The Secret Life of Owls

 

 

Renowned for their silent flight and legendary eyesight, owls are some of the coolest, and most misunderstood birds of prey in the African bush.

In South Africa’s Greater Kruger area, they are fortunate to have regular sightings of a number of owl species, some in broad daylight. It’s not unusual to see the wonderful little pearl-spotted owlet and its cousin, the African barred owlet, out on morning and afternoon game drives when the sun is still shining brightly. As the sun goes down, however, we’re more likely to see the spotted eagle owl, scops owl and and Southern white-faced owl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common belief has it that owls can see in the dark. Actually, they can’t see in complete darkness but rather use ambient light like starlight and moonlight to amplify their sight and help them focus in the dark. It’s actually their hearing that makes owls such effective night-time predators. They use their ears to pinpoint prey and have asymmetrical hearing with one ear located slightly higher on their heads than the other. So when you see an owl characteristically bobbing its head up and down, it’s using its ears to hone in on movement, using what we call 3D hearing to assess how far away a potential meal is and whether it is in the branches of a tree or on the ground.

An owl’s ability to fly virtually silently is down to its super fine, “furry” wing feathers that help to muffle all sound. So effective are these feathers that we humans have borrowed their tech in archery, using feather-like “silencers” on bow strings to dampen the sound of them loosing arrows.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s silent flight that allows owls to be such successful killers and the African bush’s chief rodent control officers, capable of consuming thousands of mice each year. An owl will regurgitate the fur, feathers and bones of its prey in a pellet. Although moist when first regurgitated, these pellets soon dry out and become their own self-contained ecosystem, playing host to moth and beetle larvae as well as fungi. The larvae eat the fur and feathers and use some of it in the construction of their cocoons, which they build near the host pellet.

The varying sizes and shapes of the local owls means that they are not in direct competition with one another, feeding on prey species from smaller birds and rodents to scrub hares and fish. The Pel’s fishing owl is top of the list of riverine birds that birders come to the Balule Private Nature Reserve to see, but it’s not alone in its pescatarian pursuits – we’ve spotted Verreaux’s eagle owl and spotted eagle owls catching tilapia from the waterhole in front of camp!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, a lot of guests hear owls long before they see them (if they are lucky enough to spot them on a game drive or here in camp). The most common calls in the night-time bush are of the scops owl and the pearl-spotted owlet, which can easily be distinguished from the African barred owlet by its distinctive call (and the fact that it has “false eyes” in the feather markings on the back of its head).

 

 

 

 

 

Throughout history owls have been persecuted because of the belief that they are harbingers of death and doom. Some African cultures believe they are omens of bad luck and ill health, threatening their very existence, and kill owls on sight. Along with modern pesticides and road deaths, this fear has contributed to an overall reduction in owl numbers, with many species now listed as vulnerable. Today, thankfully, dedicated education programs and outreach initiatives are helping to develop a new understanding of the importance of owls in both urban and rural communities.


Saddle up in Botswana!

Botswana’s remote wilderness areas make for an unforgettable African Safari experience no matter how you choose to explore them. From cruising through the lagoons of the Okavango Delta on a mokoro (traditional dugout canoe) to driving across the salt pans of the Makgadikgadi, Botswana is as richly diverse in landscapes as it is in ways to experience them.

There is one particularly exciting way of going on safari in Botswana that takes you off the beaten track in the truest sense of the phrase. Saddling up, taking the reins and heading off into the wild on horseback offers you a different and incredibly immersive perspective of Botswana.

 

 

 

 

Horseback safaris evoke a real spirit of adventure in even the most experienced riders and eager thrill-seekers, but these safaris can be tailored to your expectations and preferred riding style, which means that if you wish, you can choose a more leisurely ride to experience Botswana’s wilderness.

All riding abilities are generally catered for so whether you are burgeoning horse-rider or a highly experienced professional, you can join a horse-riding safari that canters or gallops. It is best to choose a pace in line with your riding ability, or else you might be more worried about falling off your steed than taking in the scenery around you!

 

 

 

 

If you are a wildlife enthusiast, then this is the safari for you. Without the crunch of wheels or engine of a motorized boat, you can get closer to birds and wildlife than you might on a more traditional safari – naturally, while still maintaining a respectful and safe distance.

You stand to enjoy the best seats in the wild while on the back of a horse, as wild animals generally view a horse as just another animal. From the saddle, you can see the dust gathered in the wrinkles of an elephant’s hide and be entranced by the intricate patterns in the coat of a painted wolf (African wild dog) at close quarters.

 

 

 

 

There are a wide variety of horseback adventures in Botswana, ranging from the desert regions such as the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans and the Kalahari Desert to wet riding in the Okavango Delta. The best horse-riding safaris in Botswana are led by guides who are experts in the topography of the area and know where the good wildlife-viewing spots are.

In the saddle, you will discover parts of Botswana unreachable by vehicles, boats or even mokoros, giving you a better chance to come face-to-face with wildlife. Horse-riding safaris in Botswana offer you a special opportunity to connect with its natural beauty on a different level to any other safari experience.

 

 

 

 

 


Elephant Swim at Kapama

Elephants are an amazing sight to see on safari. From their majestic size and intelligence to their unbelievable parental care is always a treat when out on a drive. Our guides know that so often it is a once in a lifetime experience for a guest to see a wild animal like elephants so we try our best to make it a special occasion no matter what animal we see.

 

 

 

 

 

All mammals generate heat through metabolism. Elephants have many different ways of controlling their body temperature.  Elephants being big and active generate a lot of heat. This, added to the hot summer sun their body temperature can rise rather quickly. They have a different mechanism that they use to help them cool down, from ear flapping to mud bathing are all great ways to dissipate heat.

But the most enjoyable is probably a good old fashion swim. Yes, elephants are very good swimmers and they thoroughly enjoy the water. It not only cools them down but takes some of the weight of their feet. They can sometimes play for hours in the water doing somewhat acrobatic displays which are of course a sight to see. You will find them play fighting or even splashing as they fall over backwards.

Their amazing agility becomes evident. To see how swiftly they can move and push and play is a humbling experience. All of this just to relax and dissipate heat while having a bit of fun. This is, however, a great way to bond and strengthen relationships within the herd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Story and photos by Ranger Chris Reiners – Buffalo Camp

 


Secretive Forest Species Revealed!

 

 

Camera traps set up by researchers in Africa’s DR Congo have revealed 43 secretive forest species such as giant ground pangolins, African golden cats, leopards, cusimanses (a species of mongoose), bonobos, forest elephants and the endemic Congo peafowls.

Researchers in the 3,6 million hectare Salonga National Park (Africa’s largest tropical rainforest reserve) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo set up 160 camera traps in 743 locations and used a new method of analysis known as “camera trap distance sampling” to estimate animal abundance in this, one of Africa’s richest biodiversity habitats.

Camera traps have revolutionized wildlife research in allowing data to be collected on specie’s distribution, density, abundance, behavior and social structure without the presence of a human observer. They have proved to be an indispensable tool, particularly in challenging environments such as dense rainforests or in dealing with shy, elusive or even dangerous animal species. Their value has been clear for many years but only recently have scientists found ways to use them to evaluate actual population data accurately. These population and density estimates are, in turn, crucial in evaluating the conservation status of individual animal species and ensuring that the correct measures can be implemented for their protection.

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, biologists describe how they covered 17,127km2 (1,712,700 hectares) from September 2016 to May 2018, systematically placing camera traps between 70 to 90cm above the ground. These produced more than 16,000 video clips with over 170 hours of animal footage that revealed the secretive species.

In the past, camera trap footage and images could only be used to estimate populations of animals with distinctive markings such as leopards, where individuals could be identified and recognised in future images. For animals with more obscure or indistinct individual markers, it was far more challenging to avoid counting the same individual twice at different locations. This study focused on using camera trap distance sampling – subdividing the time the cameras were active into “snapshots” where at a specific and predetermined moment, one individual animal could only be in one location at one point in time.

 

 

 

 

The results of this method allowed this study to provide the first-ever estimates of the population sizes of species such as the Congo peafowl and giant ground pangolin. For the peafowl, the results of the study were positive – the numbers seem to be far higher than previously thought. For the giant ground pangolin, the researchers concluded that the population estimates are far more concerning, with fewer than 1,000 individuals in an enormous and, presumably vital, portion of their natural distribution.

Most importantly, the methods utilized by the researchers show that camera trap distance sampling is an essential survey method to provide valuable information on wildlife density and abundance. Previously, conservation efforts aimed at the protection of elusive species like the African golden cat or four-toed sengi (a type of elephant-shrew) were mainly based on educated guesses as to their numbers, but this study has provided a concrete way of estimating their actual wild abundance. According to the authors, this in turn “gives an insight into the complex and delicate equilibrium of the rainforest community and the threats to its survival.”

 

Full report: Drawn out of the shadows: Surveying secretive forest species with camera trap distance sampling, Besson M et al., 2020, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.


Dwarf Mongoose

Have you ever seen a “rat-like” flash cross the road just to disappear?

Ever heard the bird alarm call and the source was nowhere to be found? You might have been tricked by Africa’s smallest carnivore… the Dwarf Mongoose

They forage in abandoned termite mounds, old logs or self-dug holes.  They escape into these locations to avoid being seen. They have territories of approximately 75 acres where they have around 20 or more mounds that are used as den sites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why “Dwarf” Mongoose?

The name simply implies that they are the smallest of our Mongoose species of South Africa. Despite their size, they have adapted clever ways of protecting themselves from predation.

What is their social behaviour?

They will form mutualistic relationships with birds such as the hornbills where they will forage together. The hornbills will keep a lookout and in return, it gets fed by insects kicked up by the Mongoose on the ground. They live in a female-dominated society. A dominant female and her male consort, usually the oldest animals in the group, are the leaders of the group. The rest of the group is composed of family members, generally older offspring of the dominant pair. Each year the alpha female produces three litters of young, with two to four infants in each litter. The young of the dominant female is second in the group’s social system, tended for and cosseted by subordinate members. However, this status is immediately lost upon the arrival of a new litter. The babysitters, who guard and defend the young, often change during the day so that individuals may forage for food.

 

 

 

 

How to identify them?

They are stocky, with a fairly short, pointed muzzle and a long, fluffy tail. Their fur colour varies but they are usually speckled brown, reddish, or greyish.

Where can I find them?

They can be found in a variety of habitats ranging from forests and woodlands to semi-arid areas.

 

 

 

Next time out in the Bush keep your eyes peeled and you might just get to see a Dwarf Moongoose.

Story by Ranger Tristan – Photos by Ranger Mike Brown – Southern Camp