THE DEVIL BIRD OF HIYARE
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). The Devil Bird of Hiyare. Living. July-August 2008. Pages 40-41. Volume 3, Issue 6. ISSN 1800-0746.
Gehan goes in search of the notorious Spot-bellied Eagle-owl.
“Lets be very quiet from now on” I told the naturalists gathered around me. Hetti, Wicky, Jaya, Anoma and I had spread ourselves along a thin straggly line along an open area which sloped down to the Hiyare Reservoir. Across a thin finger of water leading out across a sluice was a hill covered with rainforest. This forest was contiguous with the Kottawa Arboretum and Rainforest administered by the Forest Department. The forest gained an aura of mystery as the evening gloom descended. We were on the look out for owls. Or more accurately we were hoping to hear some of them.
The lake had turned a cold gray in the gloom. On a evening free of strong breezes it surface mirrored the rainforest surrounding it. I could not think of another lowland rainforest patch which offered this scenic vista in Sri Lanka. The Hiyare Rainforest is administered by the Galle Municipality. In a show of commendable foresight they are working with the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle to use the site as a resource for education and tourism.
Almost on cue, just as it turned six, a Brown Hawk-owl uttered its low ku wook ku wook. A few seconds of calling announced that this nocturnal hunter was ready to start another day. The Brown Hawk-owl is the size of a crow and is even found in cities such as Colombo in areas where tall trees offering shade and nesting holes are to be found. But I doubt if more than a tiny handful of city dwellers have seen it. We strained our ears and listened even more attentively.
We were in search of a bigger owl, the Spot-bellied Eagle-owl. One of the two biggest owls in Sri Lanka. The weight of evidence suggests that this is the infamous devil bird which utters cries likened to the shrieking of a woman being strangled. Like most big owls it needs mature tall forest. Around us was a plant nursery which was funded by the Responsible Tourism Partnership (RTP). They have planted over 100,000 trees in the Galle District. Initiatives such as this would create the conditions for the survival of threatened wildlife. It will also protect the watershed. Looking around, I could not help thinking finding the Eagle-owl here would be like looking for a pin in a haystack. Which patch of forest would it call from? I had read the observations of others in the Ceylon Bird Club Notes that the Eagle-owl was found here but had not exact location.
A Jerdon’s Nightjar began to call from far away. It was almost drowned by the tinkling calls of a myriad Shrub-frogs which had lent their voice to the evening chorus. A krok krok krok announced the presence of a Chestnut-backed Owlet. This endemic bird has a wide distribution in the wet zone and manages to live in village garden habitats which are not too far from good quality forest patches. It was heartening to hear so many nocturnal species so close to Galle, one of the largest cities in Sri Lanka. Hiyare is approximately 18 kilometers from Galle and is a wonderful reservoir of the island’s precious bio-diversity.
We strained our ears even more, trying to filter out the background cacophony. An unusual call reminiscent of a duck’s call came from the canopy that was atop the hill. The forest was beginning to look menacing in the evening light. It was a time when one could imagine of strange beasts that would prey on people who wandered into the forest on their own. Hetti hissed urgently as he had picked up some movement. A big owl was perched on a bare branch. A pair of long ear tufts confirmed that we were seeing the elusive Eagle-owl. It leant forward and with body slightly quivering called again. It rose silently and with purposeful flaps of its wings flew along the shore and out of our view. The hunter begins another day and its prey will live their last.