Like butter in a hot pan, the mokoro slides effortlessly out from the inlet onto the still, coppery-bronze surface of the Okavango floodplain. The prow of the dugout parts rafts of waterlilies as Tshenolo poles us silently towards the little island, now illuminated by the first crimson glow of the rising sun.
Beady-eyed reedfrogs watch us from their sedge-stem lookouts and an otter breaks the surface to check us out, before carrying on with his search for an early breakfast.
Last night at Jacana Camp, under the outdoor shower, the palm trees and the light of a thousand stars, I’d heard the distinctive deep ‘boom’ of two Pel’s Fishing-Owls communicating. To be honest, it’s a rather ominous call, like the distant beat of a war drum, but the owls were simply keeping in touch and letting rivals know of their presence. They were on the tiny island that we were now approaching and our early start was in the hope of finding one or both of them before they retreated to dense cover. In midwinter, owls frequently take advantage of the warm sun.
Two jacanas scurry away as Tshenolo guides the mokoro beneath the arching branches of a waterberry tree and with one final stab and shove we are beached on the muddy bank. I raise myself up and clamber out, camera over my shoulder and binoculars around my neck. We step over some old, dry elephant dung – they were probably here for the palm nuts – and find ourselves beneath an enormous African Ebony. This ancient tree, says TH, is where the fishing-owls roost by day. The sun is up and now illuminating the trunk and lower branches as well as the crown – the whole tree is glowing. And there, staring down at us with its inky eyes, is a great ginger giant of an owl. Scotopelia peli – Pel’s Fishing-Owl – that most awe-inspiring of African birds. Only the strange, prehistoric-looking Shoebill of the Rift Valley swamplands, seems to rival Pel’s in the desirability stakes among birders.
I manage to take a couple of photographs, but they are not what I really want and so I move around the tree to try and get a better vantage point. The owl is higher up than I had hoped for, and there is no sign whatsoever of its mate. ‘TH’ signals for me to move in his direction, but as I step back into a small clearing, a twig snaps under my foot and the owl decides to shuffle deeper into the foliage. There will be no more photo opportunities here, but the tenacious and wily mokoro pilot-guide has a plan. We are heading off to another small island where Tshenolo knows of a second pair.
Measuring 64 centimetres from the point of its bill to the tip of its toes, Pel’s Fishing-Owl is one of the largest owls in the world, only a fraction smaller than the Giant (Verreaux’s) Eagle-Owl. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to see a few of these magnificent owls, although my first Pel’s was stone dead and stuffed in a 1970’s display cabinet at the Transvaal Museum. Back in 1986, it was a bold juvenile that appeared out of nowhere to perch briefly on a stump in front of a glorious amber sunset at Xakanaxa. Then, at Xaro on the ‘pan-handle’ where the broad Okavango River is yet to fan-out, I watched an adult hunting catfish after dark. Before these sightings I had picked up a ginger flight feather on a small Okavango island and – pinned on the dashboard of my VW kombi – it went everywhere with me, for years.
The sun is up now and bouncing off the crystal clear water which in places is just half a metre deep. It is still cold though, so the dragonflies and damsels remain on their perches, transparent wings glittering with dew. In a few months time, the Okavango floodwaters will have receded and there will be zebra grazing where otters are currently pursuing tilapia. ‘TH’ poles on and we cross a larger channel before re-entering the shallows then enter a little lagoon crowded in by waterberries. Then, in an orange blur, a huge owl launches out in front of us and rises above the papyrus before dipping down and gliding off out of sight. A Pel’s Fishing-Owl had been right there, perched on the broad horizontal branch at our eye-level – just two metres ahead of us! This is not a big island, however, and it must have landed nearby so we are out of the mokoro in a heartbeat. A mob of bulbuls and helmetshrikes are kicking up a racket on the edge of a dark-foliaged mangosteen tree. Knowing that the hidden owl is almost certainly watching our every move, I calmly walk away from the mangosteen and into a palm thicket before doubling back in wide arc, under cover. I am about ten metres from the tree and the lens on my camera is set for a possible flight shot. A step closer, then another. The small birds are still bothering the hidden owl, urging it to take flight. Suddenly, the ginger giant launches out and for an instant it seems to just hang in the air, right in front of me. It feels as if I might be able to count its primary feathers. I swing the camera up, but its too late, the owl is now gliding away – I’ve blown it.
Or have I? This is what seeking out Pel’s Fishing-Owl is really all about. It is not about the perfect shot, it’s about moving carefully in its watery world, it’s about patience and anticipation, but also knowing when it is time to let the shy owl be, and move on. And more than anything, it is about the knowledge and perseverance of an Okavango mokoro pilot and guide – in this regard, there are none finer than Tshenolo ‘TH’ Mahongo of Jacana Camp.
Note: Jacana Camp is one of six superb tented camps in The Jao Reserve – a private concession in the north-western part of the Okavango Delta which comprises permanent and seasonal swamp as well as the large savanna-dominated Hunda Island. The term ‘birder’s paradise’ is bandied around way too frequently, but it is hard to avoid using it here. All of the Okavango ‘specials’ can be seen at Jao, with Slaty Egret, Coppery-tailed Coucal, Dickinson’s Kestrel, Hartlaub’s Babbler, Swamp Nightjar, Wattled Crane, Long-toed Lapwing, Rufous-bellied Heron and Swamp Boubou among the over 160 species I saw in a few days in early June. Add to this, close encounters with Malachite Kingfisher, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, African Fish-Eagle and Saddle-billed Stork and it is very hard to beat. Oh, and by the way, all of Africa’s great mammals are here too – an abundance of elephant and some of the most relaxed leopards you can hope to meet and photograph.
Jacana Camp, The Jao Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana.