Thursday, 2 July 2015

African Memories Part 2 - The Okavango Delta Botswana

Another memorable holiday trip to Africa some years ago with my wife and young daughter found us spending a few days in the watery wilderness of the Okavango Delta moving by light aircraft across the vastness of Botswana from camp to camp.

The wildlife as always was abundant and thrilling but I had one desire above all others and that was to see a Pel's Fishing Owl, a huge ginger coloured owl with eyes as black as the African night and that lived entirely on fish.

I had met other birders and guides who told me I would be extremely fortunate to see one and if I did it would probably be just briefly, usually at night and would first entail much searching without any great chance of success.

After a week in the dry savannah of the Kwai Concession we arrived at the luxury Kanana Camp situated in the heart of the Okavango Delta and I immediately asked if there was any chance of finding a Pel's Fishing Owl but was met with a sympathetic smile and a negative reply from the young couple running the Camp who seemed skilled in providing drinks, food and every other creature comfort known to man or woman but not so knowledgeable about the wildlife. 

I let matters rest for a while but undeterred decided to bypass the official route and get some local knowledge from one of the native Africans working as a guide at the camp. He told me that he knew of a pair of Pel's Fishing Owls nesting in a huge tree half an hour's boat trip from the camp but as most people visiting the camp were more interested in Lions and other big game rather than birds the camp did not really make much effort to inform visitors about the owls.

For a consideration of some US dollars we came to an 'unofficial' arrangement and the next day, making my excuses, I declined the early morning game drive and met my African friend at the dock and away we went in a motorboat, cleaving our way through the steamy humid waters, following deep mysterious channels through huge papyrus stands to eventually transfer to a small canoe and pole ourselves across a shallow lake profuse with lilies.

A channel through the Papyrus

The shallow lily lake with the owl nesting tree visible centre on the far shore
We silently glided through the clear water, scattering Greater and Lesser Jacana's before coming to rest under a huge tree by the water's edge in which the owls had their nest, containing I was told, a young owl secreted in a hole of a branch high above us. I looked up. There above me in the tree was an enormous owl, a Pel's Fishing Owl looking every bit as impressive as I had been led to believe. Its ginger plumage with wavy dark brown bars almost glowed in the dappled shade as its huge claws clamped it firmly to a stout branch. It looked down at me in that casual way owls do and its fathomless black eyes were impassive and expressionless.

We sat for over two hours in the narrow canoe, shaded from the burning sun by the tree, taking time also for a light lunch as I just enjoyed this very special time with a beautiful and mysterious owl. The only sounds were natural in this liquid tropical wilderness and an inner peace came over me as finally yet another of life's little challenges came to successful fruition.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect an encounter such as this. A few seconds view, which was apparently more typical would have made me very happy but to have a Pel's Fishing Owl just sitting motionless for hours on end above me was almost unbelievable.

Apparently I was extremely fortunate in my timing as when  Pel's Fishing Owls are nesting and have young it is not uncommon for one of the parent owls to sit outside the nest hole guarding the young one and to show no fear at this stage in their nesting cycle. The individual owl I was looking at was the larger female, the smaller male which I also saw later but much more distantly was in another tree further away and much more circumspect about showing himself

I sat dreamily in the boat, watching the owl, luxuriating in the humid warmth, listening to the tiny frogs croaking in the lilies and inhaled the dark steamy swamp smells of the Okavango. 

The owl fiddled briefly with its breast plumage and a long ginger feather drifted slowly in the windless hot air, spiralling down to the water. I retrieved it from the water's smooth surface, a memento of this unforgettable moment in the heart of Africa.

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