The dense forest surrounded us, filling the car with a soft green light. We were driving through the largest dry coastal forest in all of East Africa, in search of the elusive Arabuko Sokoke Scops Owl.
This small owl, who makes its nest in the hardwood tree, the Brachylaena Huillensis, was only discovered in the 1960s, when it was caught in a mist net set up for birds. At present (2020) there are around 3000 owls in Arabuko Sokoke, along the coast of Kenya, and a small population in North Eastern Tanzania.
In Search of the Sokoke Scops Owl
The forest around us is unbelievably dense and unlike anything I’ve seen before. The ground beneath us was damp and bright red, in stark contrast to the emerald leaves and vines that cocooned our path. Looking into the thick forest canopy, I didn’t think we had a chance of spotting the owl. On our last visit to Arabuko Sokoke, we did not have any luck finding these little critters.
We had been driving for some time when our guide, Willy, stopped the car and got out. “I’m going to look for the owl”, he told us. With that, he ducked under the low branches of a tree and disappeared into the jungle beyond. We stood around our vehicle, wondering how he was going to manage to find this elusive owl, given its petite size. The Arabuko Sokoke Scops Owl, when fully grown, weighed a mere 50 grams and stood about six inches in height.
Hiking Through Dense Forest
After twenty minutes, he returned. “I’ve found them”, he told us, excitedly. “Come”, he said, once again entering the forest. This time, we followed suit. The entrance to the path was partly grown over and obscured with leaves and branches. We struggled through the vegetation, being careful not to get our clothes caught on the branches that brushed our arms and legs. The path was narrow and not more than a foot wide, although the bright red soil did make it somewhat easier to see. For the most part, it was impossible to pass without crouching and making ourselves as small as possible.
I started to wonder about those gorilla treks, which sometimes can take hours before a family is found. Ten minutes into the thick of it, we felt our camera bags weighing down on us and our knees buckling from having to keep them bent as we walked. The air was saturated with water, and our perspiration had nowhere to go. Soon, we were soaked in our own sweat. As we continued, I prayed that the owl wouldn’t have flown off in the meantime.
Finding the Owl
“It’s there”, Willy said, coming to a stop in a bend on the path. He was pointing to a branch low in the forest canopy, with leaves that shaded it like an umbrella. Right there, perched on it, was a mating pair. Both owls were fully awake, their eyes glinting, forest green reflected in their bright sclera. They were pressed up against each other, eyeing us carefully, one with its gaze on us and the other, at Willy. Owing to the recent rains and the relatively cooler temperature, both owls had puffed up their feathers for warmth and snuggled against each other.
“How did you find them?” I whispered to Willy, amazed at our luck.
“I called to them”, he whispered back. “And they called back, so I knew their direction. I had to do this a few times until I knew for certain where they were.”
We stood with the owls for some time, taking as many photographs as we could. They scarcely moved, standing stock still, with only their gaze shifting occasionally from one human to another. Although they were near motionless, it was a joy nevertheless to watch them, both safe in the company of each other.
The Future of the Sokoke Scops Owl
As we walked back to our vehicle, I contemplated the uncertain future of this charming little creature. Its elusive nature has made it difficult to study, stalling progress on breeding programs. Although researchers have managed to tagged a number of them, the owls always managed to remove the tracker. Because of this, we still don’t know how the owls breed. The only clues have been the empty shells left in holes of hardwood trees like the Brachylaena. The only way at present to ensure the continuity of this species is to preserve the natural forest and refrain from chopping down its hardwoods.
Finding a Guide for Arabuko Sokoke
Getting an experienced guide is key to finding the Sokoke Scops Owl. As mentioned, our visit some years back did not yield any results because we did not have a guide with the much needed knowledge.
This time we went with Willy, a birder and guide who was part of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Guides association. He is also a specialist for all of East Africa. We were able to find the owl and some other hard to spot birds because of his incredible knowledge and sighting ability. It would have been impossible otherwise. You can contact his on WhatsApp at: +254 723 31 4416.