Music of the night

2012-01-31 00:00

THERE aren’t many people who have been attacked by a Spotted Eagle-Owl. John Carlyon is one of them. After photographing the owl’s nest, he was leaning over it to examine the chick. “As I did so, one of the adults flew up from behind me, unheard, and with a startling thud struck me on the head.”

On another occasion in the Kalahari, Carlyon and his life partner Penny Meakin had climbed into a Camel thorn tree to photograph the nest of a Southern White-faced Owl. “Even though it was afternoon, the irate owner of the nest dealt out the same treatment to the both of us, raking our scalps with her sharp talons, a sensation much like being struck on the head with a thorny branch.”

These are just a couple of the adventures enjoyed by Carlyon and Meakin during the course of producing Nocturnal Birds of Southern Africa, for which Carlyon wrote the text. It’s the first book to cover the full range of nocturnal species in the region, including owls, nightjars, herons, thick-knees, coursers, as well as partially nocturnal birds and the single nocturnal raptor, the Bat Hawk. It is illustrated with photographs by Carlyon and Meakin.

On one level, the book is a photographic guide, but it’s also far more, filled with authoritative and informative text, including a general introduction — “Birds of the Night” — prefacing individual species entries, each containing details on identification, biology and habits, breeding, conservation status, advice on where and how to find the birds, distribution maps and a text box of fast facts. All this plus 370 photographs, not only of the birds themselves, but also evocative shots of their typical landscape habitats.

The couple worked on the book in intervals between Carlyon running his busy Clarendon veterinary practice and Meakin’s work as a much sought-after illustrator. She was one of the seven commissioned artists for the seventh edition of Robert’s Birds of Southern Africa and the sole artist for the acclaimed Agred’s Gamebirds of South Africa: Field Identification and Management. Along with photographs, Meakin has also supplied illustrative material for Nocturnal Birds, including line drawings and beautifully detailed colour plates featuring the most important diagnostic features of the various nightjar species.

“Both Penny and I have had a long interest in birds,” says Carlyon, explaining the origins of the book. “And we were living in Port Alfred in the early eighties when we heard Carl Vernon give an inspiring lecture on the enigmatic nominate race of the African Barred Owlet.”

This is mainly a tropical species, but it was recorded in the Eastern Cape in 1834; however, a lack of sightings since led ornithologists to believe it extinct. “But then, in 1980, a dead specimen turned up in a garden at Kenton-on-Sea. Vernon said it could still be living in the Eastern Cape, and we decided to set out to find these little owls.”

Carlyon had previously photographed an African Barred Owlet at Chobe Game Reserve. “But finding one in the Eastern Cape was even more exciting.”

Graeme Arnott, who accompanied Carlyon and Meakin on their expedition, describes in his foreword to Nocturnal Birds the October night in 1984 when the East Cape Barred Owlet responded to a tape recording of its call: “We could hear the soft cooing call of the owl coming closer. Our excitement was palpable as it alighted atop the same old Sneezewood pole that secured our hide. It began calling loudly, so close we could almost have touched it. That night, John got his historic photograph.”

Carlyon recalls this moment as the beginning of their fascination with nocturnal birds. “We began to concentrate on them, and over the years we accumulated more and more photographs of nocturnal birds.”

“The seeds for the book were planted in those early years,” says Carlyon. “We decided we would do a book in the late eighties, but then procrastination got in the way, plus we were occupied doing other things, but all the time, bit by bit, I was accumulating photographs.”

Those photographs are evidence of many trips in search of specific birds. “We drove all over Zimbabwe trying to find a Pennant-winged Nightjar,” recalls Meakin. “And we had several unsuccessful expeditions to find Swamp Nightjars. On other occasions, we’d be looking for one thing and come across another.”

Now and again, a bird obligingly flew in for a photo session. “We had fantastic luck in 1985 at Shakawe,” says Carlyon. “We were on holiday and I was sitting out in the early evening when a Pel’s Fishing Owl flew past. We grabbed a camera and a flash and a torch, and went to see if we could find it.” The resulting photograph proves they did. “Then we didn’t see another one for 25 years.” But when they did it, was something of a coup, the bird obligingly demonstrated its distraction display.

“In 2005, we decided we had gathered enough material to produce something worthwhile,” says Carlyon. “So we started writing and filling in the photograph gaps.”

Fellow birders were keen to help, and those gaps were filled by the likes of Arnott, Hugh Chittenden, Rudy Erasmus, Warwick Tarboton, Richard Peek and others. Guy Upfold brought Carlyon up to speed on layout and design, while David and Sally Johnson assisted with the editing. “We were helped by friends from all over, otherwise we could never have got the book off the ground.”

When asked for his favourite owl species, unsurprisingly, Carlyon opts for the African Barred Owlet. “But in the same breath, I have to say the Cape Eagle-Owl is the most awe-inspiring of all the African owls.”

The Pearl-spotted Owlet is Meakin’s choice. “They are such feisty little birds, always attracting a commotion wherever they are.”

While Carlyon and Meakin may have travelled all over southern Africa in search of nocturnal birds, what species can be found in their own back yard, in Pietermaritzburg? “Of the owls, there are Wood Owls, Spotted Eagle-Owls and Barn Owls,” says Carlyon.

“You get Wood Owls in wooded areas, near plantations and around the Botanical Gardens. The Spotted Eagle-Owl occurs just outside suburban areas. Barn Owls need open terrain to hunt, and they are definitely on the outskirts of suburbs around the city. And we have even heard them here in Clarendon, but not seen them.

“The Cape Eagle-Owl was resident in Umgeni Valley, near Howick, some years ago, and may still occur there.”

There are also Spotted Thick-knees, while the Bronze-winged Courser has been recorded in Wylie Park. “Of the other nocturnal species, there are Fiery-necked Nightjars all around Pietermaritzburg on the fringes of suburbs.” To prove it, there’s a photograph in the book of an immature female Square-tailed Nightjar taken in the Cumberland Nature Reserve on the outskirts of the city.

Photographing at night brings with it a number of demands, technical and otherwise. “It’s sometimes difficult to see what you are doing, and we’ve had many lost photographic opportunities thanks to fumbling around in the dark,” says Carlyon.

There’s also the added danger there might be things other than owls to contend with. “An encounter with a large African mammal is always a disquieting possibility when out in the bush at night,” says Carlyon.

And not only large mammals. When photographing Grass Owls near Meyerton in Gauteng, Carlyon’s activities attracted interest of another kind. Arriving at dusk, he had set up his hide near a nest, together with tripod, camera, chair and a large flash. “It was past 10 pm when I heard a vehicle drawing up on the quiet country road nearby.” It was the police. “They had seen the intermittent flashes from a long way off, and were suspicious that some sort of terrorist plot was being hatched out in the grasslands of Meyerton. When I showed them the nest and explained what I was doing, they shook their heads in disbelief — now they had seen it all.”

• Nocturnal Birds of Southern Africa by John Carlyon is available via and at bookshops.

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