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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
The Sokoke Scops Owl Nest Quest
Alison Cameron — in East Africa Project    Share

When I met Munir Virani a few years ago at the University of Leicester, I had a feeling that our paths would cross again, so I filed his business card away carefully. At that time I had no idea how I might end up in Kenya again, but Kenya is one of those countries that brings people back to it and I had a feeling that this was a genuine “Kenya coincidence.”

Fate played its hand and I met Munir later that year at the Pan African Ornithological Conference in Kampala. After chatting for a while with Munir, he told me that he was looking for someone to work on the Sokoke Scops Owl. In particular, he wanted someone to try to find its nest. I was looking for just such an excuse for not returning to the UK and it was far too good an opportunity to miss. I have always been interested in owls and this project sounded exciting.

The Sokoke Scops Owl is a tiny, secretive owl which was only discovered as late as 1965 in the Arabuko Sokoke Forest in Kenya. It is possible that the owl used to exist all along the East African coast. However, the coastal forests have rapidly disappeared due to timber extraction, and the last remnants are now under threat from titanium mining, pressure for agricultural land, and illegal timber extraction for domestic construction and the carving industry. A small, remnant, population was found in the Usambaras in Tanzania in 1992 but the Sokoke population (approximately 1,000 pairs) is thought to be the only population big enough to be sustainable in the long term. Due to its low numbers, its limited distribution and the threats to its habitat, the Sokoke Scops Owl is classified as Globally Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Without hesitating I offered to do the work. I was jubilant and couldn’t wait to start. In the few months before starting I thought a lot about the project and worried about several things, I had not caught or handled an owl before, I had not radio tracked before, but most of all I wondered if I would be scared in the forest in the dark? This might sound silly to some people, but I’m sure others will sympathise. People's comments ranged from “Oh, owls are so cute!” to “that forest is full of very venomous snakes,” “the Arabuko elephants are very troublesome – don’t get close to them” and “don’t the locals worship spirits in there?” None of these stories did anything to settle my mind. I have often walked in the dark but I was aware that this project would be taking me right off the beaten track and into the densest parts of the forest.

Worries aside, I soon found myself whizzing down the coast road and introducing myself to the forest station employees. I had an exceptional welcome from the employees of Kenya Wildlife Service and the Forestry Department. Everyone seemed interested in the project and offered assistance and advice. After that we regularly exchanged greetings and progress reports in the early mornings when my team was returning home to sleep and the forest station staff were arriving to work. My team varied in size tremendously, I employed Wellington Kombe (Willy) as my full time field assistant. He had been Munir’s assistant in 1993 and has since built up a tremendous knowledge of the owl’s behaviour by taking tourists out to view them at night. To begin with we worked during the day with three “casuals” to cut and clear Munir’s previous study grid. In one week we cleared and labelled 11km of trails in a 1km square. This was tiring work and we were so desperate to get it finished that we worked through the heat each day and did not spend a night in the forest until after we’d completed it.

Finally the night work started. The first thing we had to do was catch an owl. We cut net lanes in the forest, equipped ourselves with a “flute,” (in the UK we call these recorders, it’s common for children to learn these in primary school) and our ringing gear. I was sceptical at first about the flute, but Willy and Colin Jackson can imitate the owls call perfectly with it. On this first night Jeff Davies also accompanied us, as he and Colin were there to train me in aspects of handling and ringing owls. The flute worked, within half an hour we had called a bird from about 250m away and it was circling us. We all lay very, very still in the leaf litter, hidden in dense vegetation, while Willy crept from one side of the net to the other. The owl followed him getting lower each time. Each time it crossed the top of the net we all lay there thinking “It’s not going in! Please let it go in!” Finally it perched on top of one of the poles and I thought “OK, now it knows the nets there, the games up, we might as well go home.” But, before I could think of anything else it flew vertically down, straight into a pocket in the net! Suddenly people erupted from bushes all over the place trying to quietly curb their jubilation so as not to frighten the tiny bird. I couldn’t believe our luck! I also couldn’t believe how soft and beautiful the little owl was.

We all sat in a hushed circle passing ringing equipment back and forward. “Weight 49g” - “it must be almost all feathers!” “Bill length 15.4mm” - “isn’t it cute the way it bites! It’s not strong enough to even nip properly!” “Talon length 7.9mm” - “Let go of my sweater you little Jigger!” Jigger is a Colin Jackson expletive. Who could ever curse properly at a Sokoke Scops Owl!

The attachment of the radio tracking device was a tricky and time consuming affair. The little back pack (two lengths of soft office rubber band threaded and glued through the transmitter and tied round each wing so the knots were also on the birds back) had to be tied on with great care so as not to impede the bird’s wing movement. It was dark, so we were working by torch light and it had such a thick layer of downy feathers that it was very difficult to see how tight we were tying it. We were finally happy with the fit and the last job was to put a little glue on each knot to secure it. This requires a good deal of accuracy and a good hold on the bird as if you miss, or if it flaps around, then you could super-glue all its feathers into hard lumps! The owl, and the detail of the work, kept us entranced for 45 minutes.

Once we finished we all admitted we didn’t want to let it go, but we knew we had to keep contact and handling to a minimum. So, we all turned our torches off to let its eyes adjust to the dark, otherwise it might fly straight into a tree trunk! It sat perfectly still on my palm for about ten minutes. I started to worry in case there was something wrong. Its eventual departure was totally silent. First I felt its tiny talons push down on the palm of my hand and then the brief breeze told me it had flown off.

As it seemed to fly well, we all went back to the Land Rover for coffee and biscuits. The mood was a mixture of sheer triumph and amazement. I looked back through my ringing notes a few days later and found “very cute” written in the comments section. It was Colin's hand writing, and upon questioning he said, “Did I write that? I suppose I must have.” He looked a touch embarrassed. Colin is a qualified ringing instructor with years of experience of birds in the hand, and his scribbled break with convention verifies in my mind how unique and special these little owls really are!

From this point the night work took on a routine of radio tracking each owl until the transmitter would fall off. The backpack system is designed to fall off in a few weeks as the rubber bands degrade and break. This is to save the owls the stress of being recaptured to remove the backpacks. However, these owls usually live in pairs and preen each other regularly, and on at least one occasion we think that the partner owl helped to remove the radio tracker prematurely during a preening session. We found the transmitter all chewed up on the ground beneath the roosting pair.

Whenever a transmitter came off we would have to spend a few nights mist-netting to capture another owl. It also appears that once they have been caught they “get wise” and become almost impossible to catch a second time. We were indeed very lucky that first night, as on most other occasions it took us several nights of calling and waiting to tempt each owl into our nets. Often I would fall asleep in the leaf litter to the repetitive tones of Willy “chatting” to a pair of owls on the recorder. Willy must have amazing lung capacity as he was able to puff away on the recorder for hours. The capture work was the most relaxing and sociable work as people were keen to assist with putting up the nets and a regular group of helpers would come along and camp out on the road near the Land Rover, taking it in turns to come to the net for an hour or two, and to sleep. There was no chance for anyone to be scared of the dark on those evenings.

The radio tracking work was very different to the mist-netting. For the first few weeks Willy and I worked alone, until we managed to raise interest among the other forest guides. On the nights that Willy and I worked alone we really battled against sleep. After that I would work with just one or two assistants while the other assistants would camp out near the Land Rover. I would take them in turns to help me so that they could each sleep for a few hours per night.

The radio transmitters we attached to the owls emit a pulse of signal every second and, using our aerial and receiver equipment, we would take bearings on the owl from labelled locations around our network of paths, moving as fast as possible between readings to get as accurate a “fix” as possible. Basically, two or three bearings are sketched on a map of the study grid and where the lines cross represents the owl’s location. We would do this for periods of one hour and then we’d have a coffee if we were near the Land Rover, or we’d rest for an hour in the leaf litter. We usually walked between 6 and 8 kilometres per night while radio tracking. Most of this was along our narrow paths in our study grid, or we occasionally used a more irregular grid of elephant paths outside our 1km square plot if the owls moved outside it.

The reason The Peregrine Fund has funded this work on the Sokoke Scops Owl is that very little information exists about the species. Munir Virani conducted the first intensive study of the species in 1993 but Sokoke Scops Owl data is hard won and he was unable to find a nest. Any new information should help in understanding why the species is endangered and could assist in deciding how to manage the forest in favour of the owls. There have only been a small number of reliable records of fledglings and from these we speculated that January to April would be the most likely time to find a nest. However, it is also likely that these small birds respond very opportunistically to rain, and Kenya’s regular seasons have disintegrated into irregular and random droughts and rains over the last few years as a result of extensive deforestation.

In March, after six weeks of field work, we captured and radio tracked an owl and found it roosting in a threesome with two other owls. The third owl was a fairly large juvenile which must have fledged at about the time of the start of our work. We did not observe any other juveniles during the project but some of the forest guides reported seeing juveniles in December, so it is possible that many of the owls had bred earlier and had finished by the time we started. We found it frustrating that we could not find a nest. However, we did gather a lot of data which can be compared with Munir's data from 1993 and we got many other interesting results. We recaptured an individual owl called Sandy that Munir had ringed in 1993. This 7.5 year capture interval is the first evidence we have to support our guess that this is a relatively long lived species. We also radio tracked Sandy and discovered that he still maintains exactly the same home range as he did in 1993. We ringed five more owls, from four more pairs in the study site, which paves the way for gathering more information on the dynamics of the pairs and the life spans of the owls. We also collected feathers from each individual that we caught, to add to Munir’s DNA specimen collection; this increases the possibilities for future genetics research on the species.

In addition to the radio tracking, we regularly checked possible nest holes. We inspected hundreds of low level holes, and we also spent a lot of time with our ears pressed up against potential trees listening to see if we could hear any scratching or shuffling sounds inside. If we could hear anything we would then climb up to examine the higher holes. We used a torch bulb on a long flexible cable and a mirror on a bent stick to look inside. Two of the common tree species Brachylaena huillensis and Cynometra weberri, are riddled with holes. There must be several thousands of holes in our 1km square study grid, and possibly only seven nests per year, so it’s perhaps no surprise that we had no success with this strategy.

The coastal people love drumming and almost every night we could hear drums in the distance. Willy could tell what kind of occasion they were celebrating from the different beats. We would rest wherever the owl took us. The forest varied between being very hot and humid in which case we slept in shorts and T-shirt on the leaf litter, and very cold which actually required a sweater and sometimes a sleeping bag. It rained on us occasionally, but never heavily so we would usually just go to sleep in the drizzle. Leaf litter is surprisingly comfortable.

In the later stages of the work, when we were all getting tired and the nocturnal lifestyle had totally confused our body clocks, we would often doze off and wake up completely disorientated wondering which way we had come. Fortunately we had compasses and a GPS to keep us on track. As we walked around the forest we would often cross paths with four-toed elephant shrews busying about in the undergrowth, and quite frequently we walked right up to duikers as they stood dazzled in the beams of our head torches. On several occasions elephants wandered into our study grid and put a stop to our work. We would have to sit quietly in the darkness waiting for them to leave the area. As elephants are very dangerous we did not try, nor want, to see them but we could hear their grunts and trees being pushed over very close to us, and we could smell them. On one occasion we were surrounded by a very large herd and it sounded like they were destroying hectares of forest, yet when we surveyed the damage at dawn there was little sign of them except steaming piles of dung.

Arabuko Sokoke Forest is a very different place at night, but in contrast to my expectations I didn’t find it at all scary, we didn’t see any snakes, and there were very few mosquitoes or nuisance insects. It was a truly amazing and fascinating experience and one I think all biologists would enjoy.

One morning Colin decided to come and meet us in the forest so that he could use the mist-nets that we already set up for catching owls for some ringing training. We caught and ringed a handful of forest birds and as day was breaking, and just as we were starting to yawn and say we thought it was time for bed, I heard Willy shout “Ndovo” This means elephant. Sure enough, we stood there and watched three elephants walk right past the far end of our nets! They were so close that I actually thought they were going to walk into the nets, which I’m sure would have caused a huge fuss.

Forest mammals, particularly the elephants, are very shy and difficult to see, but on these early morning drives we regularly saw the golden-rumped elephant shrew flashing across the road, we also saw elephants one more time and caracal three times. Arabuko Sokoke is also famous for its butterfly diversity, and as the sun gains strength large clouds of them gather and circle on the road, surrounding vehicles in whirling, colourful clouds. These daily drives were the most wonderful commutes to and from work that I’ve ever had to make. I have happy memories of driving home through the forest on Sunday mornings with my field team singing Swahili hymns in the back of the Land Rover in preparation for church. I was accommodated in a lovely guest house, owned by an elderly lady called Barbara Simpson, on Watamu Beach and my nights work would end with pancakes for breakfast and a lovely dip in the Indian Ocean, I’d then fall sound asleep under a quietly spinning fan.

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