Elusive Abyssinian Owl Almost Confirmed on Mount Kenya Last Seen Fifty Years Ago

I love to hike and I even enjoy the occasional bush-whack. So it was with some excitement that my student Paul Muriithi asked me to accompany him for five days on Mt Kenya to search for the Abyssinian owl (aka the African long-eared owl). Though a pair can be observed in Bale Mountains, Ethiopia, the last confirmed Kenyan record of this species was in 1961. But how do you begin searching for an owl whose life history reads like an exposé of an FBI undercover operation: ‘few data’, ‘little information’, ‘nothing known’. That is where Paul first started in 2012, accompanied only by his tenacity and the occasional rampaging buffalo. Three years on, after losing three pairs of binoculars to buffaloes and bush-whacks, the search for this elusive owl has nearly been concluded.

We began our hike in the rain at 8100 ft (2470 m).

The team from L-R: Paul Muriithi, Darcy Ogada, Peter Wairasho and Ken Wagura. Photo B. Mugambi
The team from L-R: Paul Muriithi, Darcy Ogada, Peter Wairasho and Ken Wagura. Photo B. Mugambi
Signboard at 10,000 ft on Mt Kenya.  Photo by D. Ogada
Signboard at 10,000 ft on Mt Kenya. Photo by D. Ogada

Our destination the first night was camping at the Met Station where we dozed and froze to the screams of tree hyraxes and snorting buffaloes.

Peter and Paul hiking to our base camp.  Photo by D. Ogada
Peter and Paul hiking to our base camp. Photo by D. Ogada

Our packs were heavy, but the views were fantastic. The Aberdare Mountains are in the background.

Darcy and Paul collecting pellets. Photo by P. Wairasho.
Darcy and Paul collecting pellets. Photo by P. Wairasho.

We continued up to 12600 ft (3840 m) searching for pellets along the way.

Darcy looking for signs of the Abyssinian Owl. Photo by P. Wairasho.
Darcy looking for signs of the Abyssinian Owl. Photo by P. Wairasho.
The team on the move with the Aberdare Mountains in the background.  Note the burnt trees.  The Heath forest, the primary habitat of the owls, was extensively burnt in a forest fire in 2012.  Photo by D. Ogada
The team on the move with the Aberdare Mountains in the background. Note the burnt trees. The Heath forest, the primary habitat of the owls, was extensively burnt in a forest fire in 2012. Photo by D. Ogada
Of course there was always time for a selfie, with the peak of Mt Kenya in the background.
Of course there was always time for a selfie, with the peak of Mt Kenya in the background.
The third day proved a bit more challenging.  But excellent views of mating Peregrine Falcons made it worth the effort.  Photo by D. Ogada
The third day proved a bit more challenging. But excellent views of mating Peregrine falcons made it worth the effort. Photo by D. Ogada
Our cave campsite kept us dry, if not warm.  Photo by D. Ogada
Our cave campsite kept us dry, if not warm. Photo by D. Ogada
Heath habitat where we finally found a pair of owls.  Photo by D. Ogada
Heath habitat where we finally found a pair of owls. Photo by D. Ogada

Unfortunately, the owls managed to escape our camera lenses this time, so we were unable to positively confirm their identity, this time. The quest continues to document this extremely elusive and little known owl.

Abyssinian Owl in Ethiopia. Photo by M. Piazzi

With a small distribution, very few recent observations, and threats such as habitat destruction associated with climate change, this owl has a very uncertain future. Our immediate aim is to attract financial support in order to assess its population size in Ethiopia, Kenya and the Ruwenzori Mountains along the DR Congo-Uganda border. We suspect this owl should be listed on the IUCN Red List as Threatened, if not Endangered, which will help us to attract funding to ensure its long-term survival.

Paul Muriithi is studying Wildlife Management at the Kenya Wildlife Service Training Institute sponsored by The Peregrine Fund. The Peregrine Fund, T. Stevenson and J. Fanshawe sponsor Paul’s work on the Abyssinian Owl.

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Darcy has worked for The Peregrine Fund’s Africa Program since 2010 and is based in central Kenya. Most of her current work focuses on the conservation of vultures and owls. She is particularly passionate about ending the scourge of wildlife poisoning and stopping the illegal trafficking of owl eggs for belief-based uses in East Africa. Prior to joining The Peregrine Fund she undertook a post-doctoral fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution based at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya. She has studied Mackinder’s Eagle Owls in central Kenya and conducted other research on birds and rodents. She volunteered for the Peace Corps in Niger in 1995 and got her start studying wildlife as a Bald Eagle Nestwatcher for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. She came to Kenya in 2000 where she has lived ever since. Before moving to Kenya she was an avid skier and ice hockey player, now she spends her free time swimming, birding, and hiking and exploring Africa’s mountains with her son. She’s actively involved in a host of local conservation issues as a member of Nature Kenya’s Bird Committee and the Kenya Wildlife Service Bird Taskforce.