Hot Days

In other years May would be a good time to travel to tigerland. In this hottest part of the year, with temperatures often in excess of 40 Celsius, leaves and small patches of water dry up, and animals come to a few larger ponds and water holes to drink several times a day. That is when you see tigers. Even if you don’t, these burning months of grishma are a good time to travel to jungles. You see flowers blooming in abundance and wildlife of many different varieties.

Whatever doesn’t come out for a drink stays home to avoid heat. A couple of years ago, we spent three days in Pench National Park, near Nagpur. We passed this Indian Scops owl (Otus bakkamoena) several times as it peered out of its hole. I recognize it by the fact that it is the only dark-eyed owl in central India. I like how the head and ear tufts perfectly camouflage it against the broken bark of the tree. The nuchal collar, ie, the ruff around its face, has a noticeable brown edging. This is another way to identify the bird.

This is also nesting time for many birds, like this Oriental Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus). I find it amazing that larger birds make these untidy nests of large twigs, whereas smaller birds can make some amazingly beautiful structures. These simpler nests perch on supporting branches, I suppose because it is hard to make hanging structures which can take the weight of these birds. This simple idea of gets support (couldn’t help the pun) from the fact that larger birds like this buzzard nest at the junction of the trunk and large branches (as in the photo), whereas slightly smaller birds, like crows, find smaller junctions between branches.

Collarwali with her cubs, cooling off in Pench National Park

On some of these trips you get superlatively lucky. Either you have multiple sightings of tigers, or you have wonderful views of family groups resting in water holes. If you want to see something like this, then mark down this uncomfortable month for travel through the hottest parts of India.

The Wisdom of an Owl

On our first visit to Pench National Park, we drove up to a tree with a hollow to see an Indian Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena). The thing about owls is that they can be spotted at, or near, their hollows during the day. If you can find a local expert, she will know exactly where owls can be seen.

One of the pair was visible. It blinked at us like the wise person of proverbs. The wisdom of owls is of little use to humans, and I’d not asked any questions. So the blinking had to do with something else. I looked closer, and found the two insects which were bothering it. You can see them hovering near the owl’s left eye in the featured photo.

Indian Scops Owl in Pench National Park

There is an ongoing ferment in the classification of birds due to the advent of molecular data. It seems that the genealogy of owls is especially open. The Indian Scops Owl and the Collared Scops Owl (O. lettia) have been separated into two species which can be distinguished in the field only by their call. With the further split of the Sunda Scops Owl (O. lempiji), what once used to be called the Indian Scops Owl has now emerged as a superspecies, made up of these three species. This is incredibly exciting, since the formation of these divisions is evidence of ongoing evolution. Indian bird-watchers are in a privileged position to add to this fascinating subject by keeping their eyes open to mixing between these three species.

The individual we were busy photographing thought it wise to keep quiet, and not give us a clue to what it is. The central Indian population of this superspecies is the Indian Scops Owl, which is what I believe this is. We watched it for a while. The companion did not emerge from the nest while we watched. Perhaps, in the photo above, one can see it inside the hollow. It is hard to be certain. The owl is so beautifully camouflaged, the streaks and mottling in its plumage echo the broken bark of the tree in which it nests.

Since we saw it in May, it is possible that the female had just laid eggs. If so, then at night the male would be foraging for large insects such as beetles and grasshoppers or small frogs, rodents or birds, and bringing it back to feed the female, and, later, the hatchling.

These species have adapted well to urban living, and are not considered to be under threat. So there are ample opportunities to observe it in the wild. Especially interesting are observations in Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, which lie on the dividing line between the ranges of the Indian and Collared Scops owls. With enough observations, one may gain much knowledge of the process of evolution from this owl.