Grass Owl chicks rescued from a raging veld fire
TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHS TYRONE MCKENDRY
On Wednesday night, 13 July, I received a WhatsApp message saying that baby Marsh Owls had been rescued from a veld fire in the Greater Kyalami conservancy (GEKCO). The message was accompanied by some photos and I immediately recognised that the owl chicks were in fact African Grass-Owls Tyto capensis which are an important Red Data species in South Africa. I managed to get a hold of the person responsible for the rescue, Sophia Combrink, who regaled the series of events to me.
On Wednesday morning, a veld fire suddenly blazed through the open grassland next door to her property. “As I was keeping an eye on the fire from our stoep, with a mixture of fascination and caution, I noticed that two tiny owls were sitting in the corner of our property, just out of reach of the heat and burning veld”. The owl chicks had somehow managed to make it past two electric fences into the safety of Sophia’s garden and appeared unharmed. Concerned for the chicks and unsure of what to do, Sophia decided to phone Friends of Free Wildlife who advised her to catch the chicks using a towel and put them in a box to be transported to the nearest vet in case treatment was needed. When she returned to catch the chicks, only one was visible, so she assumed that the other one had flown off. She managed to catch the first chick and she took it to Friends of Free Wildlife. When she returned home she proceeded to tell her husband, Jaco, of her rescue mission when they noticed that the second chick was hiding in the nearby shrubs. At this point Jaco suggested phoning the Owl Rescue Centre for assistance. Brendan Murray responded to the call and informed Sophia and Jaco that what they had rescued were not Marsh Owls but were in fact a very special species called African Grass-Owls. “We were super chuffed and took care of it with extra caution through the night.” Brendan arrived very early on Thursday morning to assist Jaco and Sofia. He noted that the chicks were approximately 6 weeks old and were almost fledged. He decided to investigate the burnt remains of their nesting site when he discovered a small ditch covered in grass that had incredibly remained unburnt from the fire, and sitting in that patch was a third grass owl chick! At this point Brendan felt that returning the other two chicks to the same area would be the best course of action and hopefully the parents would return during the night to look after them.
At this stage, news of the owls had spread through the community and GEKCO was notified which is when I contacted Sophia to offer my assistance. After speaking briefly with Sofia I began phoning my contacts at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) who had been very involved with helping us monitor our other Grass Owl nesting sites in the conservancy. Matt Pretorius (Grass Owl Specialist and Senior Field Officer- Widlife and Energy Programme), Emily Taylor (Urban Conservation and Gauteng Biodiversity Stewardship Project Coordinator) and Marianne Golding (Administrator of the EWT- Wildlife and Energy Programme) suggested that I assess the site myself and then we could make an informed decision on what to do with the chicks. Around this time I contacted Brendan and he filled me in on some of the details including the fact that there was still a viable nesting area at the site. After some debate we decided to collect the first chick from Friends of Free Wildlife to be reunited with its two siblings. As the sun began to set Sofia, Jaco, Brendan and I quietly approached the ‘nest’ with the two Grass Owl chicks in a box, ready to be released. As quickly and quietly as possible we removed the chicks from the box and placed them in the nesting area but to our surprise the third chick that was already inside, flew off to a nearby patch of grass. We took this as a good sign because their ability to fly meant they would be at less risk from predators. I had extremely mixed feelings about the release because on the one hand it was incredible to see such a special species going back into the wild but on the other hand I was fearful that the parents may not return or perhaps that a hungry predator would discover them. Nevertheless we had made a decision and we had to hope for the best.
On Friday evening Brendan returned to the nest to check on the owls and only two were present but they looked healthy and he felt confident that the other chick was likely nearby. On Saturday morning I returned to the site with my fellow GEKCO member, Anton Van Niekerk (who has also been working with the Grass Owls in the conservancy for a number of years) and we proceeded to carefully approach the nesting area. I felt my stomach churning in anticipation of what we might find. We slowly positioned ourselves in a way to get a view into the nest from a distance and to my relief all three chicks were in the nest! We were extremely excited to see that the chicks were doing well and for me it was confirmation that we had made the right decision to put them back in the nest. We took a few quick photos and then backed away, taking special care not to disturb the chicks.
On Sunday Jaco and Sophia photographed the remains of a rat near the nesting site which was a good indication that the parents were feeding the chicks. Brendan and I had a discussion and we decided that we had done all that we could for the chicks and now it was up to them and the parents to do the rest. Jaco and Sophia have since reported that they have seen the parents flying into the nesting area in the evenings.
This whole event has been an incredible learning experience for all involved and as far as I know it is the first successful African Grass-Owl release of this kind! Well done to all who were involved and a special thank you to Jaco and Sophia for going to such great lengths to ensure that the Grass Owl chicks got the best care and attention possible. It feels fantastic to report on a conservation story with a positive outcome at a time when our environment is under so much pressure from urbanisation. It is inspiring to see the time, love and care that so many people are willing give in order to protect a species that most people have never seen or heard of. It gives me great hope for our conservation projects in the future.
Veld fires are a natural part of many of South Africa’s ecosystems. They are particularly common in Gauteng thanks to the province’s extensive grasslands that become very dry over the winter months. While these fires may be important for many natural processes, they can also be extremely destructive when they occur too frequently. Many species that depend on the grasslands for survival can get caught in the blaze where they can be badly injured or killed. The problem with veld fires is perhaps more severe in urban environments where the natural habitat has been fragmented and the species isolated. In these areas the fires are particularly common because controlled burning and accidental burning occurs simultaneously. These fires are a serious problem for the Grass Owls because these nocturnal birds are habitat specialists which require a specific type of grass that is tall enough and dense enough in order to build their nests and tunnels where they spend their days. If the grasslands are burnt too regularly, then these potential grass owl nesting sites become degraded and unsuitable for use by the birds. At this point they will be forced further away from urban areas in search of new territories which may have negative impacts on the overall population of Grass Owls. Please consider cutting fire breaks into your grasslands which could help prevent fires from spreading too far. Please also consider leaving your grasslands intact if and where possible as these areas provide a refuge for local biodiversity. Please also consider cutting the grass instead of burning it as this method has less of an impact on the ecosystem and reduces the risk of the fire spreading into other areas where it was not intended. Responsible grassland management could make the difference between the survival and death of many local species including the beautiful African Grass-Owls.