Thursday, February 18, 2010

Finding forest owlet

We found the forest owlets quite high in trees as they caught rays on a sunny but cool morning. They feed diurnally, mostly on reptiles apparently, but we saw no action in half an hour of watching.

Just spent two days searching out forest owlet:

14/2 Melghat TR, Maharashtra

A weird day, arrived late in the night at Chikaldara, the hotel was noisy and very dirty and I was grumpy. Sorted out new bedding eventually. A morning walk around the grounds of the hotel produced some new birds including red-whiskered bulbul, tawny-bellied babbler, black-lored tit and Tickell’s leaf warbler. The guide was arriving at 0930 apparently, was there something I didn't know about hunting for forest owlets? No, it transpired that the guide was a random muppet. He tried hard to find me an owl in a three-hour walk through rough terrain in the heat of the day, but I could tell he was not a birdman. So in the afternoon I used him to help find the right guide, and eventually we tracked down a far more likely looking candidate to use at dawn tomorrow.

The walk was not without its interest, though I was in a foul mood after the events of yesterday evening [a driver had dropped my scope]. Some good birds; more tawny-bellied babblers, orange-headed ground-thrush, verditer flycatcher, Alpine swift and dusky crag martin. The riverbeds were mostly dry but on pools in some stretches Anax immaculifrons was flying – monster! Tailed jay (Graphium agamemnon) was also on the wing.

In the evening had a brief flight view of an Oriental scops-owl as it fled the beam of my spotlight. Others calling nearby.

15/2 Melghat TR, Maharashtra

Today had a much better feel to it and I was confident of the usual Indian happy ending. The driver and I got out the door at 0530, picking up rufous-naped hare and a superb jet-black common palm civet en route. Arriving at Semadoh just after first light we rustled up Bhola (our guide) and discovered that I was also to be accompanied by two Indian tiger researchers, a charming young couple (Sandeep Sharma and Trishna Dutta). We rattled off in the research jeep, an aging Maruti jeep that had a top speed of about 40 km/h and rather eccentric steering. En route we had fantastic views of two groups of grey junglefowl and had a single wild boar.

After 45 minutes driving Bhola guided us into an innocuous looking bit of teak woodland, bordering farmland and we got out to search it. It only took ten minutes before a cry from Bhola had us converging on the first of a pair of forest owlets that were hanging around the area. To say I was relieved was an understatement. We photographed the first owl high in a tree for fifteen minutes before another cry from Bhola alerted us to the other half of the pair, a more photo-suitable bird, which flew after a short while to a higher perch. Superb and my third tick of the trip.

Spent the rest of the morning chatting as we drove. Sandeep and Trishna visited a range office, to recruit help from the Forest Department in their research. On the way back we bumped into a large group of gaur by the road. Took an enjoyable lunch at Semadoh and then headed for the hotel and report-writing.

With an estimated population of 250 individuals and perhaps as few as 100 known birds, forest owlet is justifiably of the highest conservation concern. Spotting two was a great way to end six weeks in the field.

Travel/birding advice: if you head to Chikaladara and Melghat Tiger Reserve you need to allow plenty of time to source a guide. Bhola (the guide I used) works at the Semadoh Visitor Centre, there is a basic dormitory there and this would be the best base if you are on a budget. Otherwise you have to stay 45 minutes away in Chikaldara. The place I stayed (the Satpura Retreat) was pretty crummy. Retreat? Think less place of rest or refuge and more Napoleon's chaotic and costly departure from Moscow in 1812. I would not recommend it, Mrs B has a disparaging term for such a place - a man-tel (def: a hotel run solely by men, standards of cleanliness being appalling, the food can be quite good, but never visit the kitchen!). As I write I am covered in itchy chigger bites so tuck your socks in and put some insect repellent on them whilst in the field.

We bumped into a few pairs of grey junglefowl during the early morning, not a bird I see very often.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Phil-thanks for the great photos and story on the owlet. Do you have any contact info for the bird guides in Melghat? Or any other gen?

    thanks, Iain (