Like any schoolboy in the 1970s, I had limited opportunities to travel beyond the town I lived in, but my first copy of Roberts’ Birds of South Africa (4th impression of the 3rd edition, published in 1975) was a source of considerable inspiration in terms of planning future adventures.
On the pages of this bible, were illustrations and descriptions of the birds that I had come to know around the Mondeor Hills south of Johannesburg, but also those of the subtropical east and north. Some of these were so spectacular that they became objects of great desire: Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Carmine Bee-eater, Plum-coloured Starling, Painted Snipe and – top of the list – Pel’s Fishing-Owl.
It would be 15 years or so before I finally laid eyes on a Pel’s, but this description of its call in Roberts’ Birds kept me motivated:
“a weird screechy howl, which rises in a nerve-shattering crescendo, to peter out like a cry of a lost soul falling into a bottomless pit”.
These were not the words of Austin Roberts himself, but a quote from one Mr Oswald Finney (a magistrate in the colonial government of Natal around 1903). Quite where Finney had encountered a bottomless pit, let alone a lost soul plummeting into one, is unknown.
Nxabega, Botswana, May 2000
Note: As its name suggests, the Pel’s Fishing-Owl feeds primarily on fish. These it captures by plunging into shallow water, usually a quiet inlet of a large slow-moving river. Its long talons and bare, knobbly toes aid in grasping slippery catfish and other delights. About two foot tall, this ginger teddy-bear of an owl is most reliably seen in the Okavango Delta, with Nxabega being a particularly good locality.