Shafts of late afternoon light were illuminating the autumn foliage of the Tamboti and Bushwillow trees along the dry Timbavati River, as our guide Finn hauled the vehicle off the dusty track and into the deep sand. Grinding slowly along in ‘low range’ we arrived at a pool in the riverbed, where the remnants of January’s floodwaters had been trapped. According to Jimmy – the expert tracker perched on his special seat alongside the Land Cruiser’s bonnet – we were now in the territory of a pair of African Barred Owlets.
There was no sign of either owl perched out in the open (as they often do in the late afternoon) so Finn used his iPod to briefly play out the distinctive ‘pheew-pheew-pheew-pheew’ call. Within seconds we had a response. One of the pair was calling back at the supposed intruder. A minute or so later, the little owl appeared on an open branch – its pale yellow eyes staring intensely in our direction. To get closer, we climbed off the vehicle and walked upstream before doubling back towards the owlet behind the cover of some date palms and evergreen scrub.
After a little careful stalking, we got within about five metres of the Barred Owlet, but we were not the only ones to have discovered this little predator. A family of five Retz’s Helmetshrikes – dashing charcoal-black birds with scarlet eye-wattles and fiery-orange bill and feet – were mobbing the owl in an obvious attempt to drive it away. Time and again the helmetshrikes swooped at the owl (only a little larger than themselves), snapping their bills and flicking their broad round wings. But the owl sat tight and the mob squad eventually gave up, flying off into a tall Leadwood tree. We felt it was time to go too, leaving the owl – and its mate – to a night of hunting crickets, scorpions and millipedes under an Ngala moon.
Ngala Private Game Reserve, Kruger, South Africa, June 2012
Note: my feeling about the use of taped bird calls is that it is acceptable if used sensitively. This means playing a call for a limited period only, and giving up quickly if there is no rapid response. Excessive use of playback can alter the behaviour of some birds, and may even lead to territory abandonment. At Ngala, Finn Lawler is currently working on a project to establish the population density of African Barred Owlets along the Timbavati and other seasonal watercourses.
The genus Glaucidium consists of up to 35 species, depending on which taxonomists you’d like to believe. The Northern Pygmy-Owl (of North America), Andean Pygmy-Owl, Eurasian Pygmy-Owl, Collared Owlet (of tropical Asian forests) and Pearl-spotted Owlet (of African savannas) are all remarkably similar in appearance but have unique and distinctive calls. Most of them are at least partly diurnal, often active during daylight. Interestingly, there is also a plant genus named Glaucidium – in the buttercup family – which is rather confusing.