Nocturnal Boat Trip To See Fishing Owl, Night Heron And Company

18 Feb 2020

Dirk Heinrich 

It is an exceptional experience to see Namibia's largest owl – the Fishing Owl, also known as Pel's Fishing Owl. This shy and endangered bird of prey, which weighs more than two kilograms, only occurs at the Kavango River in the Bwabwata and Mahangu national parks, as well as at the Kwando, Linyanti and Chobe rivers, and along the Zambezi River where large trees with dense foliage line the banks. As its name suggests, this owl feeds on fish, but it also catches frogs and small crocodiles. 

Curt Sagell’s Caprivi Houseboat Safari Lodge near Katima Mulilo in the Zambezi Region is the only lodge which offers nocturnal boat trips to find and observe Fishing Owls. Safe for nights with a full moon, and two to three days before and after, the bird expert is successful in his quest almost every time. Sometimes a Fishing Owl turns up at the lodge and sits in the illuminated tree at the mooring. 

The idea to go looking for Fishing Owls on nocturnal boat trips came up in 2011 shortly after Sagell had become the owner of the lodge and the children wanted to see such an owl. That evening he spotted four Fishing Owls, probably two juveniles and two adult birds. Since then, on request, he hosts night cruises of around one hour. He uses a handheld spotlight to search the banks for the big brown bird – mostly with success. 

Usually not only Fishing Owls are discovered on these excursions but also the rather rare White-backed Night Heron, which is nocturnal like the owl, or one of the equally rare African Finfoots that spend the night in trees just a few meters above the water. 

And then there are the crocodiles which can be spotted in the Zambezi River during the nocturnal cruise. Curt Sagell sometimes manages to catch a very young reptile so that his guests can have a really close look. During the day one doesn’t get that close to the reptiles. Occasionally there is also the gleam of hippo eyes on the water surface and the snorting of the pachyderms can be heard. 

Curt Sagell has observed over 400 bird species at and around the Caprivi Houseboat Safari Lodge. Insiders know that the very rare Yellow-throated Bulbul can sometimes be seen at the lodge, or the Yellow-spotted Nicator, and Arnot's Chat in the vicinity. Sagell conducts day tours to watch this rare species. 

In Namibia the Fishing Owl is classified as critically endangered. According to estimates only around 120 of these owls are left here. The population of White-backed Night Heron is probably less than 500, but research is insufficient. The African Finfoot is also classified as endangered in Namibia. It is believed that fewer than 100 of the birds can be found here. The number of Arnot's Chats in Namibia is unknown. Experts say that research should be done on the Arnot's Chat population and that the species should be classified as endangered.

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