Driving down the Maxabene Riverbed looking for owls, we were thrilled to suddenly see a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl take off from a Tamboti grove we were approaching. It landed a short distance away in a Weeping Boer Bean tree, but its clumsy attempts to stabilise itself made us realise it was still very young. Looking through the binoculars we could see that it was indeed little more than a chick.
To our surprise – and to the owl’s I’m sure – a pair of Wahlberg’s eagles suddenly plummeted from the sky, dive-bombing the chick where it was exposed on the outer branches. We had driven past the eagles earlier that afternoon only a few hundred metres up the river, and they were clearly nest-building. They obviously took exception the proximity of another predatory bird to their nest.
The owl chick wisely sought refuge deeper in the tree, and after a few awkward hops and scrambles, was far enough into the canopy that the eagles couldn’t get to it.
Meanwhile, one of its parents had flown out of the same Tamboti grove and had landed in a Leadwood tree nearby.
Being far more exposed, the adult owl immediately became the target for the Wahlberg’s pair, that began to mob it relentlessly.
The eagles must have flown in well over twenty times, but the owl stayed where it was. It had the protection of a few spindly branches, and that was seemingly enough. If the eagles had come tearing in to the canopy at speed, they may well have been injured in a collision with a branch, so never fully commited. Also, Verreaux’s Eagle Owls are big birds, and a physical engagement would have been very dangerous for the eagle(s).
We wondered why the owl stayed exposed for so long though and don’t have a definitive answer. It was very unlikely to get hurt, so might not have felt an urgent need to remove itself from the scene.
Personally I like to think that it remained in the open in order to divert attention away from its chick. Diversionary tactics like this are well documented in the natural world, although I haven’t heard of them in owls.
Ultimately none of the birds involved were too likely to come to harm. It was simply an amazing encounter that reinforces why the larger owls like to remain hidden during the day, and how protective birds can be over their nests.