Turrehalli , a small place on the outskirts of Bangalore on the way to Mysore was my favourite place for birding . This was way back in 2005 , when I had just started birding . Bangalore was new city to me and one of my first birding friend was Job Joseph . He was kind enough to have me join him on a trip to Turrehalli . I had a Nikon D 70 and a Sigma 170-500 and had yet to believe in buying a tripod . Bird photography was kinda new hobby and I was under the impression that , if you do not use a tripod , you are truly skilled !! Seeing Job lug a tripod with this camera setup was pretty amusing . The day was great with some images of Grey breasted prinia , red rumped bulbuls , ashy prinias ,green bee eaters etc . Job , meanwhile was talking about the Eurasian Eagle owl which was found in the area . I had not seen any Owl other than a Barn Owl , and was really excited at the prospect of seeing an owl .
I was busy shooting a Rock Agama sunning itself on a rock when it happened . Job shouted ‘ Owl behind you ‘ and by the time I turned , it had just flown past me . A mere 2 feet away from me !!! and the sound was as much as a needle falling on the ground . Speechless , I looked at him flying away to settle on a branch of an eculayptus tree around 50 ft away . The owl was HUGE !! Almost 3.5 ft wingspan and it did not make any sound during its flight . Huge furry legs with talons as big as 3 inches . It seemed as if a TIGER ON WINGS had just flown past me !!!
Owls have the outer ends of their flight feathers lacking in barbules, ii.e.they are unzipped – this makes the edges softer and reduces the noise they make, silent flight helps an owl catch its prey. The design of owls’ wings allows them to fly in almost absolute silence. Different parts of their wings and the characteristics of their feathers contribute to their silent flight. Owls have broad wings with large surface areas that help them to float through the air without flapping too much. Less flapping makes less noise.
We took some shots from that distance and then moved further up to get some better images . All this while , I was too engrossed in shooting the owl , so did not bother to check the image on the camera . As we moved ahead , the owl rotated its head , in a manner , I had never seen before . It was around 180 deg turn and it amost looked as if it had no features . Wow ! that head turn was something and I wondered why it needed such a massive head turn .
Well it turns out that owls eyes are fixed and they connot move it in the sockets the way we can ,to see from side to side . So to ensure that they can see all round , their heads can move 270 deg . Uff !! And to help achieve that they have an extra vertebrae to allow for this rotation !!!
The bird then faced us , and what was striking in its feautures was the almost deep sunset colour of the eyes and the funny tufts of feathers on the head , which seemed to make it look a bit softer . But then everything in nature seems to be because of a reason .
The large eyes are there , because owls are primarily nocturnal hunters ( hunt at night ). While they have been known to attack prey as large as peacocks and hares , rats and mice are their primary food . That’s the reason for those huge eyes which have well developed binocular vision (seeing an object with both eyes at the same time). This means the owl can see objects in 3 dimensions (height, width, and depth), and can judge distances in a similar way to humans. The field of view for an owl is about 110 degrees, with about 70 degrees being binocular vision.
The funny tufts are also called ‘ ear tufts’ . The reason being , they are normally in front of a very sensitive and highly eveolved auditory ( hearing ) system . The face of owl are like a convex bowl which concentrates the incoming sound and transfers it to the ear openings . The brain can detect which ear picked up the sound and then the owl would move its face in that direction till both ears hear it perfectly together . This helps the owl determine the exact direction from which the sound is coming and help pinpoint and locate it’s prey .Owls can detect a left/right time difference of about 0.00003 seconds (30 millionths of a second!) They can detect some frequencies accurately and target prey which are moving in thick foliage , snow or even underground !!!
I managed some images, before the huge guy flew away . The images on the back LCD seemed great . We left the place and I sat in my car to go back home . I thought of ‘chimping ‘ again at my images and check them before we leave . I started checking the images at greater magnification and it dawned on me that each one of those images had some amount of ‘shake’ . My amazing ‘on field’ moments had turned into agony , for the simple reason that I did not use a tripod . I directly headed for the shop and picked up a tripod and a head . ( one of the most important investments for a bird photographer , esp if you do not have stabilisation in your lenses ).
I went back to Turehalli atleast 5-6 times after that , but only managed to sight the owl once and get an ok image of it perched high in the branches . The mystic of the ‘Bubo Bubo ‘ lingered and I yearned for a sighting which was as good as the first one . I did get an image of the Indian Nightjar .
I subsequently got transferred to Pune and there used to be long discussions with my dear friends Rahul Rao , Vishal Jadhav , Shrikant Ranade among others about the Euarsian Eagle Owl. Tried a lot to get this mysterious bird during my year long ( otherwise fruitful) stay in Pune . But the mystical bird eluded me .
The last two years in Bombay , now meant that I would have to travel long distances for bird photography . The one paradise Uran, near Bombay was sacrificed on the altar of development and greed . http://www.thewildside.rakeshdhareshwar.com/wordpress-3.0.1/wordpress/?p=167
Did hear about reports of this owl being seen near the Borivali NP , Karjat , Solapur , etc . As I was getting desperate with each passing season , a trip to Solapur enroute Pune fulfilled my dream of seeing the ‘TIGER ON WINGS ‘. This time , I took my wife and my kids while going to this place where it had been sighted . When we reached the place , there were no signs of any bird . Slowly we could make out a Shikra sitting in the shade . A Spotted Owlet flew from one of the crevices . The anticipation of sighting the Eagle Owl was building up .
And then we sighted a Eurasian eagle Owl on the edge of a precipe . The camoflague of this beauty was just too good for the kind of habitat . It frequents rocky scruby areas , and nests on the ground or on the edge of a cliff . The Owl was staring at the sun and then turned its head to look at us . A minute later , it flew to occupy a small rock cut in the middle of the lake , and it was then we noticed the second Owl . A third one was perched opposite to us at the far end on the cliff . Woah ! We had discovered three Eurasian Eagle Owls . We had to cross the small hillock to reach the other side of the lake . A white breasted kingfisher was sitting fearlessly on a beautiful perch and I stopped to make some images of the beauty.
Next we crossed the small rocky path to reach below the rock cut where there were two Eagle owls sitting in the shade . The next 15 minutes were pure bliss , making some lovely images of the pair sitting so assured .
After a while they flew away to join , the lone Owl on the cliff . I used the rock cut as a hide , and was making some images , when I got an image , I consider one of my best birding images . The owl spread it’s wings to look bigger and with its beak slightly open hopped towards me . I am not sure if this is an attack mode , but the owl did look completely scary . Eurasian eagle owls are known to attack people if they feel threathned , and this display was enough to scare me .
After a while we turned back to go home . At the end of the water body , one owl was perched at very close range . This seemed to be the female as it was a very small one . Happy that the party was still not over , I spend another 10 mins getting as many good images .
This encounter with the Eurasian Eagle Owl was a memorable one . The species had taught me basics of photography ie. use a tripod . And I was happy that my second encounter had yielded me good results , because I had learnt from my mistake.
While the species is ‘Least Concern’ status in IUCN , and widely spread across the whole of Europe and Asia , it is one species who are threathned because of our superstitions .They are poached because there is a huge demand for owl products in the ‘black magic’ market . Because of their nocturnal habits they are supposed to possess mystical powers . People wear their eyes on their hands to ward off evil . A ‘live’ Eurasian Owl can fetch almost 30-45k in the black market . Haman or black magic practitioners ( tantriks ), prescribe the use of owls and their body parts such as skull, feathers, ear tuffs, claws, heart, liver, kidney, blood, eyes, fat, beak, tears, eggshells, meat and bones for ceremonial pujas and rituals.
Besides black magic, owls are trapped and traded for use in street performances; killed for taxidermy and for their meat; their parts are used in folk medicines; even their claws and feathers are sometimes used in headgear. Live owls are also used as decoys to catch other bird species.
The main centres of this trade are the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Bihar.
The magic of these royal creatures can work only in way . In a positive way . If we save our forests , and not poach these magnificient creatures , let them BE . The joy of watching these strong , graceful hunters is unrivalled . As much as the TIGERS are our torch bearers for conservation activities , The TIGER ON WINGS and every natural living being has as much a role, to make our lives meaningful and preserve the balance of nature . I hope you feel captivated by these beauties and spread the ‘CONSERVATION MANTRA’ for our future !
I hope the eye the owls have ward off our evil intentions towards them and keep the magnificient birds among us .