Botswana’s “Holy Grail” Bird Nesting in Camp: The Pel’s Fishing Owl

Mark Muller, an expert birder from Botswana, asserts that among avid birders in Southern Africa, there’s unanimous agreement on the most thrilling species to encounter: the Pel’s Fishing Owl, and we’re lucky enough to have a resident pair breeding at Camp Xakanaxa—a spectacular sighting for guests.

Photography: Andrew Macdonald

Photography: Andrew Macdonald

This majestic bird, revered as the “holy grail” of birding, bestows Botswana with its elusive presence and is deserving of its grand reputation. Typically reserved and secretive, they are notoriously difficult to find. Many birders have spent years searching for it without success.

Pel’s in Botswana are confined to the primary undisturbed wetlands and rivers of the region, primarily centred around the Okavango Delta in Northern Botswana. It’s estimated that only 100 to 120 breeding pairs reside in this vast area.

Remarkably, for the past three years, a single pair of Pel’s Fishing Owls has opted to nest in a tree located squarely within the public area of Camp Xakanaxa. This camp is positioned on the periphery of the Xakanaxa lagoon in the Moremi Game Reserve.

Two years ago, the birds successfully raised two chicks—an exceptional feat for this species. Typically, although two eggs are often laid, it’s rare for more than one chick to survive until the fledging stage.

*Fledging is when chicks develop wing feathers that are large enough for flight.

“We can only speculate about why this pair has chosen to nest in such a busy area of the camp. They may be attracted by the security the camp provides from marauding monkeys and baboons, which frequently raid their nest sites,” Muller says.

Regardless of the reason, guests visiting this camp between January and June, during the birds’ breeding season, have the rare opportunity to observe them up close as they breed and raise their chicks.

Outside of the breeding months, this feathered family are frequently spotted using the canopy of trees that shade the camp as their resting ground, and the channel in front of the lodge as their dining area at night.

Is a sighting guaranteed? As with all wild things, unfortunately not. But, Pel’s Fishing Owls are known for their longevity and frequently revisit the same nesting site year after year.

“Hopefully, this is what this pair of birds will choose to do and guests visiting this lovely camp will have the unique opportunity to see these great birds going about their lives for many more years to come,” Muller adds.

Photography: Andrew Macdonald

It’s truly remarkable, or perhaps astonishing, to witness these magnificent birds living their day-to-day, or rather, night-to-night, lives amid camp life.

Get to Know the Pel’s Fishing Owl: 

  1. Elusive Nature: Pel’s Fishing Owls are elusive predators, making them a sought-after sighting for birdwatchers due to their rare appearances.
  2. Diverse Diet: These owls primarily feed on fish but also consume amphibians, crustaceans, and occasionally small mammals.
  3. Distinctive Call: Recognisable by their distinct “whoo-hoo-hoo” call, Pel’s Fishing Owls’ vocalisations echo over Botswana’s rivers and wetlands, especially during dawn and dusk.
  4. Courtship Behaviour: Male Pel’s Fishing Owls may offer food to females as a display of care and provisioning during courtship.
  5. Bond Strengthening: Once paired, Pel’s Fishing Owls engage in mutual displays, including head bobbing, feather puffing, and grooming, to reinforce their bond.
  6. Nesting Habits: These monogamous birds often return to the same nesting site yearly, typically laying two eggs per breeding season, although only one chick usually survives to the fledging stage.
  7. Parental Care: After successful courtship, females lay eggs in chosen nest sites, with both parents sharing incubation duties. This shared responsibility strengthens the pair’s bond and ensures offspring survival.
  8. Longevity: Pel’s Fishing Owls are known for their long lifespan, with captive birds living up to 20 years or more. In their natural habitat, they may live similarly, if not longer, despite facing various challenges.
  9. Night Hunting Abilities: Adapted for nocturnal hunting, these owls have large eyes for enhanced night vision and silent flight feathers for a stealthy approach to prey.
  10. Habitat Preference: Found near permanent water sources like rivers, lakes, and lagoons, Pel’s Fishing Owls thrive in Botswana’s wetlands, including the Okavango Delta and Chobe River, due to their ideal habitat conditions.