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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 28

From Issue No 28

Who-who-who are you?

 

African Wood-owl – Strix woodfordii (Afrikaans: Bosuil)

 

The African Wood-owl is a small to medium owl found mainly in well-wooded bush and forests, also along streams and even in towns with big gardens. It is absent from most of the sparsely-treed interior, occurring only along the coast from the Helderberg, through Knysna, KwaZulu-Natal and the Lowveld further north into Africa.

It is strictly nocturnal, only seldom calling in late afternoon. The Wood-owl often sits against the main trunk of a tree, or in the thick branches, and will remain sitting like that even should one approach to within a few metres. After sunset they become active, and call often – a beautifully musical call sounding like “Who-who, who-who-who are you?” They nest in hollow tree trunks or branches, mostly low down but sometimes up to 10 metres above ground. They live as territorial pairs and produce one or two eggs.

They catch mice, small birds and frogs, but their main menu consists of insects such as locusts and crickets – which are sometimes caught in flight – and centipedes and caterpillars.

The Wood-owl is difficult to describe for purposes of identification, as its markings differ greatly between individual birds. All one can say is that they have stripes and spots – it is best to look at pictures! What will help with identification, is the fact that the Wood-owl has no ear-tufts and the facial disc resembles a pair of almost perfectly round spectacles.

Wherever we have lived we put up hollow logs near the house to attract owls, hoopoes and barbets. When we moved to the Helderberg Nature Reserve, the first thing we did was to put up a hollow log with an opening of about 20 cm on the side and one on the top. It was in a big pine tree on the edge of the plantation about 20 metres from our kitchen door. The log was attached to the main trunk about four metres above ground.

About five days later my wife Ella came running in and called me. There was an owl sitting in the nest hole! I immediately sneaked up between the trees with binoculars and to my surprise and joy there was a Wood-owl in the nest.

At first I was worried that the resident pair of Spotted Eagle-owls would chase them away, but all went well. The Wood-owls laid two eggs, hatched two young and we could observe the whole operation from our back stoep. When the chicks were ten days old we put up a hide, well hidden with pine branches. The birds took no notice of it. At the time Wicus Leeuwner, now a well-known farmer, photographer and conservationist of the Overberg, was the deputy engineer at the Somerset West Municipality. He told me he had always been very interested in birds and would very much like to take up bird photography. I told him that there was no time like the present and he should get a suitable camera straight away. Then I told him we had just put up a hide at a Wood-owl nest. Forty minutes later Wicus was the proud owner of a new camera complete with long lens. At sunrise the next day, a Saturday, we set him up in the hide with everything, including a flash.

I still cannot believe what I saw that morning. I was in a hide on the ground about ten metres away, just to observe the proceedings. The bird flew to the nest, Wicus pressed the shutter button, and the flash went off at the moment the bird was about to land: Wicus had taken his first bird picture, which turned out to be a total winner. I told him that he had now set himself a very high standard which he would have to live up to.

To be able to photograph nocturnal owls at night, one has to have some light set up. So we took a chance and laid a cable from the kitchen, then put a shaded bulb up, one metre above the nest. The birds accepted it. Then we found we had done the birds a great favour – the light attracted insects by the hundreds. The insects came – moths, praying mantises, crickets, etc. – and the birds set up a shuttle service from the nest to the light, and brought in all the food they could want.

We left the light on every night until the chicks fledged. Interestingly, about a kilometre away, another pair of Wood-owls had a nest in the opening on the top of a hollow gate post. One day they brought in two olive thrush chicks, already well feathered, about twelve days old. They lay in the nest all day and only the next night the whole family must have fed on them. These must be the biggest prey a wood owl has ever brought in.

If you live along the coast, this is a lovely bird to have in your garden – another reason to plant more trees!

 

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Two Wood-owl chicks waiting for supper in the opening of the nest hole

Two Wood-owl chicks waiting for supper in the opening of the nest hole

The male African Wood-owl arriving with an African giant shrew

The male parent arriving with an African giant shrew

After the mother had arrived with a second shrew and the chicks had managed to eat the substantial meal, they fall asleep on their perch

After the mother had arrived with a second shrew and the chicks had managed to eat the substantial meal, they fall asleep on their perch

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