Proper exploration, adding the Pel’s Fishing Owl to the Chadian list

Adding a new bird to a country list is, in the birding-world at least, a pretty big deal – but this is precisely what Alex Edwards and I did on our recent recce of Zakouma National Park in Chad.

And what a bird to do it with... New additions are often vagrants, disorientated individuals blown off-course and taking shelter from the storm in some hitherto unvisited place, never to be seen again once the weather clears. And if not lost, they are most likely to be a miserably-drab little fellow that looks identical to all the other birds for several pages of the book, but makes a slightly different tweet or whose lesser coverts are just a little fainter. Or worse, it could be an invasive exotic such as a House Sparrow or Myna which are colonising wild places and pushing out the natural incumbents.

The Pel's Fishing Owl is none of these. It is cinnamon colossus with five-foot wingspan and a bird that has adapted uniquely to its environment, forgoing the silent flight feathers of other owls (because fish can not hear them coming) and evolving spiky scales on the bottom of their naked feet (as Osprey and Fish Eagles have) to help them grip their slippery prey and minimise the amount of plumage they get wet.

Residing in the riverine woodlands of some of the most beautiful rivers in Africa the Pel's Fishing Owl has become one of the most sought-after birds in the world. More often heard than seen, its call famously described as "like a lost soul falling in to a bottomless pit" (you know the sound?), a particularly obliging individual posed patiently in a Borassus Palm as we were exploring the stunning Bahr Salamat on foot, having fly-camped on the river the previous evening (and where I finally saw an Egyptian Plover, a wader like no other and a bird that I have lusted after for 30 years, but that is another story).

It is always a pleasure to see a Pel's, particularly in the daylight when its fabulous colouration is not bleached out by the lamp, but to be honest we did not realise quite how important this sighting was at the time. Before departing I had done a fair amount of research on what might occur and had noticed that Pel's did not feature so assumed that it was not there, because despite being secretive, it is large, loud and almost impossible to misidentify. Suspecting that it could be a new record for the Park I consulted the excellent Field Guide to the Birds of Western Africa and realised that the distribution map for Pel's excluded all of Chad, so I then checked the official list only to find that the Pel's was not there, a few of e-mails to a couple of authorities were sent and confirmation duly received that this is indeed a new record for the country.

So what does it take for a record to be accepted? Not long ago a specimen was required, this led to the infamous case of a Ross's Turaco being shot when it popped up in the Okavango in 1974 and unsurprisingly, given the hostile reception, this stunning bird has never been seen there since. Fortunately these days photographs are accepted, or even field notes with a description from a reliable witness and interestingly an increasing number of species are being added to national lists that have never been seen in-country as satellite telemetry proves categorically that they visit.

In our case photography (that is the very owl above) and reliable witnesses was not a problem given that we were a group of guides who have each spent much of the last quarter-century in perfect Pel's habitat.

In short we were lucky, most of life is luck isn't it? but what this record really tells us is two things, firstly how well protected Zakouma is - the Pel's is a sensitive species that needs fish-rich rivers and is extremely vulnerable to overfishing or poisoning. More importantly it shows just how wild and unexplored Zakouma is.

There are very few places remaining that you can go on a week-long safari and add a species to the Country, or even a National Park, list - but the chances are good that this will be repeated in Zakouma, as long as African Parks continue their incredible work to protect the area - and not just with more birds but also mammals, plants and insects.

To contribute to the knowledge of a wild place in quite so spectacular style is a rare treat indeed and the perfect illustration of what there is still to discover in Chad.

If you're interested in visiting Chad we can help, beginning in early 2016 Rod Tether will be leading a small number of trips Zakouma. Drop him an e-mail on [email protected] if you would like to find out more.

Posted by: Rod Tether

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