Birding conundrum at Bitou River Lodge

January 29th, 2016

‘How can you tell for sure what kind of a bird is what?’ my nine-year-old self asked my taciturn Scottish uncle, a well-known ornithologist & author. ‘You kill it’, he said with a fierce look at me.

Which was pretty much the end of my interest in birding – and in ornithologists.

I thought of my Uncle Leslie when I received the photo from Plettenberg Bay birder Bruce Ward-Smith, proof finally that we’d identified the birds correctly. I wished that I hadn’t wanted a photo so badly when we first saw them.

It was while I was walking the dogs at Bitou River Lodge eighteen months ago that I first saw them. It was almost dark & they came out of the sky over my head, clearly alarmed, shreeee-ing at us to go away. Three owls. Barn Owls, I thought. Our first Barn Owls!

Off I went to share the exciting news with our guests.  But no.

We had the Radue family staying with us at the time and 13-year-old Joel told me at breakfast – to my consternation – that he’d seen the owls & that they weren’t Barn Owls. My jaw dropped. No? No. Better than that. They were African Grass Owls. Much rarer. But only slightly different.

So how could Joel be so sure? He couldn’t see that the upper parts were darker brown than a Barn Owl’s would be, because it was too dark. The difference in size between the two owls is a mere two centimetres. Their call was similar to a Barn Owl’s. So how? He could tell because the African Grass Owl flies with its legs dangling below its body, unlike the Barn Owl.

Impressive, Joel. And he was right, of course.

African Grass Owl by William Radue

African Grass Owl by William Radue

Ray Goodwin came out to have a look & confirmed the sighting. Mike Graham tried to get a photo, but the light was never going to be good enough. William Radue took the only photo we had of the owls. Until Bruce Ward-Smith phoned to say that he’d found an African Grass Owl on the road outside our farm. It was dead, hit by a car. He’d taken photos. Did I know anything about African Grass Owls in the area?  It was a horrible moment.

That was our African Grass Owl, almost a member of the family. We’d protected their nesting area. We’d stood silently in the dusk, waiting (mostly unsuccessfully) for a glimpse of them. We’d learned to identify them by their chirping call when they weren’t alarmed, by their  ‘skreeee!’ when they were. We’d hoped they would stay, hatch out more owlets, enjoy living next to the Bitou River as much as we do.

But they’ve gone.

Bruce’s photo finally allows us to admire in detail the beautiful feathers, the vibrant colours, the life that once was of this magnificent and rare bird. How fortunate we were to have had them here for a few months and – who knows? –  perhaps they’ll return.  Maybe in 2016 we’ll see African Grass Owls at Bitou River Lodge once again. Here’s hoping.

African Grass Owl by Bruce Ward Smith

African Grass Owl by Bruce Ward Smith

More on Birding in Plettenberg Bay