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MASTERS OF DARKNESS

Mike Unwin reveals his fascination with Africa’s owls, the consummate predators

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, 3.30am. My slumbers are shattered by a piercing whistle: a sequence of pure notes that rise like a kettle coming to the boil then, after a brief hiatus, subside in mournful diminuendo. There’s no returning to sleep and, as I lie awake, other voices arise from the pre-dawn darkness: a bubbling hoot, a hissing scream, a muttered grunting and, behind them all, a soft single chirrup, repeated metronomically, as though the night is keeping time. To the untutored ear, it’s a chorus of weirdness – enough to have you cowering back under the covers.

Thankfully, I know these noises. My nocturnal serenade comes courtesy of Hwange’s owls, some more easily recognised than others: the whistle is a pearl-spotted owlet; the bubbling hoot, a southern whitefaced owl; the hissing scream, a barn owl; the deep muttering, a Verreaux’s eagle-owl; and that metronomic chirrup, an African scops owl. Not one of them sounds like the twit towhoo of the tawny owl I grew up with back in the UK, yet each asserts its claim on the night with just as much authority.

There is something about owls. Whether as companions of the Greek Goddess Athene or emissaries of Harry Potter, these enigmatic birds have always fired our imaginations. Those weird night noises join a host of other qualities – the mysterious nocturnal habits, the expressive, big-eyed faces and the assassin’s hunting skills – that together give owls an impact that seems more than the sum of their feathers.

In many places, however, fascination is replaced by fear: African folklore associates owls with all kinds of trouble – which is a shame, as Africa is particularly well-endowed with owls and these fascinating birds could do with a little more respect.

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About Travel Africa

Why Botswana? Where to go, what to see, how to plan for your trip to this amazing country • Slow safari - letting wildlife come to you • Kaokoland, in search of remoteness • What it's really like to walk in Luangwa • Self-drive Tanzania • Know your owls • Sierra Leone rises • 60 reasons to visit Nairobi • Lapalala Wilderness... and much more!