A spotted eagle-owl (Bubo africanus) stoops down to stare at me, ear tufts combed back in the wind. I’ve encountered this individual about one every three days for the last few months. It likes to perch on the roof of my house right above the door, as well as our outdoor furnace from about 11pm to 3am. Owls are the stealthiest of nocturnal fauna around the world. Even the leopards and genets that slink around and gaze at me from the shadows are in turn being watched from above by the owls. This owl is bold in darkness, though shy when detected. When the owl doesn’t perceive that I’ve noticed it, the owl simply remains still and tracks my movement attentively. While walking around, I’ve spotted it several times just sitting two meters away from me at eye level, and the moment I stopped or turned to see the owl, it would glide away without making a sound. Last night I was lucky to approach the owl directly in the dim light of the full moon and quickly snap a photo before it made a retreat.
Spotted eagle-owls are one of nine species of owls that occur at Mpala. I’ve also seen the “pink-eyelided” Verreaux’s eagle-owl (Bubo lacteus) and the classic barn owl (Tyto alba), but none of them hunting so far. Spotted eagle-owls are one of the smallest of the eagle-owls. They stand a foot and a half tall, but have a wingspan that stretches over a meter. Like most owls they prefer to prey on rodents, most commonly gerbils (Taterillus harringtoni & Gerbilliscus robustus), pouched mice (Saccostomus mearnsi), rock rats (Aethomys hindei), thicket rats (Grammomys dolichurus), dormouse (Graphiurus microtis) and elephant shrews (Elephantulus rufuscens), but I’ve been waiting too long to see a puff adder clutched in its talons.
The Verreaux’s eagle owl (Bubo lacteus) is Africa’s largest species of owl, standing around two feet tall with a 4.5 foot wingspan. The most curious characteristic of this owl is its conspicuous pink eyelids. The function of this unusual trait is unknown as far as I’m aware, although some authors have proposed a potential use in breeding displays. If that is the case, a courtship sequence involving ‘winks’ or closing of the eyes would be so strange to witness. I approached this individual from behind an embankment, concealing myself as best I could. As I peered over to climb up towards the tree, the owl immediately took flight. It soared silently away, accompanied by an adamant slate-colored boubou (Laniarius funebris) that followed the owl in hot pursuit, presumably defending a nearby nest.