Hooting for clues: Sokoke Scops Owls in Dakatcha Woodlands

Any of you who are familiar with the bird research done here at A Rocha Kenya will have heard of the Sokoke Scops Owl.  This charismatic little bird is globally endangered and only found in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and the Usumbara Mountains of northern Tanzania.  At least, that’s what you’ll read in the bird books, however…

A Sokoke Scops Owl which we followed from 4am until 7am, when I managed to snap this!

A beautiful Sokoke Scops Owl which we followed from 4am until 7am, when I managed to snap this!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the main population of Africa’s smallest owl resides in Arabuko, we have been monitoring a small population in Dakatcha Woodlands, a little-known area to the north west of Malindi.  Since 2006, A Rocha Kenya has employed Gabriel Katana – a lifelong resident of the area and a core member of the Dakatcha Woodlands Conservation Group – to conduct transects through the forest in an attempt to keep tabs on the Sokoke Scops Owl population.  It is a population that faces dire threats in the form of un-restricted charcoal burning and land clearance for pineapple plantations, both of which totally destroy the Cynometra forest in which the owls live exclusively.

An example of the destruction left behind by charcoal burning.

An example of the destruction left behind by charcoal burning.

ARK is in the process of purchasing a plot of 2-300 acres of land in the Dakatcha Woodland at a location called Kirosa, with funds donated very generously by the Bob Scott Appeal.  The aim is to secure a patch of forest in which the Sokoke Scops Owls and other wildlife will thrive, away from the human disturbance and to work with the local community to help them improve their living conditions in sustainable ways and thus reducing their ecological impact.

Since early November I have been helping Katana in his efforts to survey the ARK plot and the forest surrounding it for Sokoke Scops Owls.  It is very important for us to get an idea of the size and density of such a delicately balanced population of this endangered species, particularly if ARK has the opportunity to protect more of the Dakatcha woodland in the future.

So, what sort of work is involved with monitoring this population?  It’s just counting, right?  How hard can it be…?

When you take into account that, like most owls, the Sokoke Scops Owls are entirely nocturnal, the task becomes a little more tricky.  Add to this the tiny size of the birds (only about 15cm tall – the smallest owl in Africa!), their camouflage plumage, their penchant for living in some of the densest forest available, and you start to get the picture.  The answer?  We don’t look for them, we listen.

I have been living in my tent, pitched in the middle of Katana’s village within the remote area of Kirosa, and experiencing first hand some of the hardships  of village life, shortage of decent drinking water being the main worry.  Despite having next-to-nothing, the people here are some of the most generous and welcoming I have ever come across, making my stay here an experience I will never forget.

Home in Kirosa.

Home in Kirosa.

On a typical “work” night, Katana and I set off as darkness falls.  Kirosa is located on the southwest edge of the woodland, and is not far from the main patch of Cynometra trees.  Katana carefully guides the little motorbike along our hazardous commute, ducking overhanging thorny branches, navigating steep slippery valleys and avoiding the many cavernous trenches that line our path.  I’m just thankful that my only job is to not fall off; we’ve had a few hairy moments in the last couple of months!

When we get to the forest, we begin walking on one of our mapped out transects, using a GPS to navigate the paths through the trees, which are mostly a length of about 2-3km.  Our method is to stop every 200m and imitate the Sokoke Scops Owls’ soft hooting call, then listen for responses.  The call is easy enough to perform with a few practices, and Katana has is down to a fine art!  Using a compass, we record the direction that the call comes from.  The tricky part is estimating the distance of the owl from our position.  “Ventriloquilistic” is a word used to describe the call in some of the bird books, and this sums it up nicely; for such a small bird, their voices can carry a surprisingly long way through the trees!  At the end of the transect, we turn head home for a much-needed wash and a hearty meal of ugali (maize meal) before bed.

As important as these surveys are, there are plenty of other birds to keep us busy during the day!  Dakatcha woodland is one of Kenya’s IBAs (Important Bird Areas), and with good reason; there’s a wealth of diversity here, and we’re trying to find exactly what lives in the ARK plot by conducting regular surveys.  Some of the highlights so far: numerous Palearctic migrant species including Spotted Flycatcher and Isabelline Shrike; the globally endangered Sokoke Pipit, and my personal favourite (I admit, I’m a bit of a raptor fanatic), Southern-Banded Snake Eagle.

Southern-Banded Snake-Eagle

Southern-Banded Snake-Eagle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What would really get 2013 off to a flying  start (no pun intended) is the discovery of a Sokoke Scops Owl nest!  Amazingly, nobody has every found one before, and we have a great opportunity, given the relatively small patch of woodland we have to search in.  Fingers crossed!

Finally, I must again say a huge thank you to the Bob Scott Appeal for making it possible to purchase this vital plot of forest, therefore opening up the possibility of studying and conserving such an important bird population.  Watch out for further updates on this project in the coming weeks.

Nick Gardner (A Rocha Kenya volunteer)

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