Bird on a wire

26 Jul 2017
POSTED BY Y Magazine

Last week, Dr Christopher Clarke was all set for his own quest to spot the unique Omani Owl. Here’s how he got on.

As the sun was setting, I arrived with much excitement at the location where the owl was first discovered in 2013. I arrived at this time in case the Omani Owl was crepuscular but did not see it in the fading light of dusk.

The owl’s diet consists mainly of geckos, mammals and scorpions that are nocturnal but some species of owl do appear before nightfall, which is a particularly good time to see and photograph them.

Once night had fallen, I went back to the nearest farmsteads and villages in search of anyone who might know the difference between the different owls found in this part of Oman.

These are Barn Owl Tyto alba, Little Owl Athene noctua, Pallid Scops Owl Otus brucei, and of course, Omani Owl.

I took with me photographs of each of these different kinds of owls, plus sound recordings of their hooting.

Without saying what the species were, I showed the local people the different photographs and asked them to listen to the different calls. My respondents included a goat herder whose corral lay in the middle of three of the locations where the Omani Owl was first observed, the nearest location being only 300m away. The rest of my respondents came from the closest two villages, 2km from the nearest observed Omani Owl location.

The response of local people to the photographs was pretty consistent. They pointed out Barn Owl and said it was common, also they identified Little Owl as a known species but said it was less common than Barn Owl. The other two species they were unsure of, and considered to be the same. They gave Barn Owl a different name to the other owls (dumiya) as opposed to the Classical Arabic word for owl (bouma) which was used for all other species. No-one interviewed was aware of the discovery of the Omani Owl four years previously on their very doorstep.

When they heard the sound recordings they identified the Barn Owl screech and recognised the cry of the Little Owl. The other owls were not known. The villagers admitted they did not go out at night but mentioned a village further up the mountain where the inhabitants are goat herders, who would have a much better idea of nocturnal species. However, it was 9pm and I was told they would already be asleep, as the village did not have electricity. So, I headed back to the location where the Omani Owl had been seen previously, pulled out my roll mat and prepared myself for a long and possibly uncomfortable night.

Apart from the occasional rumble of cars, and the distant cough of a shepherd dog, the beautiful moonlit night was remarkably quiet. The temperature was surprisingly pleasant for July, with a gentle cool breeze blowing down from the high Jebel. Every hour or so, I played back the call of the Omani Owl in the hope of luring it out of its mountain stronghold. It didn’t take the bait.

An hour before dawn as I was finally drifting into that all elusive sleep, I heard a call that made me sit bolt upright. That sounded like it but I needed to hear it again as I didn’t trust my senses in my state of semi-stupor. So, I played back the call. No response. In desperation I played back every owl call in my repertoire, in the hope of goading it into action. Then came the cry of a Little Owl from the opposite direction, and I enjoyed sparring with this owl for a few minutes while it was becoming increasingly agitated at a rival calling on its patch. Also in the distance I heard the faint call of a Pallid Scops Owl. But no Omani Owl.

For a brief moment the mountains were plunged into darkness as the moon dipped over the western peaks before the rising sun from the east returned to conquer the land for the Kingdom of Light. Dejected and possibly a little grumpy, not to mention tired, I returned home. Why did Magnus Robb manage to find this species while it had eluded me? To answer that question, I returned to the original research paper he wrote that I had previously skim-read.

The answer was clear: actually Robb used advanced technical equipment to encounter this cryptic bird. He used high-strength speakers attached to a tree for six hours at a time, constantly blaring out owl calls whereas I was using speakers attached to my GSM, less than once an hour. Also, he had used a parabolic reflector dish attached to a microphone which then transmitted amplified sounds to his ear phones.  As he himself stated, he often heard the Omani Owl through this equipment whereas the hooting owls were actually inaudible to the human ear. Also, he was part of a team that worked together across a part of the mountain, and he used an owl decoy. Neither should experience be discounted for even his technique was better than mine. With a better arsenal, a larger army and more battle experience, it is no wonder he succeeded when I had failed.

Yet, despite all these advantages, it was apparent that he and his team also would go for several nights without hearing the Omani Owl. No wonder the local Omanis didn’t know its call, even though they lived along the same street. Also, I suspect that the GPS location given were those the owl was attracted to, not where it normally resides. It is likely that it was drawn down from higher, more inaccessible rocky slopes beyond the nightly forays of sensible humans.

In 2015, an owl was found entangled in a balcony in Mashad, Iran that was subsequently identified as the Omani Owl. Remarkably, the record came not from the Iranian coast but from the far side of the country, right up by the Turkmenistan border.

Also, other possible records have come from Iran and the UAE, though the centre of its population range is still in Oman. New range extensions are highly likely over the coming years, along with a better understanding of this mysterious creature of the night.

After a century of foxing scientists and birders, the Omani Owl has taught us two lessons. The first is the importance of going back to the source for all information. If the scientific community had done that, they would have separated Omani Owl and Desert Owl years ago. Now there will always be confusion over Strix butleri, as it refers to two different species, and the only way of knowing which is which is by knowing what year a record was made.

The second lesson the Omani Owl teaches us is that Oman may have yet more undiscovered secrets in the dim recesses of its wildlife treasure trove, waiting for you and me to uncover.

Other Owls

1) Barn Owl Tyto Alba

2) Little Owl Athene Noctua

3) Pallid Scops Owl Otus Brucei

4) Omani Owl

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