de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). Spirits of the Forest. LMD. January 2004. Page 170. Volume 10, Issue 06, ISSN 1391-135X.
In a quest for the Brown Wood Owl in Horton Plains, an encounter of nocturnal creatures galore.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne goes in search of the Brown Wood Owl in Horton Plains
Darkness had enveloped the plains. The temperature had dropped in line with the vanishing sun and the cold was beginning to bite. Lal de Silva and I waited motionlessly besides the Arrenga Pool in Horton Plains. Listening and waiting, followed by more listening and waiting. A thin, shrill call came from down below a steep slope, entangled with a dense mat of vegetation. Lal and I exchanged knowing looks. It was the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush or Arrenga. It was discovered over 130 years ago and its existence was predicted by an ornithologist, before its discovery to science. Normally, we would have been quite excited at the presence of the Arrenga. But today, we were after something different.
Our target species was an animal evolved totally for hunting in darkness. A facial disc has a pair of relatively large eyes set in front for binocular vision. Its ears are specially modified to betray the slightest rustle in the undergrowth from the movement of a small animal. It can fly noiselessly and swoop on its prey before the victim suspected that death was a talon’s strike away. Our target that evening was an owl, the Brown Wood Owl.
What makes owls so special? This is not easy to answer but people have been intigued by them for centuries. Our desire to see the owl was partly prosaic and partly spiritual. Prosaic, as owls are species which are highly desired by birdwatchers. Acquiring the art of locating owls is a part of developing the bird watching market in Sri Lanka . But the spiritual reason was perhaps the stronger reason. Searching and finding an owl in a darkened forest is a search for the spirit of the forest. It is also about subduing one’s innate feelings of fear of the dark. The gnarled and twisted shapes of the wind shaped canopy take on ghoulish forms in the night. Other nocturnal hunters such as the Leopard are also afoot. Walking in the dark is a confrontation of one’s age old fears as sinister shapes are imagined at the limits of human vision. Most people would opt out of such a needless adrenalin pumping exercise. But when you are out owling, such fears are banished and replaced more with a sense of expectation, for a glimpse of a supreme nocturnal hunter.
The evening had begun well when we had arrived with my family. Lal took them on an extended walk to World’s End and Bakers Falls . I vaguely mumbled something about catching up with them, knowing fully well, I was not likely to travel far with a heavy tripod and camera. Besides, there were far too many distractions on the way. It took me half an hour simply top go past the entry gate. First, there was an obliging male Pied Bushchat, showing off his handsome black and white plumage. A Barn Swallow, a newly arrived migrant was perched overhead on a cable. Keeping it company were a pair of Hill Swallows. I tip toed around the ticket issuing office, photographing the birds that were in the vicinity. A flash of blue on the ground caught my eye. There were four or five Pea Blues, a common species of butterfly. Finally I got myself through the entry gate and headed off in no hurry. A Common Bluebottle, another butterfly, zig zagged rapidly ahead of me. The sweet song of a Pied Bushchat came drifting dreamily over a valley. In the distance, atop an endemic Rhododendron, I spied the little dot singing its heart out. The Rhododendrons are a botanical puzzle. They are found in the highlands of Sri Lanka and in the Himalays. This is what biologists term a disjunct distribution. Did the Rhododendrons manage to migrate over these vast distances in some way or are they relics of an era when Sri Lanka shared a temperate climate suitable for such montane species?
Leaving such botanical puzzles aside, I headed off into a patch of cloud forest, bisected by the wide, well trodden path to World’s End. A pair of Great Tits called nosily and I paused. Soon, a flock of endemic Sri Lanka White-eyes came along with an endemic Yellow-eared Bulbul or two. A Greenish Tree Warbler flitted from tree to tree calling loudly as it went. I tracked the bird along the trail for over two hundred meters, attempting to photograph it. It did not stay in one place for even a second and proved to be a challenge. A Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher provided a welcome distraction. These confiding birds are an easier target for photographers. A sharp chitterling call once again drew my attention to the canopy. A small bundle of dark chocolate sped along the limb of a tree. It was a Dusky Squirrel, found in both lowland and highland rainforests. The Palm Squirrel found in our home gardens often associates with Yellow-billed Babblers. Similarly, the Dusky Squirrel is fond of associating with bird flocks.
As the evening wore on, my recollection of a vague promise to catch up, came to mind and I hurried along the trail. But not for long, a communal chattering from a flock of Dark-fronted Babblers brought me to a halt. The musical babble of a Scimitar Babbler came from the mid canopy joined by yet another chattering of calls. The last chatter was from another Babbler, the Orange-billed Babbler. In good quality lowlands rainforests such as Sinharaja, the Orange-billed Babbler, an endemic, is an important nucleus species for birdwatchers. Their presence usually heralds the possibility of a mixed species feeding flock. I waited for them to come into view and eventually they emerged in the gathering gloom. I headed back marshalling a list of excuses as to why I had failed to catch up with my family.
With the others headed back to Nuwara Eliya for the warmth and comfort of St Andrews, Lal and I stayed back. A thin wisp of mist curled around us concealing the forest from view but not shielding the cacophony of amphibian calls which had reached a deafening level of noise. The whole forest seemed to be grunting and shrieking and barking. If the Brown Wood Owl were to call now, we may not even hear him. As time slipped by, we decided to give up on the nocturnal hunter. The Brown Wood Owl will have to wait for another night in the cloud forest.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.