Monday, May 21, 2018

2018 Indonesia Owling trip report

In search of Burung Hantu, the spirit bird

In Bahasa Indonesian an owl is burung hantu which literally means spirit bird. This year I decided to visit Indonesia to look for owls. It's the best country (by far) for owls, with both the most owls, and most endemic owls. My plan is to visit Sulawesi and some satellite islands, along with a site in Java.

April 19th. This is a regular work day. I have about an hour after work to grab dinner, walk Maile (my dog) and double check I have packed all my stuff. Tui drive me and the boys to the airport. We say goodbye at the departure drop off, and I am off on my owl trip.
I have been working on this trip for so long, that I had little preparation left to do this spring. I have a nagging feeling that I have not attended to the trip. Surly I have forgotten to do something important. The first leg of the journey is a flight to Seattle which goes just fine.
April 20th. I fly on Eva via Taipei to Jakarta. The flight departs at 130am, which enables me to sleep through most of it. Most of the day is lost to the international date line.
April 21st. I arrive in Taipei at 4am. The airport is amazingly quiet. I walk around, re-hydrating at every water fountain. The flight to Jakarta goes well. I enjoy my last beers for a few weeks.
I had set up for Indira Ferdinand ( ooowi.fold@gmail.com ) to help me with travel arrangements in Java. Indira has arranged for his nephew, Rizki, to meet me at the airport. It takes about half an hour to find him. Rizki turns out to be an English teacher, and we talk about Indonesia for the whole drive.
Jakarta looks a lot flashier than when I was here 15 years ago. Tall condominium towers are everywhere. Of course there are still many people who look like they are struggling.
It's later afternoon, and soon the sky turns dark. A huge storm erupts. Thunder booms, and we see lightening all around the car. Soon the road is thick with run off and traffic has slowed painfully. We eventually reach the mountains. The rain eases, but never stops. At nightfall we arrive at a small hotel in Cibodas, a tourist town situated under a volcano (and national park); Gunung Gede.
Rizki introduces me to my guide, Adun, a thin, chain smoking guy in his late thirties. He's been birding the trails here for most of his life. Adun is soft-spoken and fluent in English. As it's raining He suggest we wait until 4am, I request we make it 3am and he agrees.
I get ready for bed. I feel crappy not going out into the forest on my first night. Rain drums gently on the hotel roof. I fall asleep before 7pm, but am struggle to stay asleep after midnight.
April 22nd. By 130am I finally give up trying to sleep and slowly get ready for the day. My targets for Gunung Gede are Javan scops, Javan owlet, and Bartell's (AKA Brown) wood-owl. At 3am, I meet Adun by the hotel's iron gate. It's a beautiful cool morning. We hike through Cibodas and into Gunung Gede national park. The park guards are asleep, so we walk by unnoticed. The trail in the park is cobbled with big stones, it's not muddy, but the stones are wet from last night's rain, and it's hard to walk with ease on such an uneven surface. After 2km of climbing, Adun starts taping for Javan scops. This is a little know mountain owl. It was once thought to be silent. After birders figured out it's call it was thought to be unresponsive to playback. We try playback at six different spots. Nothing. At the seventh we get a nearby response after a couple of minutes-a wavering, slightly trilled screech, unlike any scops owl I have heard. We tape on and off for a few minutes, but the owl stubbornly stays in a gully filled with an impenetrable thicket of wild ginger. Adun suggests moving down the trail. He tapes again. Immediately we hear a soft four note growl. Adun whispers this is a different call of Javan scops. The owl comes in very close. I can hardly bare the tension. It growls again and again, moving through the trees above us. Adun tries the spotlight but all we see is ancient, twisted, mossy trees. In the distance we hear the original bird's screeching. Then the soft growl, so close. Lights. There it is, perched above us. It's a beautiful orange-eyed owl, with bold pale eye-brows and a rich rufous mantle and breast. It's a brilliant little owl. All too soon it takes off, and is gone. Elated we return to a trail-side shelter. Adun takes out his stove and brews up a couple of mugs of hot coffee, and we celebrate in style, drinking our coffee, sat on a cold stone floor under a pair of volcanoes.
Our next target is Javan owlet. It's predominantly active early in the morning and later in the day. Adun suggests we descend a little and try for it as the sun rises. Sure enough, after a couple of stops we get a response to Adun's playback. The owlet comes close. We hear a flurry of scolding song birds-and assuming they are mobbing the owlet, venture into a thicket. The owlet moves around, calling loudly from many places. I eventually track it down, and catch a brief view of it perched on a branch, only to have a drongo chase it away, before I can enjoy a sustained view. We continue to persevere, with some serious off trail struggles to get closer. Several times I suggest we quit taping and try elsewhere. Adun insists on returning to this place. So we do.
The Javan owlet tree. (No owlet in the photo)

Eventually the owlet completely stops calling and we move on, trying lower down on the mountain. We fail to get any other response. It's about 10:30am when we arrive back at the hotel. I eat breakfast and try to sleep. Mostly I just lay in bed, listen to dogs, kids and chickens. In the middle of the day I hike to an internet cafe and email Tui. Back at the hotel, I watch big clouds obscure the two volcanoes. The sky grows dark. I wait.
I meet with Adun at 3pm. He's thoughtfully brought me a copy of "Birds of Indonesian Archipelago" for me to read tonight. That afternoon we return to the owlet site.
Gunung Gede (left), from Cibodas

We tape a bit and get a distant response. We try a little higher on the trail, but get nothing. Returning to the spot, it's now well after sunset. A big owl flies over us. My first thought was eagle owl. A moment passes, then a barred eagle-owl sings from the trees ahead.
We leave the forest and visit the dinosaur park/campground in search of Sunda scops and buffy fish owls. Both birds I have seen before. I'm almost asleep on my feet. We don't find anything. Our last stop is a small pond behind the mosque, where we look for buffy fish owl, but again draw a blank.
We decide to call it a night and I sleep soundly.
April 23rd. I wake well before my alarm and slowly get ready for the day. My goal is to get a better view of the Javan owlet. After yesterday's excessive taping I'm not feeling optimistic. Adun and I take a bemo (micro bus) to the trail-head. Wild pigs have raided the garbage bins, and trash and pig shit litter the entrance.  We hike into the park in darkness and stop at the owlet site. We tape and wait. We walk the rocky trail, craning our necks to search the canopy. Periodically the owlet calls, usually from some distant tall trees, that are largely obscured by other big trees. A couple of times it comes in close, and low, below the canopy. We hustle through the dense undergrowth, fighting spiny rattan vines. We don't find it.
Then it starts to rain. A little at first, the torrentially. We hike up to a concrete shelter with a metal roof. Adun brews coffee. A diabetic hiker shows up in bad shape asking for food, and Adun feeds him some cookies and water. Soon he is looking much better. Adun tells me about a time he found a dead couple at the summit. Most likely they had succumbed to hypothermia. He also describes helping to carry the bodies of ill-prepared hikers from Gunung Gede.
Eventually the rain eases up and we return to the owlet site. The bird comes in, calling but still hidden. Then we see it in flight between two trees, before disappearing into the canopy. We wait around, trying to find it in the canopy. It starts to rain with a vengeance, and we decide to bolt down the trail to the shelter by the park entrance.
The rain eases, and we hike back to the owlet site, hoping for a better view. We hear the owlet in the distance, but that's it. It does not come in. We return to the hotel, vowing to try again late in the afternoon.
By 3:30pm, Adun and I are back at the owlet site. We wait there until dark. We hear it call just a couple of times from far away. A steady stream of tired looking hikers passes us. Adun comments "when they start the hike they are like heroes, but when they return they look defeated". After darkness falls we switch strategies and start taping for for Bartell's (brown) wood-owl. This is either (depending on the taxonomist) a race of brown wood owl, a bird I have seen in Sabah and Kerela, or a rare endemic species found on Java's uplands. Regardless, I don't find one tonight. This does not surprise me, as Adun explains he has never seen or heard one at Gede. Soon the rains start again in earnest, we run through the darkness down slippery cobbled trail to a stone shelter by the entrance. It's packed with soaked hikers smoking and eating snacks. It's a jovial sort of place to while away an hour listening to the heavy rain pound the metal roof.
Eventually we decide to throw in the towel, and return to the hotel, checking the pond behind the mosque along the way (no fish owls there today). I eat dinner, say thanks to Rizki and then a driver takes me, with Adun, back to Jakarta airport. I'm exhausted and fall asleep before we leave Cibodas, waking in a daze at the airport terminal. I walk into the terminal and find a nice bench to sleep on.
April 24th. I wake early on a bench at Jakarta airport. I have several hours to kill before my flight. I WhatsApp Tui and Alfonds (my next guide). As it gets light outside, I see the weather is shit. The sky is a sort of brownish color, and rain lashes the glass wall of the terminal. I check the forecast "heavy thunderstorms in Manado". I look at my new boots, and about 40% of both soles have separated from the uppers. This isn't good. It's hard to buy a big shoe in rural Indonesia and I don't want to be stuck wearing flip flops in the forest.
The flight to Manado, Sulawesi goes well. I meet Alfonds  (mamaroos@ymail.com), manager of Mama Roos guesthouse at the airport late in the afternoon. He's a stout friendly guy who speaks great English. It's a slow drive to Tangkoko National Park, but at least it's a beautiful warm sunny afternoon. I'm excited to hear that Alfonds has a detailed plan of how we are going to look for my four target owls; Minahassa masked owl, ochre-bellied, speckled and cinnabar boobooks.
We drive straight to a site near his guesthouse at dusk to look for Sulawesi scops owl-a bird I have seen before, but it's always great to see an owl. There are a few photographers hanging out, and another guide has a speaker playing the scops' call strung up on a tree. It only takes a minute to find the small owl.
Dinner is delicious-I recall eating here back in 2003, and the food was good then. Alfonds and I meet at 8:30pm and hike into Tangkoko National Park. We get to a clearing and lay out a bluetooth speaker on the grass, and retreat to the shadow of a large fig tree. We play a recording of Minahassa masked-owl. This is a local owl that's sometimes very challenging to find. One minute passes and a medium sized, long-winged owl flies over the clearing. I spotlight it-and it's a typical looking barn owl with buffy upper parts, with many fine darker spots. As it flies it makes a series of forceful screeches confirming it's identity. (The Sulawesi masked-owl, a species I have seen before, has a similar call, but it's weaker, higher pitched, and the note tends to change as it calls). The owl disappears into some big trees. More taping and we hear a few responses from different areas of the forest, but we don't see it again. Eventually it falls silent.
We try another site in some littoral forest close to the shore for a better view. We get no response.
Feeling very fucking lucky we return to Mama Roos, where I sleep heavily.
April 25th. I set my alarm for 2:55am and wake up groggy. After a quick coffee, Alfonds introduces me to a guide, Mensur. We all set out to the lower slope of the mountain where there is a staked out spot for Minahassa masked-owl. My goal is to get a good view of a perched bird. We tape a little on and off but only hear a distant response twice. Alfonds and Mensur try spotlightling, but the trees are truly vast and we see nothing but leaves.
We also hear an orche-bellied boobook in the distance. Mensur insists that he can find a roosting bird, so it's ignored.
At dawn we begin searching know roost sites of Minahassa masked owl, both cavities in big trees, especially strangler figs and small shade trees. We don't find any masked-owls, but do see a lovely roosting ochre-bellied boobook. This is a new owl for me. It has a gray-green bill, pale yellow eyes, a dark grayish head and breast and rich ochre belly, lightly marked with fine dark streaks. The back and wings are chocolate colored. The wing coverts and scapulars are spotted white. The tail is barred, apart from the outer-tail feathers. It has rather delicate feet-indicating a preference for smaller prey.
On the way back to Mama Roos, Mensur shows me a family of tarsiers; amazing diminutive primates.
Back at Mama Roos I sleep 'till noon, then eat Nasi Goreng (fried rice and egg) for lunch.
At nightfall we return to the original Minahassa site, set up a Bluetooth speaker and hide under a tree. We wait for a while, then play a recording of the owl. Within a few minutes a Minahassa masked-owl, circles the speaker, calling vigorously. We don't spotlight it, hoping it will perch, but unfortunately it disappears into deeper forest. We wait around, but neither see nor hear the bird again.
Next we drive a few kilometers into the coastal hills to look for speckled boobook. This would be another new species for me. We park outside a recently abandoned lodge. It's a beautiful open building next to a creek. We start playback, and it takes a long time to get a response, a single note call, quite different from the slightly manic series of notes of my recording. Eventually the boobook flies overhead and onto an exposed perch in a large tree. The eyes are yellow, highlighted by prominent white eye-brows. It's brown above, spotted white, with a slightly barred brownish chest (this does not quite meet in the center, giving a waist coat-like appearance), white throat and belly. The feet look sturdier than those of the ochre-bellied boobook, indicating an ability to handle larger prey. Alfonds tells me this bird is locally difficult to find, so I am happy to see it.
I eat a delicious dinner cooked by Alfonds' wife. Alfonds takes off with his family late in the evening to visit his brother, Victor, in Manado, who is unfortunately in the hospital. I have the homestay to myself.
April 26th. Alfonds wakes me at 4am due to some confusion about the start time. We head out again for the original Minahassa masked-owl site, hoping for a better view. Again we lay out the Bluetooth speaker, and retreat under a big tree. It's a while before we get a response, a couple of calls from some nearby trees. In the gloaming we wander under these trees, spotlighting thickets, tangles and palms. The owl does not reveal itself to us and at daybreak we return to Mama Roos for breakfast.
Our plan for today is to drive to a mountain, Gunung Ambang (near the town of Kotamabatu), in search of Cinnabar boobook. This is a small mountain owl only discovered at the end of the last century.
We run Alfonds' dad over to visit Victor at the hospital in Manado. Then Michael (driver), Alfonds and I continue on towards Gunung Ambang. Alfonds explains his brother is in really bad shape and needs a triple by-pass.
The drive to Gunung Ambang isn't far, but its really slow and takes most of the day. The road is really twisty and we rarely get above 50kph. Around noon we stop at a roadside fish restaurant. Michael is excited because the leader of Golkar (the party of the former dictator) is enjoying a fish meal at the next table. (A fittingly flash black SUV is parked out front and armed guards are in attendance).  Anyway lunch is delicious.
The last hour of the drive is through torrential rain. Sheets of brown runoff cover the road. This makes me nervous about our owling prospects. We finally arrive at Pak Julius' home around 4pm. He's a forest ranger who has taken many birders out onto Gunung Ambang. We sit on his porch and enjoy a coffee, waiting for darkness, and willing the rain to stop. Eventually we drive with Julius up through some cabbage fields to the end of the road. We park, and Julius, Alfonds and I hike further through the fields and finally into the wet montane forest, just as darkness falls. Julius is a really fast walker, and it's s struggle to keep up with him as we climb the muddy path into the mountains. Thousands of people have walked this way before, creating a well worn trail, six feet deep in places. After an hour of hiking the trail levels out and Julius indicates this is a good place to tape for the owl. It's raining lightly. While getting my gear out I hear a pair of Cinnabar boobooks far below. For half an hour I tape on and off, but the owls don't approach. The very steep hillside is an absolute tangle of thick mossy forest. I am inclined to try and hike down it. I suggest this, Alfonds explains the birds will come in their own time. Then I notice that the birds are no longer below, but to the right. I take off along the trail. Magically both birds start calling really close. They duet a simple two note call. I spotlight one bird right next to the trail, low in a small tree. I get good views of this new owl. It's a small with vivid yellow eyes, a pale bill and pale small feet. It's predominantly a rich chestnut color with some white spots on the scapulars and belly, and some fine barring on the tail). Brilliant! I go and find Julius and Alfonds, and try and show them the owl. Even though they are still calling vigorously we are unable to relocate them in the thick wet forest. Neither are too concerned, having seen them before.
It's a happy muddy walk in the rain back to the car. Michael and Alfonds celebrate with a smoke. I think they are happy that we don't have to get up early to look for owls tomorrow. The weather clears and the moon illuminates the mountain.
Driving back to Julius' home we flush a big owl from a patch of tall roadside grass. Luckily it perches high on a lone dead tree. Michael parks and it's a mad scrabble to get my owling gear from my bag. In the bins I see it's a big, gray faced Tyto; clearly a a Sulawesi masked-owl. Alfonds feels it's a Minahassa masked-owl. I don't press the disagreement.
Pak Julius' wife has prepared an amazing feast made from fresh fish and local produce. I shamelessly eat much more than my restrained companions.
Alfonds had booked a nice room for me in Kotamabagu, while he and Michael have made arrangements elsewhere in town. They are cool guys, and I try and convince them to share the (big) room, but the decline.
April 27th. I am able to sleep until 630am and am able to loaf around, enjoying the WiFi (videochat with Tui and the boys) and good breakfast.
The drive back to Manado isn't as sluggish as yesterday and we make it by lunch. Because I have seen all the owls I am looking for in Northern Sulawesi, Alfonds' suggests dropping me off at a hotel in Manado. This works for me as I have a 7am flight tomorrow, and Mama Roos is almost 2 hours from the airport. Before going to the hotel I visit Alfonds' brother in the hospital. He is asleep when we find him. He is a powerful looking guy with big arm tattoos. His family is camped outside the ward and look like they have been there for days.
Downtown Manado is bustling. I enjoy walking around town as the suns sets over the bay. It's fun to just take in the youthful city.
April 28th. I'm up at 4:45am and find a cabbie sleeping in his car. I wake him and he runs me to Manado airport. There I catch a small prop plane flight to Sangihe. This is a small island half way to the Philippines. It's home of the endemic Sangihe scops owl. The airport at Sangihe is very small and quiet. I'm looking for a cab in the parking lot, when a tall blonde dude, smoking a cigarette asks me if I am going to Wesley's. Indeed I am. Wesley ( Wesley_rainbow@yahoo.co.id  ) is a local bird guide based on the other side of Sangihe. Wesley had contacted this guy, Michael, a Czech guy who is married to an Indonesian lady to help bring me to his place.
Michael and his wife take me on a leisurely drive around Sangihe to Wesley's. The road is slow, so it takes close to two hours of driving. Plus we stopped for coffee and to enjoy the view, and then to visit some old colonial buildings.
I am really happy when we get to Wesley's. For close to twenty years I have been hearing about his place and the endemic birds that live on the mountain behind his guesthouse (the Rainbow Losman). Wesley is a very soft spoken, lean but powerful-looking guy. He works a small farm, "his garden" and has an intense love of all living things. We have coffee and talk for a while. Eventually the rain sets in. Michael and his wife leave after agreeing to pick me up at 5am tomorrow to bring me back to the airport. (He charges me $20 each way for the airport transfer-which seems very reasonable given how long it takes to drive. Michael can be reached at sklenar2012@gmail.com ).
The view from Wesley's front door

During the afternoon I try and sleep while it rains. Later I talk with Wesley's brother, who teaches English. He's an impish older man, with wild long hair and a big toothy smile. He's so soft spoken I have to lean in to catch his words. Wesley's mom, who is 93 makes a nice fish diner for us on an open fire at the back of the losman.
Wesley and I leave at 7pm and walk into his forested yard. We spend about 30 minutes trying to solicit a Sangihe scops owl, but get no response. Several owl-sized bats quietly fly by, adding to the tension. I suggest we try elsewhere and Wesley takes me to his garden, which is about a kilometer away in the foothills above his home. Along the way, we stop and try for the scops-owl at several sites. No response. The moon is brilliant and the night so beautiful. Wesley explains sometimes the owl is easy but other birders miss it even after several nights in the forest. He suggests we wait for an hour then try again. We rest in a little lean to shelter in his garden. I am so tired, I fall fast asleep on a simple bamboo bed, while Wesley waits.
I wake after and hour and we set out again. Wesley shows me a pair of little emerald green vipers he's been tracking for three years. He explains there is a big one down by his home. We descend to an open area of coconut palms and start to tape. After a five minute wait, we get a single response! (The call is higher pitched and longer than Sulawesi scops). The bird continues to call from a distance. Wesley suddenly gets excited-he saw the bird fly by. A minute later I glimpse it in flight between the trees. Soon we see it again and again, flying between trees and hear it-now an excited two note call. Wesley spotlights a perched bird. It's similar looking to a Sulawesi scops, not particularly small, gray-brown (perhaps a little darker than the Sulawesi birds and more strongly marked with a darker crown, wing coverts and stronger breast markings). I am just thrilled. It's after 11pm, and I was feeling I was never going to find this owl. Plus I have my flight early tomorrow. The big moon shines on us. Mountains encircle us on three sides, and the sea stretches out in front of us on the fourth. I feel happy. We hike back to Wesley's. Along the way he shows me the big green viper-it's coiled on a branch at head height. A short, fat vividly colored snake with a remarkable strong triangular jaw. Wesley explains he has known this snake for twenty years. He also shows me a tarsier jumping actively through a thicket to avoid his flashlight.
Back at Wesley's I lie on the hard bed and listen to the sounds of the forest outside. It takes me over an hour to calm down and sleep.
April 29th. It's a short night. My alarm beeps at 4:45am. Michael and his wife have already arrived to pick me up and take me back to the airport. We have coffee and I say goodbye and thanks to Wesley.
Michael drives slowly on the very twisting road back to the airport. Despite this we are first to arrive at the terminal so we loaf around and enjoy another coffee. I then catch the short flight back to Manado.
At Manado, I have a few hours to kill before my flight to Makassar. (Unfortunately I wasn't able to fly directly to Luwuk in Eastern Sulawesi). Again I have a few hours to wait at Makassar airport. Strangely the time on the departure board is an hour later than the actual departure time. I end up running through the airport and am last on the plane. The plane touches down at Luwuk's very small airport at sunset. I take a cab into town and am surprised when the cabbie tells me there is an evening ferry to Salakan on the island of Peleng (my ultimate destination and home to an endemic scops owl). I buy a ticket at the harbor and then find some delicious tofu in a spicy orange-colored sauce.
Back at the boat I am surprised that my seat is actually a bunk-one of over 400.
The ferry that runs from Luwuk to Salakan

It's tiny and hard, and in a very packed, airless and claustrophobic low room. I wrap my backpack around my arm, and fall asleep holding it. I wake around midnight as the boat docks at Salakan, my backpack still wrapped in my arms.
April 30th. I am really tired as I disembark the boat. Salakan is a small town, but everyone is at the harbor. I check into a nearby hotel and dump my backpack. Then  find an Ojek (motor cycle for hire). The rider takes me up to Kawalu, the second village north (10km) of town. It's a beautiful night for a motorcycle ride. The rider drops me off at the village. He leaves. No one's around. Just the moon and me. I set off back down the road to Salakan, taping for Peleng scops owl. For the first 3km I get no response. I do see a lot of owl-sized bats.
Eventually I hear a response about a quarter of a mile up from the road. Preferring to avoid the thick forest, I tape from the roadside, but the owl is unwilling to come in. It's a difficult hike in. It's very steep. I climb over a labyrinth of limestone rocks, with precipitous three foot deep fissures. Closer now, I tape again. The owl responds on and off, still not close. Something flies silently right by my face, I can't be certain it's not a bat. Then silence for an age. Mosquitoes harass me, and I consider looking for another territory that's not on a rocky hill. I pull myself through a 100m of viney tangle. I fall and get up. Fall again. I think to about snakes and how they love limestone, and about how my feet are treading unseen into deep holes in the rocks. Finally I emerge under a big tree, silhouetted by the moon. It's so steep that I fall over while scanning the tree. I tape. The owl flies, and I catch it in the flashlight. Eventually I see it perched. It's clearly a scops owl with a whitish throat and streaked chest on a gray-brown owl. Perhaps a little smaller than Sulawesi scops? Importantly the call is completely different-a long querulous note. The owl will sometimes repeat these notes 3-6 times, getting shorter and higher pitched. I also hear the owl duet with an unseen partner. The first bird calls, then the second makes a slightly lower pitched call. This is brilliant. It's great to be alone in the forest with this little known owl. Returning to the road, I end up going through a farm. I tiptoe unseen through the garden. Fortunately no dogs bark.
Back at the road I try and get a ride. It's 3am. The first three bikes have no room, but stop to check on me. The fourth bike runs me back to Salakan. He kindly gives me the ride for free. It's 4am, when I arrive at the hotel. I creep in quietly to avoid waking the clerk.
I wake at 8am. I go down to the docks, where I am told the boat goes at 4pm.
Salakan

Fortunately my room has a TV and I while away a few hours watching National Geographic shows. For a change of scene I board the boat at 2:30pm, which was the right choice because without explanation it leaves an hour early. It's a beautiful journey by to Luwuk on mainland Sulawesi. The sea is flat calm. I see a few phalaropes and flying fish from the boat. The sun sets over the mountains above Luwuk as we pull into the harbor.
The approach to Luwuk

There are a ton of guys at the harbor hustling for business. One agrees to take me to Ampana (a town about 5 hours away from which I will take a ferry to the Togian Islands). Due to a lack of a common language there is some confusion. I am taken to a small office, where I wait for an hour. Then four other guys arrive, and we load up into a car and finally take off for Ampana. Almost immediately I fall asleep, only to wake with a start when the car takes a corner too fast. It's a swift and slightly scary ride. At least the driver kindly drops me off around midnight at the nice Marina Cottages in Ampana.
May 1st. I am up at 7am. Breakfast is brilliant. I want to gorge, but I have to get to the harbor to make sure I catch the morning ferry. I buy a ticket for the 9am ferry and another for the Togian Islands National Park. The islands are home to the newly discovered endemic Togian boobook.
Online the boat reportedly takes 90 minutes. This one takes 3 1/2 hours. Still the gulf of Tomini is calm and beautiful. There are a few tourists (and a lot of locals) on the boats. All the tourists are heading for diving resorts. No one, but me, is looking for birds. I stay on one of the main island Palu Batu Dako at Wakai Cottages. Another beach front bungalow.
The view from Wakai Cottages

I eat a fish lunch in a small warung (local restaurant) in Wakai and then rest up during the heat of the day.
I take an Ojek to Tanempo (4km inland) and at the end of the sealed road. The rider shows me a trailhead. Lacking a detailed location for the owl, I check it out. Unfortunately the trail goes up to a nearby waterfall. I meet a bunch of friendly locals, who take selfies with me. I'm soaked with sweet, so it's a little weird. After that the trail gets quite technical and I decide to turn around-this isn't a good owling site. I follow the main road inland, which is now just a gravel track. It follows a valley through coconut groves, fruit trees and patches of second growth forest. There are a lot of small farms along the way. Everyone waves and says "hello". After a couple of kilometers the trail climbs through some degraded forest. I am hoping to find some good forest before it gets dark. Foolishly in my haste I forgot to bring water. It's hot and there is no shade. I feel light headed, but press on, eager to get to good forest. Eventually I come to a huge concrete bridge that's painted black and pink. The government must have plans to open up the track into a full road. The track then winds through more second growth and cow pastures.
Cow pastures on the hike inland from Tanempo

Finally after 5-6 kilometers I reach some big trees, and the track climbs into the mountains. After a couple more kilometers I reach the summit. The sun is setting and the views of the green island spreading out to the blue waters are beautiful.
View from the summit

The track just beyond the summit

I descend for a ways, then tired and dehydrated I stop at a small clearing and rest. The sky turns from light blue, to orange and finally black.
I start taping for the Togian boobook. No response. Wearily I hike back towards the summit, taping every few hundred meters. Just below the summit I hear a rustling. I turn my headtorch, and a few faces away a big babirusa lifts it's head and sniffs at me. This is a tall, slender wild pig, with four tusks, two grow in a big arc over its snout and back to it's forehead. It has hairless gray skin, like an elephant. I freeze, waiting to see what it does. A moment later it takes off and runs into some bushes, then snorts loudly at me. I hustle down the trail eager to give it space.
At the next clearing I get a distant response from the boobook, a series of frog-like barking croaks. I hike back up the trail to get a little closer. The bird is calling high in a big tree, so it's pointless walking through the thick undergrowth to get closer. I have to get it to fly in near me. Eventually a second bird commences calling. It's also high in a really dense tree. Eventually both fall silent. I wait. And wait. Eventually I try spotlighting the big trees-which is fairly pointless. All I see are leaves. I wait some more, but hear nothing. Reluctantly I move on down the trail. I am surprised to see flashlights ahead. I meet a couple of friendly guys with a bucket of freshwater shrimp and a small eel.
As I make my way back towards town I hear 16 Togian boobooks. Several are fairly near. I use playback to try and lure them from the canopy of tall trees. A owl-sized bat near a calling owl briefly causes some excitement, then disappointment. I spend hours staring at big trees, stark against the moon. I am really tired and dehydrated, so most of the time I do this laying on my back.
I reach Tanempo after midnight. A tiny store is open and I buy a couple of soft drinks and demolish them lustily. Even in the village I hear boobooks. I traipse through rice paddys to the forest edge. I tape, but each time the owls fall quiet.
I walk about half way to Wakai, when a motorbike passes. I wave it down. It takes ages for the rider to turn around. He kindly agrees to take me to my cottage. Even from the back of the bike I smell liquor. We weave slowly, drunkenly down the country road and back to town.
May 2nd. I wake around first light. It takes a moment before the disappointment of last night hits me. I eat breakfast at the cottages. My hostess tells me they were worried about me last night. I do my best to explain. He husband, Harun, kindly lets me use his mobile to call Nurlin, (a capable bird guide I am meeting in Palu, info@malia-tours.com ). Nurlin has seen the boobook and has some helpful suggestions, chiefly to get under the canopy, rather than to tape from more open areas. And to limit playback. My plan is to repeat last night's long hike, but to set of earlier and to get much further along the trail-as it was only the last stretch of the trail that passed through reasonably good forest, where I could get under the canopy. And this time I would bring something to fucking drink!
I eat a good lunch and then prep my gear. I hear distant thunder and worry a bit about rain ruining the owling. I pack my gear into a Ziploc bag just in case. Harun's wife kindly sends me off with a big piece of cake.
I catch an ojek to the end of the sealed road at Tanempo and buy some drinks, then head up the track. Ominous slate-colored clouds build over the mountains. It thunders. A farmer stops me, points at the sky and cautions me. Later, another stops me and I explain about the boobook. I play him a recording. "Ah tokeiah", clearly an onomatopoeia. It's a sweaty climb over the mountain. Just after the summit, the sun starts to set. I eat the cake, and am thankful for the sustenance. I hustle faster down the trail, wanting to get deeper into this new territory before night falls. After a few kilometers the trail levels out and the forest opens into farmland. It's been raining lightly for a while now. I see a guy by his farm and ask with gestures if I can shelter on his back porch. He understands, smiles and nods. I climb up and he disappears. Soon he returns with three young guys. I explain about the tokeiah, and play the recording for them. We introduce ourselves. The guys stand around and smoke.
Eventually the rain eases, and I set out, up the dark trail and start taping. I arrive at a patch of nice secondary forest when it starts to rain again. A steady rain. Too much for owling. It's noisy on the leaves. I retreat to the farm and hop on the porch. I move a bit of wood out my way revealing a shiny fat scorpion. I put the wood gently back, and leave well alone. Soon the rain starts to pound on the roof. Run off from the roof soaks the porch. I decide to ask if I can shelter inside the house. I jump down and run through the downpour, up a ladder and knock loudly. No response. I bang louder and again no response. Perhaps he can't hear me, the rain is really pounding on the metal roof. I carefully unlatch the door and step into the dry, smokey space. "Hello". No response. I quietly walk through the house-it's very sparse. No furniture. A chainsaw is in a bedroom. I close the door and lay down on the warm rough planks. A cow is tied up, under the house. It moves around, gently rocking the whole house. An hour passes and the rain eases. I get up to leave. A large huntsman spider bears witness to my trespass. I slip out, carefully latching the door with a piece of wire, just as I had found it.
I hike for a kilometer in the drizzle, before it starts to rain in earnest. Frustrated I turn around, again, and return to the farm. Half way back to the farm I notice a bright star. I stop, and realize the sky is clearing. I return towards the mountain again. At a good patch of forest I play a tape and get a very distant response. A few minutes later something flies by, I spotlight it and can see it's an owl. A small brown owl with a brown back and whitish belly. It disappears and does not call. I am not really sure what I have seen. I go back to taping. I hear a soft quiet growl above me. I spotlight the place, a Togian boobook is looking at me. A small earless owl, with yellow eyes, a weak pale supercilium, the upper-parts are brown with lighter markings on the head and white spots on the scapulars, a brown mottled chest, a whitish belly with some indistinct brown markings and rather weak looking unfeathered pale legs. Oh brilliant! I enjoy long looks at this rarely seen owl. All I have to do now is cross the mountain. Its a longish (10km) walk back to Tanempo on a wet trail. Hundreds of frogs sing from the big puddles on the trail. I hear a couple more distant boobooks, but don't stop and tape them. About halfway back, a big amber moon emerges from behind the palms. Thousands of stars shine. Fireflies glow from the tallest trees. Trail-side cows, move slowly out of my way, their hollow wooded bells ringing softly. I reach Tanempo at 9:30pm and hail the first motorcycle. I should probably be more discerning. Tonight's rider also smells of liquor. Still its a great slow motion drunken ride back to the cottages. At my door a wire-haired dog that I had befriended waits for me. Despite the hike, I am wired and it takes ages until I'm calm enough to sleep.
May 3rd. Despite my best efforts I can't sleep past 5:30am. It's already bright out. People, dogs and roosters are all making a commotion. I pack and clean she cowshite of my pants. (Last night I must have walked through every cowshite on the trail). Showered and fed I say goodbye and thanks to my host and walk down to the docks.
I catch the 9am fast-boat-which turns out to be genuinely fast. A few times it stops in the channel. A mechanic works on it briefly and then we resumes our journey.
Back in Ampana, the docks are noisy and full of hustle. I discover the van to Palu leaves at 5pm. That's six and a half hours. I walk around in the hot sun and end up at an airless warung where I eat an early lunch. I decide to catch an ojek to the Marina Cottages (where I had stayed three nights ago). I now have WiFi and a beach view. I while away the afternoon checking in with Tui and Nurlin on WhatsApp and watching a big storm come in and pound the place for about an hour.
Torrential downpour at Marina Cottages

I catch another ojek back to the harbor and meet my van. Luckily the guy who sits next to me speaks great English. He's married to a Finn and we talk a lot about Western culture, values and marriage. We stop at a roadside fish place. I pick a fish out of a bucket of ice, and its grilled up and served on rice. Delicious.
The journey to Palu takes almost 12 hours. It's tedious and uncomfortable trying to sleep. The van lacks wipers, and during periods of heavy rain we have to drive slowly.
May 4th. Nurlin had arranged to meet me at 3am at a beach-side hotel in Palu. I ended up being a couple hours late. I find him and his driver asleep in an old white Mazda van outside the hotel. One of the first things I learn is that Alfonds' brother, Victor had just died.
We drive out of Palu as day breaks and through rice paddys and small villages. Then we climb through the forest to a higher valley also filled with paddys. We stop at a small village and eat breakfast. Then we press on and drive higher into the forested mountains of Lore Lindu National Park. Nurlin and I talk owls. Because I have seen all the species of owls in Sulawesi, my goal is to look for "white spotted boobook". This is a newly discovered bird. It has alternatively been reported as a young cinnabar boobook, a race of cinnabar boobook or a new, and not yet scientifically described species. Nurlin explains it occurs alongside cinnabar boobook at Lore Lindu, which, if he's correct, effectively rules out that its a race of that bird. He also explains that he does not have a recording of this bird's call and that it is unknown to him. This means we are going to have to track one down during the day. That won't be easy. The park is a massive forest. Furthermore Nurlin reports the birds are not using the same roosting site repeatedly. Still he is optimistic we can track one down. Before we get to the park headquarters we stop at a couple of sites where Nurlin has seen white spotted boobook before. We hike around, off trail, scanning tangles. We don't find any owls, but I do get stung by a bush. Nurlin tells me the pain will go away in three days. (He's right of course. Mostly it didn't hurt, but for the next three days when ever I touched the many parts of my body that had been stung I would feel sharp pain).
Eventually we break for lunch, and drive down the far side of the park, and stop at a small warung in the second village. We eat fried tempe, rice and hot sambal (Sunda style). It's brilliant. We drive a little further to a new guesthouse (Homestay Nasional) and take a break for a couple of hours. Nurlin's niece, Yana joins us. She's a collage student studying to be an English teacher. She's here to learn the ropes of the bird tour business. (Yana's not a birder, but is unfailingly positive. Over the next three days she enthuses every time we see an owl. She hikes miles off trail without falling in a pair of white gym shoes). At 3pm we drive back into the mountains in the van. We stop and pick up Lito, a former hunter who works with Nurlin as a bird guide. Lito is a powerfully built guy who wears a big smile.
Back in the park we try more off trail bushwacking in search of roosting boobooks but find none. Eventually it gets too dark to search the forest and we hike back to the road. Nurlin takes me to a site for Cinnabar boobook. (I had seen this bird at Gunung Ambang, but wanted to see it here. It had been explained to me that the "white-spotted boobook" maybe just the local race of Cinnabar boobook). Nurlin thought different-that they are separate species. So I wanted to see both. In no time we had a response. By moving away from the bird, and taping I was able to catch it in flight as it moved towards me. Eventually I got good views of a perched bird. To me this bird looked and sounded like the birds at Gunung Ambang. (Rob Hutchinson, an experienced bird guide later shared a photo of a Cinnabar boobook taken here. The photo shows a bird, clearly similar to the birds in Gunung Ambang, but with white spotting on the otherwise cinnamon belly feathers).
We return Lito to his home, and try for Speckled boobook in his back yard. No owls, just a gang of noisy piglets. We had planned to visit a couple of other lowland sites for other owls (that I had earlier seen with Alfonds), but it starts to rain heavily. We return to the homestay and eat yellowfin tuna for dinner. It's still pouring when we finish dinner, so we decide to call it a night.
May 5th. I get up at 3:15am. We eat an early breakfast at the homestay and drive back up to Lore Lindu, picking up Lito along the way. Our plan is to look for owls along the Anaso Track. This is an old track from a 1970s Japanese logging operation that climbs the mountains. It's a legendary birding trail giving unique access to higher elevation forest. Lower on the trail we tape for Minahassa masked owl. (I am still hoping for a view of a perched bird). We try a series of spots along the first mile of the trail. A big bat flies in at one of them, giving us a moment of excitement. But no owls. Dawn breaks. A distant Cinnabar boobook calls.
We change tactics. We search for a roosting white-spotted boobook. We hike for several kilometers up to Anaso Track. Regularly we venture off the track, and off trail for long detours through promising looking forest.
Thick forest near the Anaso track

Lito and Yana on the Anaso track

Despite a lot of effort-six hours of hiking, we find no boobooks. We do see a pair of large Sulawesi bear-cuscus, a rare arboreal mammal. As the weather warms, Lito cuts a vine, and crafts a head-band out of it. He looks like the spitting image of Sylvester Stallone in Rambo. Well, except for the smile. Hungry and tired we return to the homestay for lunch. I try and sleep after lunch, but it's hot and I have had too much coffee.
At 3:30pm we set off to some nearby paddys in search of Eastern grass-owl. This is a bird I saw in 2002 in Mindanao, when I flushed one from a swampy grassland. I am eager to see it again, and hopefully get a better view. Until a couple of years ago this was considered a rare bird in Sulawesi. Now they are regularly seen hunting near Lore Lindu. We park and start to walk along a farm track that runs through extensive paddys.
The grass owl site

We find a hunting spotted harrier and black-winged kite. At the end of the track we get talking to a guy. He asks for a photo with me. Much to my amusement he goes back into his home, and emerges minutes later in a police uniform, complete with an assault rifle. We take some pictures. He explains he assigned to Poso. This town was the site of a lot of killings between Christian and Muslim people a few years ago. Understandably he didn't like his job. On weekends he returns to the family farm to get away from it. I wish him well and we resume searching for grass-owls. We end up back at the van scanning the horizon for owls. Lito yells out. A grass-owl is quartering the paddys. It looks like a barn owl, but with very long legs and a darker mantel. It's a gorgeous bird. I appreciate getting to watch an owl in the day time and not harassing it with a spotlight or playback. I watch the owl for several minutes before it plunges into some tall grasses and disappears.
We drive back though the paddys and see a second bird. This one passes much closer by, and in the late afternoon sun looks glorious-big and buffy.
On the way back to the homestay we stop at a cacao plantation. It's dark as we walk behind the farm house and start to tape. We eventually get a manic response from a pair of speckled boobooks. They fly into a small tree, and we get brilliant views of these fantastic owls. I am struck by how heavy the bill looks for a relatively small owl.
Next we visit another farm and tape out a very obliging Sulawesi scops owl. We also try for Minahassa masked-owl at several sites, but fail to get any response.
After a delicious diner at the homestay we walk through the village to some nearby fields and tape for Sulawesi masked-owl but fail to see one.
May 6th. I wake at 4:30am, and after breakfast we drive back towards the mountains of Lore Lindu.
View from the van at dawn, driving to Lore Lindu

Along the way we stop and tape for masked-owls (both species) but find none. We do hear a distant speckled booboook. This is the last day of owling on the trip. My goal is to find a roosting "white-spotted boobook." I am not optimistic after spending many hours over the last couple of days walking off trail hoping to flush a boobook from a low roost. We hike up a side creek, next to a very primitive bamboo and tarp shelter. There is no farm, so I assume it belongs to someone harvesting from the forest. I'm walking behind Lito, when he flushes a small brown owl from low in a thicket. I catch sight of it as it flies swiftly and disappears into a patch of dense trees. I stand watch from a small ridge, while Nurlin and Lito make several passes of the area, but we never relocate it.
Nurlin takes off to check another area, while Lito and I continue to expand our search. It's more of the same. Very steep hills, spiny rattan vines. The bush that stings. Fallen logs to clamber. Eventually we hear Nurlin. I ask Lito to translate, but he shrugs, indicating whatever Nurlin's saying is no big deal. After a while we slowly make our way back to the van to regroup. Nurlin excitedly tells me that he flushed a pair of roosting boobooks. He could not confirm what species because he didn't want to risk flushing them again. We returned to the area, scrambling up a steep slope. Nurlin shows me the spot where he flushed the owls out of a sapling. Twenty yards up the hill, something flushes over me and lands up slope. I get my bins on it. It's a "white spotted boobook". The owl looks bigger than I had expected-but this could be due to seeing it in the dim understory. The background color is a uniform cinnamon, with no barring seen. The head is uniform, except for pale eye-brows, which are not white, but a very light cinnamon color. The bill is pale and horn colored and does not appear small. The breast has prominent white spots. On the belly the spots are larger and more profuse. I can't see the mantle, but briefly see the scapulars and wing coverts-some of these had white spotting, but my view of the side was too brief to be certain exactly which feathers are spotted. The tail was obscured by the tips of the primaries, whose tips appeared uniform cinnamon. The feet were pale yellowish and unfeathered. I crept quite close to the owl, and was even able to take some crap pictures on my phone.
The "white spotted boobook" is somewhere in this frame

Terrible iPhone picture of "white-spotted boobook"

Wow! I feel elated. Even if this is not a new species of Sulawesi owl, its still brilliant to have seen something that's not pictured in my book. Plus it had started to feel like an impossible quest to find an owl sleeping in the vast forest.
I happily say goodbye and thank you to Lito. He waves goodbye and hops on his motorcycle. We return to Palu, which is hot and busy. Nurlin kindly invites me to his home for lunch. I meet his charming son, Wallace Jr. We eat a good lunch and I get to browse through Nurlin's library of bird books. He has WiFi, so I make a WhatsApp call to Tui. Later Nurlin runs me to the fancy Mercur hotel. We plan to reunite after a couple of hours and check out a Sulawesi masked-owl that lives in the next town.
Nurlin picks me up at at 5pm. Wallace Jr is with him, and another guide, Allin, who works with Nurlin. We drive up to Dongalla (a port town) about an hour away arriving at dusk. We meet another local guide, Kasman (Nurlin works very hard to develop a team of bird guides). Kasman found the owls nesting in a tower at the harbor.
Dongalla harbor

We wait around, and once it's fairly dark, we see a big owl fly into the tower. A few minutes later a second owl perches on an abandoned building. We are able to spotlight it and get great views of this really large and beautiful owl, with it's big beak, powerful legs and exceptionally long neck. We get to watch it fly around several times. I am really struck by the huge wings of this bird.
We loaf around the docks for a while and enjoy the sound of the water and boats. It's a beautiful place to linger. Eventually we grow hungry and drive to a local warung for dinner. I get dropped off at the fancy hotel. I should sleep because tomorrow will be a long day, but it's hard for me to settle after such a good day.
May 7th. After a great breakfast at the Mercur, Nurlin picked me up and ran me to Palu airport. I said goodbye and thanks. I flew home (thanks to the international date line), via Jakarta, Taipei and Seattle.

Many thanks to everyone who helped me with including Ross, Shaun, David, Rob and Nick (and his excellent website http://burung-nusantara.org/birding-indonesia/ ) . And thank you to the guides who all did an excellent job of finding owls: Nurlin, Lito, Alfonds, Mensur, Wesley and Adun.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

2018 owling

I live in Portland, Oregon with my wife Tui, two boys, Charlie (six) and George (three) and pit bull, Maile. This post details my owling exploits in the Pacific Northwest this year.

Jan 1st. The year began with blue skies, ice and wind. George and I wrapped up in jackets and gloves, then ventured out with Maile to Reed Canyon. We quickly found the beautiful barred owl in the usual small fir. First owl of 2018.

Later that day I convinced Tui and Charlie to accompany George and I to Sauvie and Scappose Bottoms for some winter owling. On Sauvie we relocated the pair of Great-horned owls that roost low in some ivy clad cotton woods. I also got to see a fairly dark (female) barn owl roosting in a barn.

At Scappose we watched the sun set and the moon rise besides a snowy Mount Rainier. I was surprised no Short-eared owls came out to hunt with the harriers over the wet pastures. (Last month I saw several at this site). A family of nutria crawled out of the cold slough and began feeding in the frozen field. Later a distant great-horned owl began to sing. On the drive back Tui and I spotted a pair of roadside Great-horned owls in silhouette.

Jan 2nd. Determined to build on yesterdays luck, I drove out to Broughton Beach in search of short-eared owls. Maile and I flushed  a dark bird (female) near the river. I got really great views as it flew out over the Columbia River, then wheeled back in to some thick cover at the river's edge.

I tried Vanport next but failed to find the resident great-horned owls. Next stop was Kelly point park, where I again failed to find any great-horned owls by last year's nest. I decided to work the conifers in the park, looking for saw-whet owls. Instead I found a big barred owl low in a small conifer. Nice!

I tried working the Newton Road (Forest Park) for pygmy owl, but it was windy and I came up short. Also no sign of the Oak's Bottom Screech owl today.

At dusk Charlie and I walked under the bluff at Oaks Bottom and found the screech owl silhouetted in the twilight near it's roosting cavity. A moment later it flew. A few minutes later we refound it (or another screech owl) about 300 yards to the south. 

Jan 6th. I took the boys and Maile to Reed Canyon, where we easily found the barred owl in the usual small fir tree.

Later George and I went to Tryon State Park. We checked in at the overlook at Oaks bottom, where I glimpsed the screech owl roosting in the broken ash tree. George and I did quite a long night hike at Tryon, in search of great-horned owls. We came up short, but not for lack of trying; George diligently scoured the tree-line for big owls. Despite the darkness George did a fantastic job of staying on the trail.

Jan 12-13th. In the morning the whole family went to Reed Canyon. We got nice views of the barred owl in the small fir tree.

That afternoon I drove with Maile down to Josephine county. My first stop was Merlin, where we walked around a rural subdivision in search of screech owls. No luck.

Next I drove to the Siskiyou Field Institute. I played a recording of a saw whet owl, and almost immediately a  large owl flew in. I didn't get a flashlight on the owl, and my impression was a slender, long winged owl. I suspected long-eared, but doubted this, and wondered if I had just misjudged the size and shape of barred owl. Moments later, my question was answered, when the owl screamed from a nearby oak. This is the first time I have had a barn owl fly in to investigate a smaller owl's song.

I worked the fields and wood lots of the Illinois Valley for owls, but nothing was calling. I ended up at Lake Selmac, where I was quickly rewarded with three singing screech owls. By now it was after midnight. I walked along the lake-shore, and heard a single saw-whet note. A minute later it uttered a more diagnostic alarm call.

Tired I set up the tent, glad for Maile's warmth. I had set my alarm for 630am. I walked with Maile for a couple of miles, listening for Great-horned owls. After dawn I tried for northern Pygmy, but failed to see or hear any.

Jan 21st. I had found a ton of owl crap on several trees at Powell Butte yesterday. I returned this evening and soon heard a singing screech owl. Despite much persistence, it eluded me high in a fir tree. 

Jan 27th. George and I went for a walk around Tryon Creek. I checked a small fir where last week I  had found a lot of owl crap and pellets under it. Amazingly I found a diminutive saw-whet that I was able to show George.

Jan 28th. The family want to Sauvie's Island where I found two female barn owls. One in a cypress tree and the other in a barn.

Later I walked Maile to the Oaks and got to see the screech owl squeezed into it's usual cavity in the broken ash tree.

Feb 4th. Andy Frank had let me know about a new location for nesting great-horned owls at Vanport Wetlands. The old nest was damaged in a storm and was clearly abandoned. I arrived at first light and was able to make out both the profile of the head of the female bird on the nest, and her mate perched nearby.

I checked Kelly Point for barred owls, but found nothing.

Later that afternoon the whole family went to Tryon, where I relocated the saw whet in the same roost site, and was able to show it to Charlie and Tui.

That afternoon, Charlie and I walked to Oak's Overlook and I was able to see the screech owl crammed into it's cavity in the broken ash tree.

Feb 6th. I got up before 4am, and drove out to Wapato on Sauvie's Island. I walked around under a bright moon, hoping to catch sight of hunting owls. All I found was a sleeping heron, high in an Oak, that briefly fooled me.

I tried a couple of other spots, but came up short. Then at Oak Island Road, lucked into an aggressive saw-whet owl, which buzzed me. I ended up enjoying great views of this beautiful little owl.

I ended the morning checking the BPA road in the West Hills for pygmy owls, but found none.

Later I walked Maile around Oaks Bottom and got to enjoy the beautiful screech owl sunning itself int he usual broken ash tree.

Feb 10th. Despite staying out after midnight, I met Andy Frank out at the Sandy River Delta at 545am. We quickly located  a calling saw-whet owl, but were unable to see it.

Later I walked with the whole family along Oaks Bottom and found the screech owl in the usual broken ash tree.

Feb 11th. I took the boys out to Sauvie's Island for a fire by the beach. We also stopped and checked for owls along the way. I was able to find two roosting female barn owls.

Late that afternoon Maile and I walked along Oaks Bottom, where I found the screech owl in the usual site.

Feb 12th. I tried the banks of the Columbia near the airport for short-eared owl, but found none. At Vanport I checked out on the nesting great-horned owls, and found one adult on the nest.

I tried for barred owl at Kelly Point, but missed it. Similarly the wind in forest park didn't help with my pygmy owl quest.

Feb 17th. I hiked around Tryon with Maile and found the saw-whet in the same small conifer. On the way home, I checked on the Oaks screech owl, which was roosting in the usual broken ash tree.

Feb 18th. I met up with Andy Frank, and we hiked at dusk from his home into Forest Park. We wanted to check-in on a local pair of barred owls. One of these birds had attacked Andy a year or two ago. We both wore safe glasses, just to be safe. We did get views of a male owl that flew in and duetted vigorously with an (unseen) mate. Wet snow fell heavily as we delighted in the loud owls.

Feb 19th. I hiked out late in the day to the overlook at Oaks and glimpsed just the head of the screech owl deep within it's hole.

Feb 24th. I took Maile out for a morning walk and checked on the screech owl at Oaks Bottom. From the overlook I could see it's head.

Late in the afternoon George and I drove out to Sauvie's Island.heard an I found two lovely barn owls, on in a cypress tree and the second in a barn.

I then checked on a great-horned owl nest that Steve Jaggers had alerted me to. On the nest a female owl called to a male that I eventually found almost half a mile away, singing low in a cottonwood tree. At the south end of the Island I heard another singing great-horned owl.

Feb 25th. I took Charlie to Tryon Creek late on a wet winter's afternoon. We quickly found the saw-whet at it's usual roosting spot. At last years barred owl nesting site we failed to find any barred owls, but did run into Rhett Wilkin's. We hiked around the park as it got darker, hearing both a pygmy owl and a pair of singing barred owls.

Feb 26th. I returned to Sauvie's island and checked on a couple of great-horned owl nest that Steve Jaggers had let me know about. I also found two more on my own. Each had a bird (presumed female) on the nest and no visible mate nearby. I tried for barn owls but found none.
Next I drove to Tryon to try and find some of the owls that I had heard last night with Charlie and Rhett. The saw whet was absent from it's usual roost. However I heard a pair of duetting pygmy owls, by the visitor's center, and saw the male bird high in a Doug Fir. By the old barred owl nest site I found a barred owl, and heard another pair of pygmy owls. Again i was able to locate just the male. Then nearby found a third singing male. What a great day!

March 3rd. George and I went hiking at Tryon State park. We looked for barred owls, but found none. We heard two different singing pygmy owls, but were unable to see either. On the drive back home, I stopped at the overlook at Oaks Bottom and saw the screech owl crammed into the usual cavity in the broken ash tree.

March 4-5th. I drove down to Coos and Curry counties to look for owls. My first stop was near Coquille. I was searching for barred and screech owls. I ended up hearing a great-horned owl, giving an interesting bark-like call. I tried a couple more spots for screech and barred owls, but found none. I did hear a second great-horned owl singing from across the Coquille river.

I stopped by the cranberry bogs near Cape Blanco and tried for barn and great-horned owls, but found neither. At Cape Blanco I heard singing great-horned and saw whet owls. The moon was now up, and it was a fantastic clear cold night. I drove 101 to Gold Beach, then inland along the Rouge River. I stopped a couple of spots of nice looking madrone patches. I eventually found a great little screech owl singing low in a tree. I tried a couple more places for barred owl. but by now it was 130am and I was exhausted. I camped with Maile by the side of the Rouge.

It was a really cold night, so I had no problem getting out of the tent around six. Maile and I walked along the south side of the Rouge looking for pygmy owls. After a couple of hours we gave up and I drove north to Mt Humbug. I had to climb up to the snow at around 1000' before I found a responsive pygmy owl that came in for a brief view.

March 10th. I took George on a long trip around Sauvies Island. We found five great-horned owls, all on nests. Additionally we found a barn owl roosting in a cyprus tree.
Later that evening I walked around Oaks Bottom with Tautai and Maile and we saw the screech owl roosting in the usual broken ash tree.

March 11th George, Maile and I took a lovely sunny hike through Tryon Creek. We found the saw-whet at it's usual roost, low in a small conifer. It was great to see it there, as I had missed it for a couple of weeks.

March 12th. Tui and I went to Vanport, where I showed her the nesting great-horned owl through the scope.
Later that day, Charlie and I rode the bike out to the overlook at Oaks Bottom, where I was able to make out the screech owl roosting deep in the cavity of a broken ash tree.

March 17th. I took my dad and the boys to Tryon State Park, where we heard and I saw a spontaneously singing.

March 18th. I went with Dad and the boys to Sauvie's Island, where we saw two roosting barn owls and three great-horned owls on nests.

March 19th. While checking out the Oak's Screech owl from the overlook, I got a text from a friend about a saw-whet owl. Sure enough we were able to see a lovely roosting saw whet at Blue Lake Park.

March 20th. I took dad and Mail around Oaks Bottom at dusk to check on the screech owls. I lucked into a screech owl in a new cavity at the south end of the reserve. At the usual broken ash tree we found two screech owls staring out of the cavity. (Interestingly the two sites were just about 200 yards apart.

March 25th. I took my Dad and the boys camping in a rented VW camper. At Cottonwood Canyon I found a screech owl roosting and heard a pair of great-horned owls duetting on and off through the night.

March 31st. I went with Dad and the boys to South Beach Sate Park for the weekend. At dusk, George and I drove inland of Seal Rock and found a pair of singing screech owls and  singing saw whet. Both were on the far side of a deep creek, so I was unable to see the owls.

April 2nd. I took Dad and Maile around Powell Butte and found a barred owl low in a Doug fir. First time I have found this species at Powell Butte.

April 8th. George and I stopped by the overlook at Oaks and saw the screech owl roosting in the broken ash tree. We then took a walk around Tryon at dusk in search of Barred owls. We found none, but did hear two, or three pygmy owls.Scouters Mountain.

April 9th. It was a lovely warm evening, so I took George and Maile around Oaks. I found a screech owl in a cavity in a cottonwood. Back at the car, I heard a pair of screech owls singing, and was able to find one, low in a cherry tree.

April 14th The whole family headed to Oaks Bottom. We saw two different screech owls, one in the broken ash and the other in a hole in a cottonwood.

That night, George, Maile and I took a walk around Powell Butte. In the open grassland we found a great-horned owl, in silhouette, perched atop of a small tree.

May 12th. I took George to Tryon state park in the evening. We could hear barred owls calling, and eventually tracked them down to the same general area that they bred last year. We saw two or three adult birds flying around, but neither saw nor heard any juveniles.

May 19th. Tui and I took a hike to Scouters Mountain, a small Metro reserve in Happy Valley. Almost immediately I heard a group of Stellars' jays harassing something. I hiked quickly down the trail and found three great-horned owls. At least one was a juvenile.

May 20th. My alarm went off at 4am. With some difficulty I got up and drove to Oaks Bottom. I hike to an area where I had been seeing a ton of owl whitewash under a patch of conifers. Sure enough a screech owl was singing it's heart out when I arrived. I was able to find the owl, in silhouette perched on an ash tree. While lsitening for juvenile screech owls (which I never heard) a distant Great-horned owl hooted twice.
I found a second screech owl near the overlook park, where I had left the car.
My next stop was to check on the barred owls at Tryon. I hiked to the area where George and I had found them last week. I was surprised that I could not hear any begging juveniles. I did hear a pygmy owl, and with some difficulty was able to eventually get a view of it in flight. (I also hear a second pygmy nearby).
I eventually heard a couple of barred owls singing. It was now quite light and I was able to find a group of three actively flying and calling together.
That evening I returned with Tui, Maile and the boys. After waiting on the trail for a while two barred owls flew into a nearby tree. We got great views of them preening each other.

May 26th. The whole family went to Marshall Park, near Tryon State Park. We happened into a pair of barred owls, by following the scolding of robins and Stellar's jays.

That afternoon I drove to the Blue Mountains East of Dixie, Washington. Mike and MerryLynn Denny had kindly shared a great-gray owl site. We arrived around 7pm and got great views of a massive adult bird and two juveniles begging.

We found a place to camp nearby. We hiked a third of a mile from the car. The views were brilliant.
The view looking north towards the Snake River from the campsite
Eating dinner by the campfire
May 27th. After a fish breakfast we return to the site after breakfast and saw two juveniles and heard a third bird.
The boys near the owl site


June 1st. I walked George and Maile around Oaks Bottom. A scolding robin revealed a roosting screech owl in an ash tree.

June 3rd. My alarm woke me at 3am. First stop was Johnson Creek park, which I was hoping would hold a screech owl, but I found none. I drove to Reed Canyon, where I found a pair of singing screech owls. Along Reed Collage Place I found a hunting barred owl. At first light I heard a second barred owl from Tideman Johnson Park. I ended up scrambling up the steep embankment at the Tacoma Street bridge and finding it in a residential neighborhood.

June 4th. After dropping of Charlie at school, I took Maile out to MacLeay Park. I heard a robin scolding high above me on a very steep slope. With difficulty I was able to scramble up with Maile. I was expecting a barred owl, which is regular in May and June. Instead I found a screech owl perched very low in an elderberry thicket.

June 8-11th. The whole family took a trip to Southern Oregon to visit Ashland and the Oregon Caves. It rained on the 8th, so I didn't do any owling. We stayed in Talent, in Jackson County. At dusk I found a pair of very responsive screech owls.

On the 9th I checked out the hills behind Gold Hill in Jackson county and heard a distant Flammulated owl, and a screech owl. Driving down I saw a black bear crossing the dirt road. I then explored the area south of the City of Rouge River in Josephine county. I heard two very distant Flammulated owls and a great-horned owl. On the drive back I saw a barn owl flying over the freeway near Medford.
On the 10th I drove up to Howard Prairie and saw a roadside long-eared owl from the car. I was listening for saw-whets and spotted owls as I made a circuit around the lake. I heard three great-horned owls and (at a wet meadow) I heard a begging juvenile great-gray owl and a hooting adult bird. Back on the freeway I had a barn owl flying over the car.

June 16th-17th. I took the boys and Maile camping at Northup Horse Camp in Clatsop County. Charlie found a barred owl feather along the creek. Later we heard a pair of barred owls duetting up the valley.

June 17th. My friend Andy Frank to let me know about a barred owl along Balch Creek in Forrest Park. Charlie and I arrived a couple of hours later and found one or two hunting adults and three noisy juveniles begging. One of the adults raided a robin's nest, taking the juvenile robins to feed it's own young!
Barred owl taken by Andy Frank


June 18th. My alarm woke me at 430am. I drove out to Tryon State Park to look for barred owls. I found one or two adult barred owls and heard a singing pygmy owl.

June 23rd. Tui, the boys and I went to Audubon House in forest park. We explored the trails and found an adult barred owl by following a pair of scolding robins.

June 24th-25th. I drove down to Southern Oregon to look for owls in Klamath and Lake counties. I arrived at Fort Klamath at dusk.
Entering Fort Klamath

I drove around the pastures looking for barn owls, but found none. I did get scratched up by some rusty barbed wire, and saw two great-horned owls. Next I was going to search for flammulated and saw-whet owls, but a sudden wind storm nixed that. I made camp and slept for a couple of hours.
I woke and the weather was calm. I stuffed the tent in the car and set off again in search of flammulated and saw-whet owls. I didn't detect either, but heard a distant great gray owl. I also heard two adult and a juvenile barred owl all calling together from a stand of cottonwoods.
The view at first light from the shore of Agency Lake

After dawn I walked 7 miles near Rocky Point Resort before I was able to find a pygmy owl. I then drove SW into Jackson County, near Howard Prairie. I walked another 6 miles looking for pygmy owls, but found none.

My plan for the afternoon was to meet up with Karl Schnenk, Carol (local birder) and Tom Phillips (a spotted owl researcher). Karl showed me three juvenile barn owls in a nest box.  We met the others in Ashland and drove up Dead Indian Road into the mountains. Tom showed us a beautiful spotted owl at the first stop. The owl was fed four mice to check and see if it was feeding juvenile birds. Unfortunately this hasn't been a good breeding year and the owl ate three mice, and cached the fourth.
Northern Spotted owl (iPhone photo)

Beautiful photo from Karl Schnenk

Another beautiful photo from Karl Schnenk

Another beautiful photo from Karl Schnenk


We check out some other sites, but only saw beautiful old growth trees. It was 930pm when I got back to the car. I downed four pints of Starbucks, and drove back to Portland in just four hours.

July 1st. I had heard about a pair of spotted owls in Eastern Linn county. Charlie, Maile and I drove out there. The location was high in the mountains. It was a long (three hours drive), given the site was probably 70 miles as the crow flies from home.

Along the gravel roads we found four grouse families with chicks. We were amazed to see the babies (no bigger than starlings flying). I drove around a corner, and was temporarily blinded by the late afternoon sun. I almost hit a watermelon-sized rock, swerving at the last moment. Swearing too.

We set up tent, then hiked around hoping that the owls might come in and check us out.
View as we hiked around looking for spotted owls

Charlie, after I told him that he would get an ice cream if he found an owl

Beautiful big trees. Home of spotted owls. 

We walked around quite a lot at dusk, hoping to hear singing spotted owls. I kept Charlie close by as there was lots of bear shit along the trails. We did find pygmy owl which was a nice consolation. Once it was dark, we returned to camp and built up the fire. At 1030pm, we were about to get ready for bed when a male spotted owl sung from above us. We soon spot lighted it perched above us. Oh so brilliant. I was really thrilled to see this bird at night. All night I would wake to turn over and hear more distant spotted owls (two birds) singing. 
July 9th. After Dinner George and I took a walk around Tryon state park, where a scolding robin gave away the presence of a lovely barred owl. 
65

Saturday, February 4, 2017

2017 India, Oman and Emirates

India, Oman and the Emirates 2017

"She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate"

I missed Omani owl during an owling trip to Oman and the Emirates in March 2016 http://iainsowls.blogspot.com/2016/04/oman-2016.html
Since then, every day I thought about that owl and plotted my return. This trip grew out of that desire and evolved into a big complicated itinerary through India and back to Oman.

January 13th. After putting the boys to bed, I drive through the dark icy streets to the airport. Tui and I hug goodbye. A freezing wind drives me inside the terminal. It’s late, about 11pm, but the counter at Alaska is wild. Part of a plane had fallen off mid-flight, forcing an emergency landing. Passengers from the flight were in line, angry and scared. It takes ages to get to the counter, and when I do I am told I can’t check in ‘till tomorrow. All the best places to sleep are at the far side of security, so I make do with the carpet by the big glass wall. I sleep fitfully.
January 14th. My alarm chirps at 340am. I check in for my flight and wait at the gate. I am feeling really sick-Tui had had the same thing for a few days. I am cold and a little feverish. On the flight I have too much sinus pain to sleep so watch the snowy fields far below, illuminated by a wintry moon.
At Seatac I get all set with my boarding pass for my flight to Dubai and do my best to sleep at the gate. Tui and Charlie call. School’s been cancelled because of the snow. It’s nice to talk with them. I had taken the same flight last year and it had been great. This year not so much. I’m reeling with pain from my sinuses, my nose won’t stop bleeding. I’m cold, and I can’t stop sweating. I don’t want to go to India, I just want to get better.
It’s a long flight, but I can’t sleep. I watch a couple of movies and close my eyes.

January 15th. Dubai has a massive sprawling airport. I had allowed plenty of time for my connection, but it’s still stressful crossing this behemoth and getting my boarding pass set up for my last leg to Cochin (in Kerala). Fortunately, the flight is a little delayed and I have time to buy a juice and take medicine. By the time I am on the plane I am no longer in pain. I sleep for the whole flight and wake up almost normal. I don’t feel ready for India, but that’s OK, the terminal is orderly and in no time I meet my driver. (Eldhose, who runs birding/nature photography tours in Kerala had set up everything for me).
It’s a luxury to be driven to Eldhose’s place-a small farm with bungalows near Thattekad Wildlife Sanctuary. I arrive around 10pm. Eldhose’s daughter serves up good South Indian food. After dinner Eldhose shows me a fierce looking brown fish owl hunting from a small plantation of rubber trees below the bungalows. I hear it’s thin whistled call. It looks smaller than I expected for a fish owl. With raked ears, a powerful beak and white throat. The chest is finely streaked. Unfeathered legs support powerful feat. A new owl for me. What a great way to start the trip.
The bungalow is basic, but nice. I am exhausted so I decide to sleep for a few hours before going out owling.

January 16th. I am up before my alarm and hit the road at 3am. I decide to work on Oriental scops and mottled wood owls, both lifers. I walk by down a track back to the main road and turn left. After an hour I get a pair of small owls fly over in response to an Oriental scops owl tape. The birds are silent, so I can’t rule out Indian scops owl. I am forced to search from them in a thicket. Alas I don’t find anything but crunchy leaves and jewel-eyed spiders. I am about to give up when I hear an Oriental scops singing near by-it has a very distinctive two part three note song. While searching with the flashlight I flush the singing owl, and see it again in silhouette, but never perched. Not in color.
I walk on. Over a big river. Past a very noisy temple with music and into a sprawling village. It’s a warm night and it’s wonderful to be out. A dry season dusty orange moon hangs in the sky. Dogs bark as I walk on. Eventually I make a U-turn. At the turn off for Eldhouse’s place I hear a big owl hoot. I am a bit thrown by this call-the quality is like mottled wood-owl, but my recording is of a two-note call. I search the edge of the clearing and eventually find three mottled wood-owls, made easy by the hastening dawn. I never get good views, in the first light of dawn I see it’s a big earless owl, that's pale below. Eventually I hear one bird make the same two note call that’s on my recording. I am surprised just how big these owls are-about the size of barred owl back home. Fat jungle birds.
Back at Elhouse’s there a couple of groups of photographers. (Nature photography is a very popular passion for many in India). Eldhose takes a minute from organizing the photographers and shows me a lovely Indian scops owl roosting in a patch of wild ginger. This bird is completely different from the pale gray North Indian birds I had seen at Bharatpur, back in 1991. It’s rufous-brown backed, the breast is washed with pale rufous and very indistinctly streaked. He also shows me an Indian Pitta that comes in to eat meal worms-gorgeous bird.
I end up joining a group of photographers from Chennai. It’s a bit lack luster for me-we don’t see any owls. I do get to see three Sri Lankan frogmouths, Malabar trogon and white-bellied woodpecker. My guide is Danish, and he is a cool guy. He worked with my friend Dave Ward in the Andamans and has lots of advice for the next leg of my journey. He’s a very likable guy-with a special interest in owls and a weakness for food and cigarettes. He has a slight counter culture feel that you sometimes meet with birders-someone who has prioritized birds over more conventional goals (of money, family career etc). 
We eat a great fish curry for lunch, then I return to the bungalow for a siesta.
Danish and I leave in the early afternoon without the photographers for an owl blitz. We take a Mahindra Jeep-an Indian copy of the original Willy’s Jeep, which seems like the perfect vehicle for the task. Our first stop is a village soccer field-in some bamboo at the back of the field he shows me a roosting Indian scops-owl. I get better views than I did this morning, especially of the reddish-brown upper-parts.
We drive to some patchy monsoon forest, where Danish points out a big brown fish-owl in a huge tree. The view is much better than last night’s bird. (Probably due to the light this bird appears big in comparison to the other). I see the massive bill and feet-used for demolishing big land crabs. The sharp streaks on the front of the bird are clearly cross hatched with fine bars.
In a tangle of a thicket Danish tapes for brown hawk owl. Almost immediately a small owl flies in. I assumed it would be a hawk owl, but I am wrong. It’s a jungle owlet (of the chestnut malabarica race, that I had found in Goa in 1991).
After a bumpy drive in the Mahindra we park up by some nice monsoon forest with big trees. We hike up a dry river bed to a brown wood-owl territory. (This is a bird that I really wanted to see. They are not common here. I have seen brown wood owl in Sabah and Nepal, both in 1991, but these birds are likely different species from the South Indian birds, Bornean and Himalayan wood-owls respectively). Whitewash splatted river rocks mark the spot. We start searching. Try as I might to find something before Danish, I fail and he points out a magnificent big brown wood-owl. It’s a big, long Strix, with powerful feet and bill. The whole underside of the owl is strongly barred with rich dark brown, the cheeks are whitish-buff, but darker around the head. The rest of the bird is the same rich dark brown, barred whitish on the wings and tail, 
Emboldened we hike further up the dry creek bed and reach a spot where we tape for Oriental scops-owl. Danish is confident that he can get the bird to respond in the day time. We hear a distant bird-which really makes us hike. It takes 45 minutes to go up two small steep ridges and finally nail down which tree it's singing from. A second bird calls from even higher up. Determined to pull my own weight, I scrutinize the big tree and pull out the owl. It's far above, on a bough, partially hidden by dead leaves. I am feeling pretty good about finding it, as the diminutive owl just melts away into the foliage. This is a gray morph bird, but it’s still tinged with rufous. The bird has drawn itself tall and thin with long ears drawn from a narrow face.
It must be something I ate…..but my guts are feeling terrible. Waves of powerful cramps come over me. I linger behind Danish so I can fart in privacy. I just hope that I can keep it together for the rest of the evening. We drive to a granite hillside, and hike over the hot smooth rocks to a patch of forest where we tape for brown hawk-owl. Again, a jungle owlet flies in. Then another. What great little birds. The sun is still up, so Danish suggest we wait here for it to set, and then try again. He’s right. Just after sunset we tape for the hawk-owl and one flies in right away. It’s an amazing owl. Intense-like an accipiter, with hawk-like wings and massive golden eyes.
We walk along the granite slope to a nearby spot which Danish suggest for Sri Lanka Bay owl. (This nocturnal species is one of my most wanted birds. Bay owls are both highly beautiful and tricky to see. There are only two species, but I have seen neither). We sit on the hot granite and wait around for darkness to fall. Nightjars sing. Bats hawk for unseen insects. Waves of cramps and bad farts come over me. When I am not in pain, sleep threatens. I fall into a dream state, then wake with a start. Again, cycles of cramps and then sleep. Shamefully I excuse myself I give into my weakness and find a thicket and relieve myself. Ah to be a weak tourist! Relieved, I am also a little revived. It’s dark now. We tape and listen. Again, and again. The “other site” has wild elephants and they trampled a dear hunter to death earlier this week. Danish is very eager not to go to that place. So, he works this site hard. We wait for a long time. Again, and again I drift off to sleep. Crazy thoughts dance. He hears a distant bay owl! It’s high above us. We struggle to find a route through the thickets, making false starts then being turned around by impossible walls of bamboo and thorns, after many attempts we get up into the right area of the forest. I ask Danish if he knows people bitten by dangerous snakes. “Oh, many he replies”. We do see a snake hunting frogs, but it doesn’t look intimidating. We tape, and listen, again and again. It feels like forever. Nothing else happens. It looks like we are going to have to deal with the elephants tomorrow. Despite this, Danish is optimistic.
What an amazing day, 7 species of owl and thirteen individuals.

January 17th. I am up before my alarm again. I make my way down to the entrance of Eldhouse’s property and meet Danish there as planned. Our goal is to get a good view of the mottled wood-owl. We walk into the same plantation where I had heard the owls give their dawn roosting calls yesterday. Initially it’s quiet except for a singing brown hawk-owl. Eventually three wood-owls chorus. Far away a second group of wood owls sings in response. There is light in the sky, and the owls sound beautiful. We wait until it’s light, but the sun has yet to rise. Danish sets out into the trees and almost immediately finds a wood-owl high in the canopy. It’s not a great view, but I clearly see the bird is much lighter than yesterday’s brown wood-owl. We make a plan to return later in the day when the light is better. Walking back out of the woods we find a jungle owlet and enjoy great views of this feisty bird.
After a good breakfast at Eldhose’s, I email Tui using his Wi-Fi. Oh, the luxury! We drive to a thicket where Danish has seen roosting bay owls many times. Unfortunately this is a prized bird for photographers, and consequently they have left for parts unknown, deeper in the jungle. There are many signs of elephant, which makes Danish uneasy. He’s been charged by elephants many times, and explains if you fall while running out of these thickets, you will likely be trampled. Lovely! We work a dry stream bed, which has nice overhead tangles-perfect for roosting bay-owls. “Good habitat for king cobra. I have seen them here many times”. This is the ultimate snake, big enough to bite you on the face. If envenomated you can die in 20 minutes-in a rural place like this, getting to a hospital in twenty minutes is never going to happen. I scour the tangles for bay owls, but keep an eye out for the big snake.
We end up going to some nearby sites, full of photographers. I see some orange -headed thrushes and another Indian Pitta. But no bay-owls. After lunch, we take a break. I fall asleep without the fan on. The bungalow gets amazingly hot. When my alarm goes off, I am so overheated that it takes ages to re-oriente myself. I stagger into the shower to cool off. After a long shower and a big drink, I can see straight again. Bay owl, that’s what I am here for.
Danish and I drive out into the forest again. We head out on foot along a track to a temple set in primary forest. Parts of the forest smell like musty piss. ‘The elephants are nearby” warns Danish. The temple is surrounded by electric fencing to keep out the elephants. It’s a safe place for us-if we stay confined within the fence. We sit under a tree and wait for night. A spot-bellied eagle owl calls. This is a bird I have seen before, but still one I would love to get reacquainted with. We try to tape it, and it responds, but is still very distant. Then a bay-owl calls. A beautiful eerie prolonged whistle. We head to the corner of the temple nearest the bay-owl and start taping. After a lot of back and forth, the owl comes in closer, but not that close-maybe 200m beyond the fence. I encourage Danish to go in after it. We slip under the fence and follow an elephant trail, past lots of elephant shit, and an elephant bathing hole, branches broken by elephant, pockets of air that reek of elephants. It would good to be stealthy, but instead a sort of panic takes over as we scrutinize everything with flashlights. We look behind, peer down other trails for elephants. The bay-owl sings, drawing us further out, away from the safety of the temple. Eventually the pull of the owl, is overpowered by our fear. From the stench of the elephants Danish is convinced that one is very close. “Back to the temple now”. He does not have to tell me twice, and we just bolt down the trail and under the fence. Fear and defeat. The owl sings triumphantly.
We resume taping, and after a long, long time the owl comes quite close to the temple. We crawl back under the fence and through a mess of vines towards the owl. It’s very close now, perhaps 5m away. Tension mounts, it’s always hard to know when you should spotlight, but we do, a mass of light bleaches the vines. We scan hopelessly through the tangle. The owl has fallen silent. We scrutinize the leaves, but that’s all they are. Then far away we hear the bay-owl sing. Fuck!
We go back under the fence. Danish chain smokes. A friend of Danish’s comes out, to help with the elephants-he’s lean and young. I am probably the slowest in the group-so he’s probably not going to save me when the elephant charges. We tape some more, and the owl comes in again-after a long wait. This time, not so close, and it falls silent before we can pursue it. We have been at the temple for hours. I encourage Danish to try a different site-this poor owl has endured too much taping already. We drive to a dirt road near Eldhose’s place and walk to a site in drier, more open forest. No bay-owl though. We stop for dinner, much to my surprise we are served beef curry-there are lots of Christians and Muslims here, and eating beef does not have the taboo it carries in Northern India. Still it feels wrong. Like drinking booze in a Muslim country. The food is good of course.
Restored we arrive at some nice primary forest far from Eldhose’s. Almost immediately we hear elephants. Danish orders me to stay in the Mahindra while he tapes nervously for bay-owl. We try a couple of spots along the road, but get no response.
I don’t feel defeated-there is tomorrow, but I am exhausted. Danish is positive, as ever-“we will find it tomorrow”. Back in the bungalow, two big spiders greet me. I nail one with my boot, the other escapes under the bed. I fall asleep, too tired to care. 


January 18th. I slept soundly for 6 hours, then eat a good breakfast, wash my clothes and re-charge my owling gear.
At 10am we return to the temple. Our goal is to check the thickets for roosting bay-owls but we are thwarted by elephants. Everywhere we find steaming piles of fresh dung. We can’t see them, but nearby hear rifle-like cracks of small trees snapping as they move through the jungle.
We head to a new area along the entrance track to the temple. Eldhose apparently heard about one there last night. We are scouring the area, when Danish gets an exciting call. A guide had found a roosting bay-owl here a couple of hours ago. Danish is thrilled at the prospect of not having to deal with the elephants in the night. In a few minutes the guide arrives. There is a lot of talking. Danish asks me to wait in the Mahindra, because an elephant is nearby. They are gone for an hour. This doesn’t feel right. And when they return, a little deflated, it’s clear all is not well. The guide turns out to not be the guide who saw the owl, he just heard about the sighting from another guide, who is tied up with a group of photographers. We take a break and drink 7-up with lime, salt and sugar. A sort of delicious Indian Gatorade. We return to the general area the bird was seen, from watching Danish, it’s clear that they don’t have a clear idea of where to look. We search the denser patches of jungle, but it’s hard to feel optimistic. I ask Danish to call the guide who saw the owl. Eventually we head back to Eldhose’s, so he can call the guide. Alas the guide isn’t picking up his phone. I decide to eat lunch and try and relax. I wait around at Eldhose’s for the rest of the afternoon. Eldhose drive’s over to the guide’s home, but he’s fishing, and left his phone at home, so can’t be found. Oh well, elephants again.
By evening, Danish and I drive back to same part of the forest. I suggest we walk into the forest, and start taping as soon as it gets dark. Danish explains he had been warned about an elephant in “our” patch of forest, so we tape from the road side instead. An hour passes, and a sense of failure hangs over me. An elephant trumpets from the roosting area. More time passes. We tape sporadically, but mostly listen. Eventually we hear a very distant call from down by the creek. We tape, then listen. Again, and again, and again, and again. Over time the owl comes closer. Just very slowly. We walk down the track to the temple. A street light illuminates the first couple of hundred yards. The light gives me reassurance. The bird is calling close by. Then it flies, small, pale and long-winged. Landing to our left, and calls again. It’s very close, but out of sight again. We tape and listen. It responds, but is not moving so we walk cautiously down an elephant path to a tangle of vines. We are very close now-it seems impossible that the whistling owl isn’t right there. My chest is tight, I want to turn on the flashlight, but fear it will reveal failure. Light on. Leaves. And fucking vines. We scour the tangle but nothing. We return to the Mahindra to try again. We hear it again, very close this time. It flies by us, along the edge of the road. Small, pale and long-winged. We scour the trees, but nothing.
I’m thrilled to have finally seen the bay owl, but this isn’t the views that I want. These are mythical creatures, both gorgeous, with barn-owl like plumage and freaky, with their huge black eyes, like an anime owl. We tape again, but nothing. We take the track towards the temple. A loud crack, from a close by elephant sends us running back to the Mahindra.
A drunken man walks down the street talking loudly. He joins us for a while. We stop taping and listen for the owl. Sat on the warm asphalt I drift off to sleep, then wake with a start as the drunk says goodbye.
We tape again, on and off, but hear nothing. It’s only ten, but we decide to return to Eldhose, who had earlier suggested an alternate plan. I must leave at dawn, so back at Eldhose’s I say goodbye and hug Danish. He is a great guy, very enthusiastic and passionate about owls. And a cool character. I ask Eldhose for help. He thinks for a long while. I think he is thinking of how to avoid the elephants. We drive to a couple of nearby sites in drier forest. We walk a long way, stopping and taping at denser patches. We see a couple of civets and a diminutive mouse deer, but no owls. By 1am, we are done. 


January 19th. I sleep soundly and rouse myself at 630am. I eat my last breakfast at Eldhose’s. One of his drivers runs me back to the airport at Cochin. It’s a beautiful morning, beginning with an orange sky and cackling jungle-fowl and concluding with Indian bustle under a dusty blue sky.
It’s a struggle getting through security with my e-ticket, but eventually it’s all resolved. I fly on Spice Jet to Port Blair on the Andamans. At Port Blair I line up and get my police permit to visit the islands. (Eldhose had charged me more than I had expected, so I was really short on cash). I try an ATM at the airport, but it’s out of cash. I take a really decrepit Hindustani taxi to town, and try several more ATMs along the way. Alas they are unable to read my cards or reject my pin. It’s not the end of the world, but it is stressful not to have enough money.
Port Blair is not a big town, but it is chaotic, and intense. I can’t wait to get out into the forest. I have 90 minutes until my bus to Chidaya Tapu. I go to the bus station canteen for a huge metal plate of food. I see my bus, and run in front of another to get to it. Big mistake, the moving bus accelerates, and bears down on me. The engine roars like a beast. I run faster, but it turns towards me (and the exit), at the last minute I realize I am not making it and stop, the huge bus roars by a couple of inches from my face. I must remember might is right.
About 60 passengers load into the bus, then we lumber off. We stop at several places through town, and the bus just fills with more people. So many souls crammed together, faces pressed up against bodies. I look out the window and think of owls. Eventually people stream off the bus at the many stops. The driver plays the radio loud as the ancient bus lumbers down along a small winding road through the forest.
I see a roadside sign for Wild Grass resort-popular with birders because it’s surrounded by patches of forest. It’s a nice place, so I am hoping I can pay by credit card. I walk a couple of kilometers up to the resort. It’s raining lightly, the air is thick and humid. I pass some padis, a small village, then climb up to the resort. There I ask the receptionist if I can pay by credit card. I am told to meet the boss, a big Sikh enjoying a whisky. Two dogs are at his feet. He tells me he can’t take my cards, but not to worry, he will help me find an ATM in town at the end of my stay.
I am really touched by this. I’m shown to an A/C bungalow. It’s perfect. I down a bottle of water and gather my gear. Just down the road I come to a bridge with fields on either side of the road. I tape for Andaman hawk-owl. Instantly I hear a response! I walk through the field, which turns out to be a marsh. I do my best to stay dry. “Whah, whah” it sings methodically, guiding me across the marsh. And there it is, at the top of a small snag. Compared to the brown hawk-owl (from which it was split), it's quite different. The song is completely different in structure and tone. The owl is darker brown-chocolate colored, with a slightly grayer crown. It has the same brilliant yellow eyes as brown hawk-owl. Below it’s strongly streaked with a warmer (slightly rufous-tinged brown). It’s a smallish bird, perhaps smaller than brown hawk-owl. Similarly long winged, so it appears large in flight.
My big brown boots splash back to the road. On the road, I try my luck, and tape for Hume’s hawk-owl. Again, an immediate response, this time from the other side of the road. I walk through some dry paddys to a dead tree where a beautiful sooty brown owl sings it’s paired “boop, boop” song. Perhaps a little larger than the Andaman hawk-owl. It’s quite uniform sooty brown, but in gorgeous nonetheless. Sooty and rich. Like velvet. It’s streaked below. It's tail pumps as it sings. The big yellow eyes glare at me. Very beautiful!
Now I walk east to a site Danish suggested for Andaman masked-owl. It’s just a 2km walk. A storm is brewing out to sea. Huge clouds are illuminated by lightning. The air is dense. A light rain falls. Soon I can hear the thunder. The lightning is getting bright. Huge tree are lit up by the storm. I pray for masked owl to be revealed by the storm. It’s a harder bird, and I have only a crappy recording on tape. I try playing a Western barn-owl call, which is a good recording, but this call is much longer and higher pitched, justifying the split. But not helping me. It’s beautiful out. I’m enjoying the storm, but the rain pours and wind picks up. I decide to head back to the bungalow and try again in a few hours.
It’s 9pm when I get to bed. The rain pounds the metal roof. I set my alarm for 2am.

January 20th. I sleep fitfully. I dream my boys are caught in a landslide that we miraculously survive. Then my binoculars shatter. I wake every half hour to hear rain and thunder. My alarm chimes at 2am, and I reset it for 3am, hoping the weather improves. At 3am, the same story, but by 4am, just a light rain and quickly I get ready. I walk back towards the main road, where I had heard several Walden’s scops-owls (split from Oriental scops-owl) last night as I walked in from the bus. The owls are silent. A light rain falls-perhaps the rain has disturbed their routine?
It’s light by 5am. After a short nap. I eat breakfast. Then I walk down to the main road and catch a bus into town, to try and get some cash. Luckily the bus lumbers into the stop just as I reach the road’s end. Back at Port Blair I find an internet cafe and email Tui. At the bank I meet some other travelers. Most have had problems getting currency. I change $75 USD (the maximum) from my fast diminishing supply. No credit card advances on the island. I try a series of ATMs suggested by other travelers. My card is old school, with a stripe not a chip and I think that’s the issue. I worry about running out of money. Many of my dollars are distressed notes, which are acceptable in Oman, but worthless here. I make an inventory-I should have enough-if I don’t spend any extras on taxi’s, restaurant food and have no unforeseen expenses etc. I eat a great lunch for 75c-parathas and brilliant vegetarian. Ah just the best food. I take the bus back to Chidiya Tapu. It’s a hot walk under the midday sun up to Wild Grass. I prepare some purified water and drink. Then I go to check out. The owner reiterates that I should stay, we can figure out the money. I explain that I tried many ATMs today. He tells me he trusts me to wire the money. I am really taken by his kindness. (My plan had been to sleep at the bus shelter as Wild Grass isn’t cheap).
Buoyed I take a five minute nap, I re-hydrate and set out on the long walk to Bermahallah school. (Another site for the masked-owl Danish had suggested). Its 9km over a hill, and it’s a very warm day. I do my best to keep up a good pace. When I reach the school I down a beautiful cold bottle of 7-up. Ahh, its fucking brilliant. I have an hour to kill before it gets dark, so wander down to the shoreline and watch the waves. I make my way to the school to discover a guard at the gate. What to do? I walk away from the guard, and behind the shadows of a tree and scale the fence. I walk across the playing field to the courtyard where Danish suggested I would see the owl if I taped. There is another guard, sat on a metal chair in the court yard, so I creep around the side of the field. His dog gets up, and walks towards me. I duck behind a wall. The dog is close, but then sits down. I slip away down the side of the school. At the back of the school I hide in the shadows next to the caretaker's house and play my tape. I hear the distinctive short screech of the masked owl calling from some nearby palms. I also hear people talking inside the house. I do my best to stay hidden. I tape again, wait, hear a couple of responses and tape again. A masked owl flies over head, disappearing into the palms. It has a typical barn owl profile, with long wings, a buoyant, silent flight. I want to see the bird in color, but twenty feet from me a door opens and the caretaker steps out of his home. I slip back into the trees and make my way back to the main road.

I decide to go straight and approach the guard at the gate. A local shopkeeper who speaks English helps translate. The guard suggests some big trees alongside the school that are illuminated by lights. We make a couple of passes and I scrutinize the trees, but come up short. The guard seems a little reluctant to indulge me, so I say "thanks" and set off back to Wild Grass. I am happy to have seen the masked-owl-even if the view wasn't great. this is the hardest of the five endemic owls here. The first 4km pass through coconut groves and villages. I hear an Andaman hawk-owl. Eventually the road climbs through good forest over a low pass. Here I start taping for both Andaman and Walden's scops owls. After a couple of stops I hear a distant Walden's. I am a little intimidated by the steep slope, and density of the jungle. (There are some good snakes here). I get down into the thick of the forest and tape again. In a few minutes the owl flies in, perching high, then working it's way down and very close to me. I get great views of this little owl. It's small, even for a scops, and quite dark brown, with grayish tones, quite strongly streaked below with dark cross hatched streaks. Eyes are yellow, ears are visible, but not prominent and small feet. The song is a single strong croaking note (with just a hint of an introductory chirp), very different from the two part, three note songs of oriental scops in Kerala. I grow increasingly tired for the rest of the walk back to Wild Grass. I still stop for Andaman scops-owl and tape. At one point I get a response and end up in a tight thicket of bamboo. Alas the bird fall silent, and I can't get a view. The rest of the walk is nice-I hear lots of calling Walden's. Above the stars are beautiful and bright. I am exhausted by the time I return to my bungalow-even though it's only 945pm. I fall deeply asleep.

January 21st. I had planned to set my alarm for 4am, giving me time to go owling again. I wake and it’s light outside. Shit. The alarm was set for 4pm. It’s a long wait until I can get out into the field. I slowly get ready for the day, wash my clothes and shower. After breakfast the waiter kindly lets me use his mobile to call Gokul, a friend of Danish, who lives here and knows the birds. It turns out his on Nicobar, but he explains it’s no problem, he has a friend, Titus in town who can help me.
I have to walk fast to make my 830am bus into Port Blair. There I head to an internet cafe to check in with Tui. I also call back Gokul, from another borrowed mobile, and he gives me Titus’s number. I call Titus and we arrange to go out tonight to look for Andaman scops-owl, and a better look at  masked-owl. I eat a brilliant lunch at the same little place at ate yesterday. Same meal, parathas and chick pea curry. I make the noon bus back to Chiriya Tapu. On the bus I talk to a couple of Italians. They remind me that Italy went through the same bullshit with Berlusconi as America is commencing with Trump.
Back at Wild Grass I try and sleep, but it’s hard. The manager comes down to my room, and takes down my details-so they can reach me if I don’t pay up. Before Titus arrives, I set off down the road to meet him. It’s a gorgeous warm evening. Titus pulls in on his Yamaha. He's a cool guy. A marine biologist who escaped the frenetic pace of life in Chennai for the Andamans. I hop on the bike and we ride over the hill and down to the bridge (where I saw the hawk-owls a couple of nights ago). Frogs and crickets sing, but no Andaman scops-owls. We get back on the bike and head to the top of the small pass (near where I had the Walden’s scops yesterday). We wait for a little caravan of cars and bikes to pass. Then, in the darkness, under a crown of a thousand brilliant stars we start taping. Nothing at first. We try again. Nothing. We walk North for a minute and try again. A small owl flies in to the foliage. I tape a couple more times. Nothing. I scan the foliage with the flashlight and see only leaves. Titus suggest we walk down the road, and try and get it to move. We do that, and the owl follows us down, landing much lower. It crosses the road a couple of times, and eventually sings, a simple, slightly accelerating pop, pop, pop, pop pop. Softly at first, then louder and louder. Now I know it’s a Andaman scops and not a Walden’s. I scour the tangle with my flashlight and find the owl, exposed on a vine! Wow, what a great little owl. Small ear tufts, yellow eyes, small bill, the breast is the color of coffee, whitened with skim, a cold dark brown with grayish tones. There are some white feathers on the breast-tipped black. It’s a small, but not tiny owl.
We start to return to the same school I had walked to last night for a better view of the masked-owl. Titus asks the night watchman, and we enter. We walk around the school, and despite having an excellent recording we don’t see or hear any masked-owls. Still I am feeling good about tracking down all five endemic owls on the Andamans. We ride the Yamaha back to Wild Grass-it’s a beautiful warm night, just perfect.
Back at the bungalow, I had hoped to pay Titus discreetly-after all I am “unable to pay for my room” and I have hired a guide. Alas Titus is friends with the manager, and I end up paying him in front of the manager. At least he is affordable. I say goodbye to Titus.
I enjoy a half hour on the porch and listen to the insects and occasional Walden’s scops owl.

January 22nd. I rise at 3am, and walk West in search of a better (full color) view of masked-owl. Along the way I hear a Andaman hawk-owl. I tape it, and it comes in quite close-but I never get to see it. The masked-owl site is a series of big trees alongside a track. I had checked them during the thunderstorm three nights ago. I arrive 90 minutes before dawn. I lie down on the track and listen and wait. Staring at the starry sky. Armed with Titus’s good recording, I tape a few times, but get no response. It becomes difficult to stay awake. Especially as there are no masked owls. Nonetheless it is a beautiful walk back to Wild Grass under tall mauve clouds, past fields and forest of brilliant green.
I have breakfast, then catch a bus back to Port Blair with a guy from Wild Grass who is going to help me find a working ATM. We stop at a bank, I am so sure this isn’t going to deliver, then I hear the whir of counting notes. I am stunned when it delivers a fat wad of rupees. The second ATM is a bust, but the 3rd delivers. Now I have enough money to pay for my stay at Wild Grass-which I do. It feels brilliant to have enough money.
I check into Hotel Lalaji, a hotel in downtown Port Blair. The room is hot and oppressive. Still there is a rooftop restaurant which is cool and breezy. I eat aloo gobi for lunch, then sleep for an hour. Later I take a maze of alleyways down past the docks, along the bay side and up a steep winding road to the Agricultural Institute. My friend Dave Ward had seen a roosting masked-owl here (albeit a couple of years back). I spoke to the guard who explained that he only once saw the bird roosting, but sees it regularly around campus at night. We eat green dates together, then I set off checking the eves for roosting owls. I have about 90 minutes to wait until it gets dark. There are a lot of mosquitoes to deal with. Once its dark, the guard helps me scour the trees and roof tops for masked-owl. I play Titus’s recording. Eventually I hear a somewhat distant response, but am never able to get on the bird. I do find a good-sized snake hunting frogs in a pond. Eventually I say goodnight to the guard, who kindly offers me dinner. I walk back to my hotel and enjoy a second serving of aloo gobi on the rooftop. 


January 23rd. Both my phone and watch wake me early. I walk to the airport. It’s still dark outside and Port Blair is quiet. Near the airport, a man on a scooter kindly offers me a ride for the last mile. All my documents are quadruple stamped at the airport. The flight to Mumbai is long and tedious as I have a slight caffeine withdrawal headache. Determined to avoid getting overcharged, I prepay at a counter. Once I'm in the cab, the driver show’s me the ticket-it’s for the international terminal and not my hotel. (The ticket has my name on it, so if it’s a scam it must also involve the counter), I try and bargain hard, but feel a little defeated.
I get dropped off at the Anand Hotel-chosen for it’s location near the airport and (relatively near) Tansa wildlife sanctuary (home of the forest owlet). The hotel does not accept credit cards, and isn’t cheap, so I decide to walk back to a bank I'd seen from the cab. It’s a crazy walk back to the bank-traffic is intense, and you really have to think and act fast to avoid being hit at the intersections. Alas the ATM is broken. My cards don’t work in the nearby banks. Hot and dehydrated I give up and brave the traffic as I walk back to the hotel. I eat a brilliant plate of food from the local Pure Veg restaurant. 
At the hotel, I am told they have Wi-Fi. Which solves all of this. I search for nearby banks on the phone and map them. The bank delivers and now I have enough cash for the rest of the trip. I decide to walk on further down to the beach. A creepy guy in a purple shirt starts to follow me. Purple Shirt doggedly pursues me despite my U-turns and evil eye. I duck into a cafe, and sit against the wall. Purple Shirt asks for a menu and loiters. Eventually a waiter asks him to leave.
Back on the beach a couple of street waifs, then a guy selling maps tag along. As we walk a couple of huge explosions shake us. The map seller explains “a wedding sir”. I'd thought it was a bomb. I make my way back to the hotel. It’s located next to the Iskon temple, which is an amazing place to people watch.
I have a big day tomorrow so turn in early.

January 24th I could hardly wait for the alarm and keep waking at 2am, 3am, 4am and 430am. My alarm chimes at 440am and while I am dressing, Yogesh, a local birder calls me from the lobby. I meet Yogesh and his friend Prabhu. They have hired a Mahindra for the morning to take us up to Tansa, a watershed reserve for Mumbai a couple of hours away.
While driving through Tansa at dawn, we stop briefly at a mottled wood-owl territory and tape for a minute. We get a distant response from far below, and decide to press on to the forest owlet territory. We park at a small village and walk across dry paddy fields to the edge of a forested gully. Yogesh plays a tape briefly. Instantly we get a response. It takes a few minutes to hike close to the area we think the owlet called from. We scan the tree tops nervously. It hasn’t called again. Minutes melt away. We start to wander around. Then Yogesh calls me over and points it out, high in a tree. I get a fleeting view before it flies. Eventually we relocate it and get really nice views of it perched out in the open. It’s a small, long-winged and short-tailed owl, with a huge head. It moves it’s tail side to side-agitated no doubt by the “intruder”. It has big yellow eyes, highlighted by white eyebrows. The sides of the chest are uniform gray-brown, the belly and center of the chest is white. The flanks are barred gray-brown. The tail is darkly barred. What a find! 
Yogesh took this photo of "our" forest owlet with his mobile
This bird was discovered in the 19th century, then not seen for 113 years and proclaimed extinct. Pamela Rasmussen rediscovered it about 20 years ago. Only a couple of years ago was it discovered at this site-which is far easier to reach than the other published sites. This is a mythical owl. Critically endangered. A bird I have been thinking about for years.
Prabhu, my happy self and Yogesh after having just seen the forest owlet.
It’s still early, but Yogesh suggests we return the Mahindra now and go out owling tonight. I am cool with that. I couldn’t be happier. Yogesh was a collage boxer, and both he and Prabhu are also snake handlers. They have nerves that I don’t. The drive into Mumbai is wild. At one point we are positioned between two huge trucks, Yogesh and Prabu both giving different truck drivers a hard time. We make it back to the Anand and agree to meet up around 930pm.
I celebrate with more delicious pure veg food. Then spend the rest of the day walking the beach-which is fun to see thousands of people out having a good time. There is lots of cricket playing, kite flying and yellow labs being walked. It’s wonderful, even if it’s grubby. The sun sets over the Arabian Sea. The sky is so dusty that the sun turns red, and them completely disappears before it sinks below horizon.
I eat thali for dinner-it’s brilliant. I could have eaten two plates, but am too embarrassed to be a glutton Yogesh picks me up on his bike at 930pm. He’s thoughtfully borrowed a helmet from his neighbor. (I had asked to go by bike to save money over a cab). Traffic is still kind of wild. At one point it feels like we are going to be crushed by the huge city buses which drive with total disregard of us. Eventually we make it to the expressway and things get better. We pull into Aarey Milk Colony- a dairy set in some degraded forest right next to the city. Yogesh explains there are leopards around here. We ride slowly down a dirt track, scanning for leopards. Eventually we reach Prabhu’s home in a village just above the dairy. His family serves us chai, and I meet his pets. (Prabhu is a big animal lover and rescuer).

Prabhu explains the leopards come into his village all the time to eat dogs and drink water from the open tanks by the public toilets. A week ago a girl had been clawed by a leopard, and a while ago Prabhu had chased away a leopard that had grabbed a child. It was too late, and the child died. Despite the stories it's hard to feel that scared walking around the scrubby woods near his village. A couple of taxi drivers have pulled up and are drinking beers. Beneath us Mumbai-all twenty one million people. We sit on an old concrete water tower and wait. A Western barn-owl flies overhead. We hear a pair of distant spotted owlets back in the village and head back up the path. I hear something and look down at my feet as a walk past a pale stick. "Hey" Yogesh says. The stick is a pissed off bamboo pit viper-an extremely pale green snake. Yogesh and Prabhu photograph it-getting way closer than I would ever do. (I have been wearing my snake guards, and feeling like a tourist for doing so. I feel vindicated tonight-there is always something in the bushes at night that could really fuck you over). Prabhu tells me he rescued the pit viper from the village about a week ago and released it near here. He tells me it's an arboreal snake. I have always found it disconcerting that venomous snakes climb bushes, the same bushes I am always pushing through to get close to calling owls. 
In the village we start taping for the spotted owlets. They keep calling from afar, constantly on the move. We walk through the village trash heap. "Be careful there are lots of cobras here" Prabhu warns. Again I am thankful for the snakeguards. Eventually Prabhu's keen eye finds two pale "lumps" high in a tree and spotlights them. Spotted owlets. Lovely. The birds are the south Indian brama race, which area little grayer than birds I have seen in Northern India.
I say goodbye to Prabhu and Yogesh takes me back to the Anand on his bike. It's a little after 1am when we get to the hotel. I say goodbye to Yogesh-I hope I meet him again-he is a cool guy.

January 25th. I wake early and disturbed by bad dreams. My plan for today is to visit Sanjay Gandhi National Park in search of the Northern race of jungle owlet. (I have seen the Southern race in Goa and Kerala). Mikkola suggest a split is possible. I plan to look for the bird late in the day-as the logistics of getting to the park before dawn are daunting.
After a lazy morning, I set off on foot to the nearest station. It's an intense walk. At every intersection I have to take my life into my own hands as I bolt between the smallest breaks in traffic across a 6 lane road. Pieces of the sidewalk are missing, exposing a long drop into a deep sewer. Oh the horror. The station however is surprisingly orderly, and I am able to buy a ticket and get on a commuter train in a few minutes. I get off at Boravali Station and catch an auto-rickshaw for the very short ride to the park gates. I eat some snacks from the vendors at the gates and hydrate on soft drinks. My plan is to walk 7km into the park, to some Buddhist caves, wait for late afternoon and walk back, taping for owls as dusk falls.
I get to the caves by 2pm. It's a very hot day and I end up paying a second admission to visit the caves just so I can get to a cafe by the caves and buy more drinks. I have time to kill, so I check out the caves, which are filled with ancient carvings. It's an amazing place. A guard demonstrates the incredible acoustics in one cave by performing an "Om" chant.
By 4pm the worst of the sun is over and the shadows are growing long. It's time to start owling. I try several side trails, sneaking off when no one is around. (Technically you are not allowed to explore the trails without a guide). I tape for brown hawk owl-which in Kerala was very effective at bringing in angry jungle owlets. Sure enough, at the fourth stop a jungle owlet flies in silently and glares at me. It's head feathers are fully erect, creating a freakish, big-headed look. The owlet looks just like the five birds I saw in Kerala, except instead of being rufous, it's warm brown.
I decide to wait around until sunset before completing my walk through the park. Perhaps I can find some more owls. I don't. But the walk is just lovely. Macaques and spotted dear cross the road. Kids play cricket. The park is an escape for couples, and several girls are learning to ride their boyfriend's motorbikes.
Outside the park it's chaos. Traffic is intense getting to Boravali Station. The station is packed. I misread a sign and get on a non-stop train to down town. The train is dark, and just packed with people. It's overwhelmingly claustrophobic and cell-like. I change trains downtown and make my way back to the right station. The walk back to the Anand is even crazier in the dark. Thousands of people pushing to make their way home. Motorcycles weave through the side walks. A heavy dust hangs. It's really amazing that people treat each other so well despite the chaos.
The pure veg place is closed, so I make do with samosas. By now it's ten and I am ready for bed.

January 26th. I am up before my alarm. I wash my stinkiest clothes and head out for breakfast. Hot samosas again. I call Tui on Whatsapp. It's great to talk with her. I also get to tell Charlie about my leopard walk.
I take a auto-rickshaw to the domestic terminal. Security explains Jet Airways operates out of the International terminal. The taxi over there is spendy. I am sure the driver sensed by stress as weakness. At least I'm early. My flight's not. I get to wait around for an extra hour.
I was expecting Delhi to be cool and dry. It's not. It's pouring down. And cold. I'd arranged a driver through Asian Adventures, and sure enough he greets me at arrivals. It's such a luxury not to have to struggle to get to sites by bus. As soon though we pull off the expressway onto a regular roads we are crawling through 8" of brown water. I start to worry that we will make Dighal by dusk (we have 3 hours to cover the 100 km). Eventually we break free of Delhi's shabby suburbs, and hit the open road. We reach Dighal, a small agricultural village surrounded by marshes, about an hour before dusk. The driver calls Rakesh-a local guy who works for a NGO protecting the local birds.
Rakesh meets us on his motor cycle, then we all drive out together in the car for a few more kilometers to a big canal lined with tall eucalyptus. We park the car, and Rakesh and I walk down a muddy track. "There" he pronounces, and up in the eucalyptus is a big nest with juvenile dusky eagle-owl. Nearby a parent owl stands vigilant. The owls are using a woolly-necked stork nest. The juvenile is big and buffy colored. The adult has big soft ear tufts that bend slightly in the wind, a strong gray bill and yellow eyes. The back is smokey gray and only indistinctly marked. The underparts are slightly lighter colored, with dark streaks. The tail has at least two dark bars finishing with a pale tip. Brilliant! This is an owl that I have wanted to see ever since I saw a color photo of it in Mikkola.
It's starting to get dark on this cold damp evening. All around us see flocks of ducks and geese flying over the canal. Sarus cranes bugle from the far marshes. We drive to a roadside restaurant and warm up with chai. Then head out to another site to listen for dusky eagle owls. It's dark, windy and rainy and we don't hear them. We do hear a spotted owlet, and as we drive away the car's lights catch it perched by the roadside. Not that I could tell from the view, but this bird is a Northern and browner subspecies indica.
Rakesh very kindly offered to let me sleep at his place. I accept of course. First we stop at the same roadside place and order a couple of different paneers. I eat my weight in ghee. It was just brilliant. The best food ever.
At Rakesh's house we pour over photos of some amazing birds he has found in Dighal. He also shows me pictures of a road trip he took to Ladahk. I wish there were new owls for me up there because it looks amazing. Like Tibet. By ten I am exhausted I have to go to bed.

January 27th. I sleep fitfully and dream intensely. I'm already awake at 550am, when Rakesh knocks. We take chai, then meet with the driver and return to the original dusky eagle-owl site in hopes of hearing them sing, and enjoying them in better light. As soon as we are out of the car we hear the big owls. "Tu tu tu tucuc uc uc ug."We easily find them at their nest. This time both adults are present. It's a gray day, and we wait for over an hour for better light. Eventually we get to enjoy a much better view. One adult is clearly darker than the other. I am able to see the ear tufts have dark centers and paler edges. Eventually one owl takes off and flies into denser cover.
Our plan is to look for rock eagle-owl before I have to return to Delhi to catch my next flight. This is a bird I saw back in 1991, but would love to see again because it's beautiful.
We drive to a small wastewater canal and park the car, then walk about a kilometer down a muddy clay track towards a patch of scrubby trees. Rakesh points out an rock eagle-owl roosting above the canal in a small tree. I am enjoying this lovely owl, when Rakesh calls me over. He's found it's mate, which for reasons I can't explain appears twice the size of the of it's partner. It's tiger orange, with rich chocolate markings and massive orange eyes. It really is a king of owls. Just magnificent. If I didn't know better I would declare this the biggest owl in the world.
I check my watch, I need to leave. Traffic into Delhi is notoriously bad. Before we go, Rakesh's family meet us to drop off breakfast-a huge bag of breads, vegetables and lassi. He also gives me a commemorative mug of the birds of Dighal. What a cool guy. I hope he comes to Oregon and I can return his hospitality. We hug and say goodbye.
We set off to Delhi. At first the drive is fast and I begin to relax. At the border between Haryana and Delhi we reach an utter deadlock. For an hour we go nowhere. I start to doubt I will make my flight. It's not to be though. Traffic begins to flow again and we reach the airport in time. I thanks the driver for safely getting me out to Dighal and back then head into the impressive terminal. Once I have checked in, I find a bathroom and wash the clay out of my pants and boots.
I had anticipated Oman Air, would be fancy, but it's a bus-like ride over to Muscat. I have a caffeine withdrawal headache, so I just suffer through the flight. As soon as I land I take some Excedrin and a caffeine pill and feel much improved. I pick up a Mazda from a friendly car rental guy and head out on the highway. This is my Omani owl night! The focus of the whole trip. I am so nervous and excited. I don't want to be here, but I do. I have been thinking about this for a year and can hardly wait. I pull into a gas station and buy two liters of Pepsi. It's going to be a long night and I need my stimulants. I have four nights scheduled here, last year I spent six nights here and failed to find the owl. Six nights, 50 hours and 100km of walking though those dark wadis. A lot of batteries too.
I put Bob Dylan's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" on the radio. Sort of a perfect soundtrack for a high desert adventure. I didn't need a map, and drive fast to the site. I pull into the stony wadi, surrounded by huge mountains. I drink more Pepsi. My heart is really going now. I gather my gear together. Flashlight, head-torch, iPod and speakers. Another Pepsi. And I am good to go.
I step out into the warm, dark night. A million stars above. I strap on my snake guards and walk away from the car.
At the first patch of trees I play a tape of a singing Omani owl. And listen. Nothing. I remember standing in the exact same place last year. I push my doubts away and walk on down the wadi. At my next stop I find a big tree and pause. I play my tape. Nothing. I press play again. Something responds. high on the cliffs above me. Not something, an Omani owl! I play again, and the owl sings back, a little closer. I play again, the owl responds again but isn't closer. The owl is not coming down. I walk as quietly as I can across the river rocks to the edge of the wadi. Luckily the edge of the wadi does not begin with a cliff, but a talus slope. Like a cat on stimulants I limber up the rocky slope, quietly, nothing falls. I walk on all fours. At the top of the talus I listen. Nothing. I play the tape. The owl sings back, still high above on cliffs. I decide to climb the cliff-I scan with my light and figure out a route. I follow a diagonal ledge higher onto the rock face. Without a light I climb on the rough warm rocks higher and higher onto the face. When I can go no further, I stop and listen. I can hear the owl, still high above on the cliff. I press play, and listen. It sings again, but closer. I decide to risk the flashlight, and make a pass over the whole wall. A pale owl flushes from the cliff and lands behind a small ledge. Breathless I scramble across the wall towards it. And tape again. the owl sings back. I turn the light on, and there it is. As obvious as snow. A wonderful Omani owl right in front of me. Singing away. What a sight! I can't quite believe it. I left these mountains utterly defeated 10 months ago. And today, it gave itself up so easily. I see it's big head and eyes appear quite dark. Its face is buff and crown and wings are brown. The breast is very pale with sparse dark streaks.
I don't want to harass this rare owl any more, and descend off the slope. I might have climbed the talus like a cat, but I descend like a drunken pig, tripping on every rock.
I am much to excited to sleep so set off up a side wadi in search of pallid scops owl-a bird I saw several times last year. I eventually locate a calling bird on a cliff, but am unable to see it. Later still I track down a second bird singing from a dense tree and spotlight it.
I return to the Mazda and do my best to make a bed out of the passenger seat. I drift off to sleep, only to wake up cold. The whole night is like this-bits and pieces of sleep, but mostly just lying cold in the car, staring out the side window at stars.

January 28th. It’s just too cold and I am up well before dawn. I go for a walk up a hillside to warm up. At the top of the road is a small, mostly abandoned village. The view from the village is brilliant, big dusty red-brown mountains tower all around. I don’t want to leave, but the next (and last for this trip) new owl awaits across the border in the Emirates. Oman strangely lacks published sites for pharaoh eagle-owl, but its regular in the Emirates. My first task is getting supplemental insurance and permission to take the rental car across the border. I stop briefly for coffee, and then drive down to Muscat airport. Alas the rep from Europacar explains they don’t permit their cars into the Emirates. Undeterred I drive three hours up to the border at Buraimi. I poke around town looking for a safe place to park the Mazda, eventually settling on a graveyard about a kilometer from the frontier. I leave a note on the dash “ this car has not been abandoned, I will return in two days”.  I walk under a big hot sun across the border and into Al Ain. After changing money I step out to the street to hail a cab. A black cat tries to beat the traffic, and gets hit by a car. It struggles to drag it’s wretched hind legs to the curbside refuge. Disturbed I hail a cab downtown where I have my pick of car rental joints. I big man in an extravagant office shows me a fleet of cars. I pick the most modest, a Versa, and after just a couple of minutes I hit the road.
The site is just east of Sharjah, and about 2 hours drive from Al Ain. The drive starts off easy with fast roads through the dunes. I stop for Pakistani food. The last part of the journey gets a little confusing as a lot of new roads have been built since my Atlas was published. I figure it out and am driving down a dirt road, when the car started to labor in soft sand. I see the site from here, a small hill covered in sparse trees, set in big orange dunes, and decide to ditch the Versa.

I grab my gear as a big four wheel drive Toyota roars past, sand scattering everywhere. I walk across the dunes to the tree-covered hill. The trees are too small to hide an eagle-owl, so I decide to slowly check each tree. The big owl flushes from one of the first trees I check. And just like that I have seen all 14 new owls! The owl's perched up high on a tree, so I walk around it in a big arc, so I have the setting sun behind me for a better view. I sit next to a couple of corralled camels and study the big pale owl. It's beautiful-really amazing. It's big-eared, with a pale face and yellow-orange eyes. The owl stares back. I feel scrutinized. The pectorals and shoulders are splotched dark brown, the belly and center of the breast are whitish. The base of the flight feathers are surprisingly pale, the tips gray-brown. The base color for the upper-parts is a sandy yellow-buff. In the sunset the color looks almost luminous. 
The sun sinks like a ship behind the dunes. The owl sings, at times perching horizontally, delivering a soft "hooo" I had hoped to find it's mate, but don't hear one. Eventually it flies up to an exposed tree on the top of the hill, and continues singing. A big glowing owl. Watching over the desert.

As the last light slips away, I hike over the dunes back to the Versa. I select reverse and gently give it gas, the front wheels slip and spin, but it starts to move and soon its’ bouncing back through the sand to the hard dirt, where I turn around.
I decide to head back to Al Ain, and find a place to sleep in the Versa along the way. A couple of kilometers down the road I pick up a hitch-hiker. Without a common language we drive in silence. I drop him off at a mosque. Just down the road I do the same, and run the second hitchhiker into a small town. There I eat more great Pakistani food. 
I decide my best bet for the night is to park behind the bushes that line the road. It takes a couple of attempts to find a place where I can pull off without getting stuck in sand. Eventually I back the Versa up a short hill, An arrangement that should allow me to roll out in the morning. 
It's a mild night, but still its hard to get comfy and I sleep with difficulty.

January 29th. I am awake before 6am and set off down the road to Al Ain. I park up by the still closed car rental joint. In search of a warm breakfast I find a small place that serves me up a nasty chicken and french fry sandwich. At least the coffee's hot. After signing over the Versa, I hop in a cab and head for the border. I am feeling a little anxious about the Mazda. If it's been towed or stolen it's going to be a shitty day. 
Once in Oman I walk down the road, and past the cemetery. There should be a small road to my left, a little store and a parking spot with the Mazda. but I don't see the small road, little store or Mazda. I walk up and down the long hot street. The sun climbs higher and beats down on me. Sweat pours down my face. The Pakistani merchants look confused. What is this guy doing walking up and down here looking so upset? I search for two hours and feel more and more hopeless. And fucking stupid. 
Eventually I have an idea to ask to use one of the merchant's bicycles to help me find the Mazda. I ask a Pakistani pharmacist who explains that bikes are illegal to use on the streets in Oman (even though people use them), so kindly "no" he won't be able to facilitate me borrowing one. He suggest the police will find the Mazda for me. This idea sounds both appealing-to sit in an air conditioned police station and let someone else fix my mistake. And utterly humiliating. To admit to being the sort of useless fuckup who comes to their county, loses a Mazda and then wastes their time asking for help. 
I vow it will be a couple more hours of searching before I talk with the police. I head back to the border and on my left see a Hyundai with a "win me" banner draped over it. What! I remember this. I have been on the wrong street. Wrong cemetery. With double speed I bust down the street, past the right cemetery, to the small road, the little store and my Mazda. There she is sweltering under the hot sun.
I am grinning at the Mazda, when a friendly Pakistani guy comes over to talk. His name is Aziz. We have coffee and we talk about this and that for a while.
I have a couple of nights left and no key owls to see. I decide to look for Omani owl at other sites in the Al Hajjar mountain range. I drive up to Rustaq in the foothills and stop for a meal. Then I drive deeper into the mountains, stopping at a site I visited last March. I decide to climb a small peak and wait for dark. It's a short steep scramble to the top. I can see a huge bowl beneath, and then beyond massive stone mountains. It's a great place to watch the sun go down. Once it's dark I start taping, but get no response. I eventually make my way off the peak and down to a wadi. I walk the wadi. There I hear a couple of singing pallid scops owls. I eventually get really nice views of one. I continue to tape for Omani owl, but don't hear anything.
I drive to a second site, but it's windy there. I try taping, but get nothing. Tired, I park up on a side road and fall asleep in the Mazda.

January 30th. Another rough night's sleep in a car. I awaken cold and smelly. I had driven past a wadi with a little water in it yesterday, and decide to return to bath and wash my clothes.
This is a delicate task in conservative Oman-getting caught naked here would not be cool. I strip in some tall grasses, then when I can hear no cars step into the pool. It's a brisk morning. Amazingly the pool is fed by hot springs, and my bath is pleasantly warm. I large frog eyes me from the far side of the pool as I scrub myself and grubby clothes.
Cleaned, I return to Rustaq for a breakfast of flat bread and coffee. I really don't have much to do today until night falls, so find a steep walled wadi and park up in the shade and read. I find good Indian food for lunch, then drive out onto a rough gravel track to a beautiful wadi
I had visited last year. I hike up in the late afternoon for several kilometers. The walk starts easy, but as I get higher, it becomes more technical, with big boulders, and short climbs over rocky faces.
Eventually I get as high as my skills will allow. Surrounded by huge rock faces I wait or the sun to recede from the highest slopes and darkness to fall. I watch bats come out from the cliffs and hawk for insects. Eventually it's dark enough to start taping.
It's a long, and sometimes technical walk back down the wadi. Despite prefect looking habitat and conditions I hear no Omani owls. I feel really lucky to have found the owl on the first night. At the entrance to the wadi there is a cluster of five singing pallid scops-owls. I think about taping them, but decide to leave them be and just enjoy their songs.

January 31st. It's only about an hour's drive back down to Muscat. The airport is surprisingly busy, with thousands of South Asian people heading home on night flights. There is patchy WiFi at the airport, and I am able to call Tui for the first time in a week. She's relieved to hear I am OK. I make it onto my 5am flight for Dubai. I change at Dubai for Seatac, and make it home to Portland that afternoon happy and tired.

Thanks to the following people for their kind help and advice in making the trip a success


Shashank Dalvi
KV Eldhose eldhose.kv@gmail.com
Danish danishnature@rediffmail.com
Titus Immanuel
Gokul
Yogesh Patel yogesh.lifer@gmail.com
Prabu
Iqbal Ahmad iqbalahmad@asianadventures.in 
Rakesh Alahwat
Tommy Pedersen
Magnus Robb
Khalifa al Dhaheri
Eugeni Capella
Dave Ward
Shaun Coyle