Jhb owl family gets celeb status
Johannesburg - A Spotted Eagle Owl couple, who casually adapted to Johannesburg's hazardous city life by nesting in the pot plant of a townhouse, have fast become celebrities in the publishing world.
Their owl family of four stars in a unique book called Pot Plant Owl, launched by the townhouse owners last week, diarising the 54-day drama of chicks landing under car wheels and being harassed by barking dogs and lawnmowers.
It tells of the moment when protective neighbours had to step in and call the owls' "owners", Allan and Tracy Eccles, when an adventurous teenage chick went on a walkabout through the complex.
But "Pot Plant Owl" was so happy with the living conditions that she returned last month - a year later - to nest on the Eccles' balcony again, scoffing at the owl box her eager protectors presented as alternative accommodation this year.
Instead, she fluffed her spotted brown and white feathers into a cosy spot in her favourite pot plant as the Johannesburg couple squealed in delight at her return, already planning the set-up of a webcam and blog to detail the second year's nesting process on the balcony.
It all started one early August morning last year when the Eccles woke up to find a Spotted Eagle Owl crouching in the Ficus tree pot plant, hiding away from two crows dive-bombing her.
What were the chances that she would choose the balcony of keen bird enthusiasts, one of them who conducted birding tours while working as a pilot and guide in the Okavango Delta in Botswana?
"We thought, oh sweet, isn't nice to that we have her for one day," recalls Tracy, whose only pets are parrots but whose neighbours have dogs.
That evening, she and her husband went outside to water the plants on the balcony - and discovered an egg in the pot plant.
"In my totally ignorant state, I picked it up. I thought it was cold and useless."
Her ex-birding guide husband suggested they leave the egg there and contact a wildlife rehabilitation centre the next day.
The couple, whose house is situated next to a green belt north-west of Johannesburg, was not prepared for its response.
'You've lost your balcony'
"You've lost your balcony," FreeMe's senior clinic manager Nicci Wright declared.
"The female Spotted Eagle Owl has chosen your balcony, and your pot plant to lay her eggs. She will lay one egg every three to four days until her clutch is laid, and she will sit on the eggs for the incubation period to begin."
"If all goes well, the female will return every year to within a few metres of the same nesting spot and raise her chicks," said Wright.
"It was a totally gob-smacked moment," says Tracy. "The response was very casual, 'oh, you've lost your balcony'."
That was the beginning of an exceptional journey for the couple, who immediately set up a hide in their bedroom to observe "Pot Plant Owl" and her family.
Their whereabouts were documented and photographed in a diary between August and November last year every day, culminating in the launch of the book.
It tells the tale of "Big Chick" and "Little Chick", learning how to eat, hunt and fly, and "Pappa", the ever-protective male owl, hunting for his family and always keeping an eye on them, albeit from a distance.
Once, Allan made the mistake to assume it was safe to water the plants on the balcony when "Pot Plant Owl" had left her nest for moment.
"But as I walk towards the nest, a silent hunter moves in for the attack," he writes in the book.
"Out of nowhere - THUD - a big whack on the side of my head. The male swoops down and hits me, sending my head sideways with the force of his talons. It feels like a steel pole has been wielded and connected with the side of my head.
"When Tracy arrives home, my ear and head are still bleeding profusely."
From then onwards, the couple wore cycling helmets and carried umbrellas whenever they ventured out onto the balcony.
For Tracy, the worst moments included the loss of the third chick, whom the Eccles believe was snatched by a crow on Day Eight, or the day one of the chicks fell off the balcony and went missing.
"That to me was very stressful, I found it under the wheel of a car at our neighbours," says Tracy, adding that residents in the complex were very supportive throughout the process.
"We have people in the complex who bought the book, they are saying, 'our owls are getting famous'."
Another bad day was when a hail storm hit the area.
"Pot Plant Owl opened her wings, she was trying to protect the chicks but she was struggling to keep them under her wings.
"These hail stones were hitting her head so hard, she was wincing at every single hail hitting her."
The chicks' learning-to-fly lessons were a highlight, she says.
"The night that they actually left us, Big Chick flew up to roof. Little Chick watched, and we held our breath, and she just made it to the roof.
"That's when we knew we were probably not seeing them again.
"It was a lovely moment, but bittersweet."
The Eccles waited in anticipation to see if their owl family would return this year, but August came and went; the couple's preparations for the return apparently in vain.
"Then, on the morning of October 4, Allan went to the curtains, he turned around and jumped, shouting, 'we've got an owl back, we've got an owl back!' "
Three eggs have been laid and the couple is expecting the chicks to hatch this week - and "Pappa" is back again to support his family.
"The other night he got back with a little snake. She ate it like spaghetti. She went up to his beak, it looked like she was almost kissing him thank you."
"Pot Plant Owl" has ignored the owl box or green dog kennel set up on the balcony for her.
"She is saying, 'no, I'm not interested'. She is sticking with her pot plant."