Changing Planet

Abyssinian Owl Remains Elusive Amidst Beauty and Hardship on Mt Kenya

Mount Kenya is equal parts beautiful and brutal.  Amidst the moorlands, Lobelias rise like skyscrapers, and lacking competition from the other odd-ball assortment of plants in this “Planet of the Apes” landscape, they protrude like beacons marking your slow progress one agonizing step at a time.

Lobelia and other plants in the moorlands of Mt Kenya. Photo D. Ogada
Lobelia and other plants in the moorlands of Mt Kenya. Photo D. Ogada

At nearly 12,000 ft (3650 m), the only things moving swiftly are the clouds. They race up the valley to block the precious morning sunshine, the warmth of which can never be more appreciated in the tropics than in this high-altitude deep freeze.  When the sun doesn’t shine, the landscape and your optimism turns bleak. Rain falls often, unexpected and hard.

Paul Muriithi in the moorlands of Mt Kenya. Photo D. Ogada

Yet with each new morning, hope is renewed as the stunning vistas reappear from the blank darkness of night.  The moorlands offer a 360-degree view of magic.  The rocky peaks of Nelion and Batian jut from the snow white glaciers above 17,000 ft (5180 m).  Below lies an improbable tropical landscape of greens: Hagenia Forest, Giant Heath, and highland swamps, each resplendent in their own shouty hues.

Just like the bais of the Congo Basin, the swampy clearings of Mt Kenya attract animals, in this case buffaloes.  And it is here that work to find one of Africa’s rarest owls continues.

Buffalo in a swampy clearing on Mt Kenya. Photo D. Ogada
Buffalo in a swampy clearing on Mt Kenya. Photo D. Ogada

The Abyssinian owl Asio abyssinicus is rare, but it is not as rare as those determined to find and study it. In this case there is only one, Kenyan Paul Muriithi. Paul is as rare as the owls he studies because he is uniquely hardened to the extremes of subsisting and working on Mt Kenya while looking for a bird whose sole confirmed record in Kenya was in 1961.

Paul Muriithi and Ken Ngari searching for signs of the Abyssinian Owl on Mt Kenya. Photo D. Ogada
Paul Muriithi and Ken Ngari searching for signs of the Abyssinian Owl on Mt Kenya. Photo D. Ogada

Imagine searching for a medium-size brown owl in thick vegetation covering 178,000 acres (72,000 ha, bigger than the area of the city of Chicago).  Then imagine doing it at 12,000 feet, where your every step seemingly heralds “heart attack,” and the only thing between you and hypothermia is a cave-side campfire.  Drying boots and clothes becomes an hourly obsession.

While the climatic extremes deter all but the most obdurate hikers and climbers, it is apparently heaven on earth if you are a rodent.  They are the most ubiquitous furry or feathered beasts in this landscape.  They flit through your peripheral vision often enough to make you think you are going mad.  Every predator’s scat along the trail is filled with rodent remains.  So this should be an owl’s paradise.  But where to find them?

Abyssinian owl Asio abyssinicus, Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Photo M. Piazzi
Abyssinian owl Asio abyssinicus in Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Photo M. Piazzi

The search continues using camera traps and playing back recordings of calls of the closely related and presumably similar sounding Long-eared Owl Asio otus. Call-playback often elicits territorial hoots by otherwise invisible owls.  We hope these efforts will soon bear fruit.

Our work is not without a conservation purpose as these highland habitats are severely threatened by climate change.  In 2012 approximately 80 percent of the Heath Forest habitat around the Teleki Valley on Mt Kenya was destroyed during a prolonged fire.

Paul Muriithi and the author fixing a camera trap in Heath forest on Mt Kenya. Photo K. Ngari
Paul Muriithi and the author fixing a camera trap in Heath forest on Mt Kenya. Photo K. Ngari

This is also the assumed prime habitat of Abyssinian owls, making their already rare habitat that much rarer.

This owl knows few homes. Apart from its presumed relative stronghold in the highlands of Ethiopia, the only other populations are comprised of two small isolated populations, one on Mt Kenya and the other on the Rwenzori Mountains along the Albertine Rift in southwest Uganda and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

We believe this highland owl is losing ground, both literally and figuratively, and we hope our work will shed light on the important habitats and threats facing this little-known raptor.

We thank the African Bird Club for supporting this project.

Darcy Ogada is the Assistant Director of Africa Programs for The Peregrine Fund.  She is a National Geographic Explorer who has received two previous conservation research grants:  One to study the ecology and conservation of Mackinder’s Eagle Owls in central Kenya, and the second to conserve threatened vultures in northern Kenya. She continues to work extensively to conserve owls and vultures, and also to fight the scourge of wildlife poisoning.

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.
  • Joan Bass

    God bless you all.

  • Finola Walsh

    Fascinating subject .I love owls anyhow, but they are very scarce here .

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