.

Pel’s fishing owl is the largest of the four fishing owls of Africa, and the only one found in Namibia. This is one of those birds that lodges mention in their ads when they happen to have a resident pair, albeit within a radius of 2 000 kilometres. To go and look for these ‘teddy bear’ look-alike owls, can be rather frustrating. We were very impressed when our guides found them sitting high up in the massive mangosteen trees. This was until we realised the guides obviously know where to look for them, and more importantly, they don’t look for them in the trees, but look for their fresh droppings on the ground.

The largest of Namibia’s owls is the giant eagle owl. This owl’s pink eyelids make it look rather peculiar, but if you see one of them catching a hedgehog, you will realise that there is nothing laughable about this owl. Look out for the resident pair at the Okaukuejo waterhole. Since they are very vocal, they are difficult to ignore.

African scops owl
Wood owl
Pearl spotted owlet
This article was first published in the Flamingo November 2004 issue.

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