Jao, Botswana

Paging Mr. Pel



Ilana Stein


Ah, the Pel’s fishing-owl. One of the birding world’s holy grails, one of its ultimate lifers. The Pel’s is a large owl of reddish colour who, yes, fishes for a living. Being an owl, he does this at night. But it is his large liquid chocolate eyes that seem to see into the soul, that makes him otherworldly, capture one’s imagination; merely the photo can create the desire to see this otherworldly being. He only lives in certain areas which also adds to the allure.


I’ve seen the Pel’s twice before – both after a tremendous search at Pafuri in Kruger. But that didn’t stop the desire for another sighting, especially as I had been told that there was one that lived around Jao Camp on the island. So from the moment I arrived, I made sure that everyone from guide MT to barman MJ knew that that was what I wanted to see. Never mind the lions.




But like the elusive Mr Mistoffelees of Cats, Mr Pel’s was there one moment and then he was gone! He had been seen last week at Suite no. 4, and a few days back at Villa no.1… On our first evening, I was woken by his call at 2:00 in the morning and went searching for him on the boardwalk, with only the munching of lechwe and frosty stars for company. The next night, there was not even a peep (if you’ll pardon the pun) as he remained annoyingly out of reach.


On our last morning, I was having a massage (as one does at Jao – the spa rooms are surrounded by glass, then a small stream and then shaded and kept private by palms and other lush greenery, so you lie there in the dim green light, with birds of all sorts hopping in the stream… but I digress), when I decided to complain to Joanna, the spa angel, that I had wanted to see a Pel’s but was on my way out without having done so. She informed me that they’re always in the trees next to the spa. But before I could get all huffy about that, she continued: “I find that this bird is odd. Those that look for it often don’t find it. While those who let it go and don’t stress over it – they’re the ones who do.” Blinding insight I realised. And I resolved to let go – the sense of peace mirroring the unwinding of the tension in my shoulders that her massage was achieving.

Emerging for breakfast, we were informed that we’d missed the wild dogs bounding through camp, killing an impala on their way. Huh. We tried not to be miff about it and went off to watch Jackson, known officially as General Bushman, strut his stuff: with his wizened face and toothless grin he seems to be about 104 years old, but regardless, he loves sharing his culture with others, he dances with verve, and he plays a mean marimba.


As we returned, we saw Dickinson’s kestrel and lappet-faced vulture – both great and not so common sightings of the avian kind, with the latter feeding on bits of the wild dog leftovers. I wasn’t even thinking of the other bird that had infested my mind for the past two days when the radio crackled. It was Joanna radioing us to come back to camp immediately as she had the owl!


I began to laugh. And didn’t stop as we bumped back, hurried towards the spa and there at the top of a mangosteen was the orange phantom. He glared down at us obligingly for a while and then we backed off so as to let him get on with being an owl and not an Ilana attraction. Back in the main area it was as if I had won a race, everyone high-fiving me and me hugging Joanna.


It seems she was right. If you let go….

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