There are some bird species that even an avid birder may never see, perhaps because their numbers are restricted or they occur in difficult terrain. One such species is the African Grass Owl Tyto capensis, classified as Vulnerable in South Africa, with a declining population.
Not only do these owls inhabit very dense grassland in wetlands, but they are also fully nocturnal. The Marsh Owl often shares similar habitat, but because it generally starts hunting in the late afternoon and continues into the early morning, it is seen quite frequently. The Grass Owl, on the other hand, only takes to the wing once it is dark, so sightings of this bird are rare. It is thus an incredible honor to head up a research project on this elusive and threatened owl.
In 2007 the Greater Kyalami Conservancy, or GEKCO, was established in Midrand, Gauteng. It was set up because it had been recognized that many vulnerable species in the area were at risk in the face of ongoing development. In 2013 an application to build on a known Grass Owl breeding site came under threat when a specialist arrived to document the owls for the formal objection. However, a fire deliberately started by unknown individuals destroyed the site and the Grass Owls were famously photographed escaping the blaze (see African Birdlife July/August 2016). The publicity surrounding this incident ignited a need to study and protect the remaining Grass Owl breeding sites in the area and at the same time educate landowners and developers about protecting the wetland habitat and in turn all the species that depend on it.
GEKCO joined forces with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and a study protocol was set up. A survey team set about identifying potential breeding sites and has been documenting them ever since. Every year at the beginning of the breeding season it finds out where owls are present and whether there are any active nest sites. If nest sites are discovered, the team monitors the locations to see whether eggs have been laid. If there are eggs, it returns to the site when they are due to hatch to see how many chicks have been produced. >
The EWT study protocol includes ringing the chicks with a SAFRING band and a coloured and numbered band on the opposite leg. In some quarters it was argued that to ring strictly nocturnal birds was short-sighted, but the primary reasons for ringing are to determine where the birds disperse to and to establish age and other data if they are recorded again in the same area. In-flight, the African Grass Owl’s legs trail past the edge of the tail feathers – a diagnostic feature – so often the rings can be seen or photographed.
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