It was almost closing time and we were hurrying back to the gates of Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park. On the side of the road near a dead tree where we’d seen Spotted Owlets (Athene brama) in the morning we saw a couple of people looking up. I’d not got a good photo of the owls in the morning, because they stayed in their nest and only looked out now and then. So I hopped off the rickshaw and ran down to the tree.
Two owlets were perched on one of the dead branches. The fading light of the sun had brought them out of the hole in the tree where they nest. These owlets are creatures of dusk and night, and the pair was true to form. This was my first day with the new camera and I was happy to have a pair of birds which wouldn’t move, I thought.
I zoomed in to one, and caught it wagging its tail. “Owlet or dog,” I thought to myself. The illumination wasn’t perfect; the sky was bright and the birds were almost in silhouette. I thought that if I zoom in a bit more I would cut out the contrast between the lit sky and the bird, get more detail. I was worrying about the instrument and not paying attention to behaviour. So when I zoomed in a bit more I was totally surprised by what I got.
I could describe it in words, but the photo is enough. And if you still need an explanation, who can do better than Sulpicia, one of the few woman poets of Rome whose words have come down to modern times.
Si me cadurci restitutis fasciis
nudam Caleno concubantem proferat
If you were to untangle the sheets of my marriage bed
You would find me lying nude with my husband Calenus…
The wagging of the tail was clearly pre-mating behaviour. The couple stayed together after mating. It is hard to tell the sexes apart in spotted owlets, and I could tell this only by their actions during mating. The male spent a while preening: fluttering its wings, seeming to smoothen them out. After that it was time to come back close to each other. I hadn’t realized that while I was taking the photos The Family had followed me down to the base of the tree and was standing next to me. She asked “Did you get photos?” I hadn’t set the camera to burst shoot, so I had only a single shot of the act of mating. This was brief, lasting maybe a couple of seconds. But after that the couple cuddled for a long while, and I had the time to take many shots (above and the featured photo).
I always find myself reading about bird behaviour after seeing it in the wild. This was no exception. Unlike most of the migratory birds in the park, these residents breed in winter. Their breeding season starts in November and ends in April, so our trip in early February coincided with the middle of the season. I could not find a record of mating behaviour, so nothing that I saw is nuanced by other observations. The pair did not call at all during this time. They touched each other continuously, running their beaks through each others’ feathers now and then. We wanted to stay and watch longer, but the gate would not stay open for us, so we had to leave.