The Pel's Fishing Owl is the second largest owl in Africa. It feeds almost exclusively on fish and lives in dense forests near rivers. They are shy and are therefore seldom seen, so seeing one is always a thrilling event.
By Leigh Kemp
Many visitors to the Okavango Delta enjoy spectacular wildlife sightings and excellent birding, but there is one bird that many visitors do not see on their trips - the Pel's Fishing Owl. It is only if you are patient, dedicated, or very lucky that you will get to see these elusive birds.
Pel's Fishing Owls - Beautiful Enigmas
The Pel's fishing owl is one of only a few true fishing owls. It is found in many river systems in Sub-Saharan Africa, but even in ideal habitats they are seldom seen due to their secretive nature. It is estimated that there are around 100 pairs of Pel's Fishing Owls in the whole Okavango Delta, an area the size of New Jersey. That being stated, it is still one of the best places in Africa to try and track them down.
On the Bucket List
The Pel's Fishing Owl for many birders is like the Holy Grail and it appears on many birding enthusiasts "top 10 to seek before I die lists". The birds are uncommon and often evasive, avoiding disturbance. They live in riverine forest and prefer to perch high among the thick foliage. They often hunt at night and are most active and vocal in the hour before dawn.
Your best chance of seeing them is to search the foliage in the top of trees near or overhanging lagoons and pools. Sometimes you may come across local guides who know the general area in which they occur and your chances increase.
So, what do they look like?
The Pel's fishing owl is the second largest owl that occurs in Africa. They are a lovely ginger brown to russet colour and have black spots on both their wings and bellies. They have a rounded head and large black eyes like deep pools of pitch. They lack the soft flight feathers of other owls as stealth is not necessary for snatching their underwater prey.
They also lack the characteristic facial disks of many owls. This disc is believed to help with hearing, and as the owl's prey lives underwater, the owls seem to have evolved without this feature. They have a haunting, chilling call, which has been likened to someone calling up from the bottom of a well. Their cries can be heard over a kilometre away.