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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
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.

Comments

  1. Rena Levi
    MI
    May 6, 2015, 8:21 am

    I agree with the other comments–appreciate this and worth all the effort.
    Thanks,
    Rena

  2. Heimo Mikkola
    Tihany, Lake Balaton, Hungary
    May 6, 2015, 5:35 am

    Darcy,
    Fantastic work you are doing in Kenya. Nice to see that exciting owl alive!
    Hope to be equally lucky in my search for Tihani Scops Owls which I was ment to study 1974 with a Finnish grant but my
    grant letter got lost. Now I am here with my own funds!
    Best regards,
    Heimo

  3. Dominic Kimani
    Kenya
    May 1, 2015, 2:10 am

    This is Worth effort. Thanks. To the brave team. I’m. Studying Sharpe’s Longclaw movements in those. Areas. Keep an eye too. Thanks.

  4. Keith Goins
    Ohio
    April 30, 2015, 7:03 pm

    Kudos to the photographers that work so hard ..Their efforts keep up awareness of what goes on in the world that so many people would lose sight of without those wonderful pic’s..Keep up the good work..

  5. Washington Wachira
    April 29, 2015, 5:58 am

    Excellent work, I hope to add some ‘extra luck’ next time,