It’s Monday 4th May 2009 and the Pel’s are nesting

News from the Western Province where we are getting ready for the Liuwa safaris, starting soon. Robin boated to Kalabo today with 3 tons of supplies. He says the Zambezi is magnificent and Jason Alfonsi, who led the forward party, says there are lots of wildebeest on the Liuwa Plain and Lady Liuwa, the solo lioness, was delighted to see everyone. He had never been before and claimed the place to be totally magical!

Mokoro boat on the Zambezi Wildebeest on the Liuwa Plain

Lady LiuwaLady Liuwa

And exciting news from Mark and Jenna (managers of Pumulani) over on Lake Malawi.

So over to Mark. Have a great week – Jo

H S Pel, a Dutch civil servant and Governor of the Gold Coast, died in 1854. His name however lives on in field guides and various books on African avifauna and has become synonymous with bird watchers internationally for being attached to a very secretive and mysterious bird. The Pel’s Fishing Owl haunts the quieter waterways of sub-tropical Africa, retiring to large shady trees by day and emerging after dark to patrol the shorelines of lakes, swamps and large slow flowing rivers. From a perch on a steep bank or tree over the water the owl swoops onto fish, snatching them in its huge talons and returning to the perch to feed. For any birder – the sight of a Pel’s is a great excitement.

There had always been talk of a pair of Pel’s at Pumulani but it took us a few months before we found them. Eventually, by accident, their position was revealed as a troop of vervet monkeys harassed them from their daytime roost. Sightings were sporadic and we never had them pinned to a definite roost site or regular fishing area. This all changed a few months ago when a particularly vicious summer storm and gale force winds caused one half of an enormous baobab on the lakeshore to come crashing down. This act of nature seemed a great pity for a tree that had stood through centuries of storms. It did however leave a gaping cavity in the bole of the tree where the huge stem had once been.

It couldn’t have taken our resident pair of Pel’s very long to discover this windfall (pun intended). They have moved in and are now nesting in this sheltered cavity. It’s the perfect spot for them. The orange of the baobab wood even matches the bird’s ginger plumage, camouflaging the female as she incubates. The male Pel’s roosts in a nearby tree during the daylight hours and arrives at around six in the evening, swooping silently into the baobab to be joined by his mate for their nocturnal hunts.

Pel's fishing owlPel's fishing owl

We haven’t really observed what happens after dark and I’m not sure if the male takes fish back to the incubating female or if she takes a break from duty to do some hunting herself. It seems however that she does all of the incubating.

What we have seen are some tracks on our beach, huge talons imprinted into the wet sand on the waters edge where the Pel’s had taken a short stroll. Perhaps it had fed on a fish there? Any remains would have been cleaned up by one of our other regular nocturnal beachcombers; a large spotted genet and an African clawless otter.

Pel's eggs in the enormous baobab treePel's eggs in the baobab tree

Jenna had a brief but magnificent sighting earlier this week of a Pel’s fishing owl plunging vertically into the water and then flapping noisily out with a wriggling fish grappled in it’s horny talons. I was there and heard the splash but missed the details of the action (astigmatism apparently!)

We are hugely excited by ‘our’ breeding pair of fishing owls and hope that they have success in rearing a chick. Only one of the two hatched chicks will survive as Cainism takes place where the older dominant chick will kill its sibling. Although cruel this avian siblicide does increase the chances of survival of the remaining chick as it receives 100% of food and protection.

PumulaniA view of Pumulani from the Lake

I wonder how H S Pel first discovered this mysterious bird. I don’t know the story or anything about the man but I would like to imagine he was camped on the banks of a quiet river somewhere and crawled out from his tent to locate the source of a fog horn like sound that was keeping him awake. By moonlight he would have made out the shape of a large owl peering into the dark waters below its perch. Imagine his surprise when the bird launched from its branch and plunged, feet first into the water, breaking the oily surface with its talons and flapping away with a catfish snatched from the shallows.

Pel’s fishing owls can also be viewed fairly reliably at any of our camps in South Luangwa.

All the best
Mark and Jenna

PS: Thanks Stephen Cuncliffe and Peter Ryan for Liuwa photos

Lake Malawi

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