Hidden Treasure Verreaux's Eagle-Owl
African Birdlife|March/April 2021
Despite being the largest owl species in the region and sporting characteristic bright pink eyelids, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls Bubo lacteus can be surprisingly difficult to find in the wild. It was a colleague of mine, Callum Evans, who first pointed out an eagle-owl nest to me on 1 August 2020 in Mawana Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal. I had seen an adult and a sub-adult in the vicinity a few days before and had thought there might be a nest somewhere, but I hadn’t been able to locate it.
Michael Henshall

There it was – unmistakable with its pink eyelids and fluffy ear tufts. That was all that could be seen of the Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl on the nest, but it was a dead giveaway of this huge species, considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. An old Wahlberg’s Eagle nest positioned securely in the fork of a marula tree had been utilised by this pair of owls. As we approached the nest from across the river, the two adults stopped their booming calls in a bid to not reveal the nest, the sitting bird and, potentially, the eggs.

For owls that have such a large home range (approximately 7000 hectares per pair in Limpopo; more research is required for KwaZulu-Natal), I was surprised that the birds would position their nest in such close proximity to human activity.

For the next few months I observed the nest as often as I could. I wanted to see when the chicks hatched, to hopefully witness their first flight and maybe even see when their adult plumage began to appear. Many times on my approach to the area, I would first encounter one of the adults and a subadult (the pair’s previous offspring). The two were always sitting in one of three trees, watching, guarding the nest from unwanted visitors. If I went early enough in the morning or later in the evening, I would again hear their contact calls, which were audible from more than two kilometres away. On one occasion I saw a giraffe and the incubating bird were suddenly eye to eye, neither apparently bothered by the encounter, although the giraffe definitely seemed to stare for a few minutes, perhaps somewhat bemused and assessing what it was looking at.

As time passed, the pair and their sub-adult offspring gradually appeared to become more habituated to my presence. I was able to get some great views of them and a number of times even saw them with prey. The eggs appeared to be taking a long while to hatch; as one of the adults covered the nest at all times I had no idea how many eggs there were in the clutch.

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