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
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
Titus Immanuel
Yogesh Patel
Iqbal Ahmad 
Rakesh Alahwat
Tommy Pedersen
Magnus Robb
Khalifa al Dhaheri
Eugeni Capella
Dave Ward
Shaun Coyle