NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T!
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Now You See It, Now You Don’t! Living. May-June 2007. Pages 30-31. Volume 2, Issue 5. ISSN 1800-0746. The Bay-Owl.
A cloak of darkness greeted me as I walked into the forest on a village trail. A torch beam sliced through the darkness, a shaft of yellow. Cicadas hummed in the background. Amphibians uttered a medley of squeaks, pops and barks. Ears craning for the calls of nocturnal birds we trod slowly and as quietly as we could.
‘It was here today’ said Ranjit, one of the volunteer guides. ‘You should have come when we called you in the morning’ added Thilak, who runs the safari jeeps which shunt birders from Kudawa to the barrier gate. I could not see their faces in the dark. But I could picture a tinge of remorse on their faces. I had not acted on their repeated tip offs going back for over a week that the bird was showing. Only that morning Thilak had called me to say I should come urgently. The bird was showing well. He had rattled a list of names, the who’s who of the birding and wildlife photography circuit in Sri Lanka who had come for the bird. But not me.
This was not any old bird. This was a Bay Owl. It had been known for at least two centuries, but a bird in the wild had been seen only as recently as 2001. In January 2007, the locals in Kudawa came across a mystery owl. David Shackleford and Hetti leading a birding tour for Rockjumper waded across a stream and trained a telescope on the bird. It was a Bay Owl. I arrived the next day to meet the group in the field. A part of the serious business of public relations in the eco-tourism business. The next day I went down with another group of clients and joined with three of the local guides who searched in vain for the owl. I was not worried. People had now got to know the bird. A Bay Owl would show up again. News spread and more searchers arrived. The Bay Owl stayed hidden. A mysterious hunter of the night. It may betray its presence by a whistle.
A Bay Owl was found again sooner than I had thought. A group in search of the Green-billed Coucal took a village trail on the outskirts of Sinharaja rainforest. Perched over the path was a medium sized owl. It seemed oblivious to the movements of the villagers. Ranjith’s sharp eyesight picked out the bird. Birders were hurriedly collected from within the reserve. The owl was identified. A Bay Owl, unbelievably in the open. In point blank range. Birder Wicky Wickremesekera could hardly believe his eyes that he would get the Bay Owl so soon after Hetti’s sighting.
Mobiles phones buzzed and text messages wafted on the ether urgently summoning birders and photographers. I was searching for primates at Vil Uyana with journalist Charlotte Burroughs when the calls poured in. A Bay Owl has been found. Point blank range. Come urgently.
A moment of agony. But the business at hand came first. I was developing primate safaris. The Bay Owl will have to wait. The days rolled by and the calls kept coming. I was now developing five brochures for a consumer travel fair to promote Leopard Safaris, Primate Safaris, The Gathering, the Wildlife Year and Endemic Birds. My priority was to create and win business for Sri Lanka. The Bay Owl had to wait.
“It was so close” sighed Thilak. “You are the last person to come”. Ranjit nervously tapped his chin with his fingers. They will have to search for the bird at day break. I had not left Colombo till it was dark. I had been busy exchanging e-mails setting up a presentation in London. A strange whistle and a gurgling call came from upon the forest slopes. We froze. Then slowly edged towards. Something about the call was not quite right. Another group was searching for the owl and hoping to elicit a response by imitating owl-like calls.
Dinner was followed by breakfast at Martin’s. The day was heralded by the sweet song of a Spot-winged Thrush. It began with a series a scolding notes and a few sibilant whistles followed. The flock of Ceylon Blue Magpies visited just as light was breaking. I recollect how difficult it was to see one twenty five years ago. Now, one flock boldly visits Martin’s dining area. The Ceylon Junglefowl was another wary bird. One hen has got into the habit of bringing its chicks to Martin’s Simple Lodge. Chandralatha, Martin’s daughter walked around clucking like a mother hen, throwing out a few handfuls of rice. Obediently the Junglefowls followed behind furiously pecking at the grains. Anusha, Chandralatha’s sister ran her hand through her little boy’s hair, as he prepared to go to school. A Legge’s Flowerpecker began to call from the forest which was now being unveiled by a thin mist which was melting away. I marvelled at how wildlife accepts people, if left alone. I frequently argue with people who worry about wildlife being disturbed by visitors. Wildlife is never disturbed by visitors, if you keep your distance.
The smell of onion on hot metal signalled a breakfast of home cooked goodness was under preparation. I wondered if the Bay Owl’s day time roost had been revealed to the sharp eyes of Thilak and Ranjit. How they could do it I would never understand. Searching for a needle in a hay stack would be easier for me than to find an owl in a patch of rainforest. I drove down, in no particular hurry. Good things come to whose who wait. A Giant Squirrel retreated on approach. I pulled over and waited, keeping my distance. After a while it regained its confidence and resumed feeding. It came out in the open.
I arrived at the Bay Owl site. A moment of consternation. My scouts were nowhere in sight. The rumble of a motor bike climbing the hill. Thilak and Ranjit arrived with triumphant smiles. ‘Do you want to see a Bay Owl?’ they chuckled in boyish mirth. Did I? Oh well, if it’s around, I suppose I better take a look.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a well known writer, photographer, wildlife populariser and tourism personality. E-mail him at email@example.com to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.