As the sun sets in Port Blair, we drive away from a local forest on the city’s periphery to a government school in the heart of the city. It is past school hours, but Vikram Sheil, our guide, approaches the security guard and whispers, “We are here for the owls”. The moment we walk in, he points to powdery white trails running down the heritage building’s brick-red walls. “Owl droppings. A family of barn owls lives in the roof above, but we must wait for the sun to go down completely,” he says. Moments later, a lanky male bird emerges and swoops like a poltergeist in the dark. The female follows while a nervous juvenile peeks out. This is a family of endemic Andaman barn owls — three matching heart-shaped faces, six beady eyes, and over a dozen sharp talons that can rip through flesh.
I am with wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee and a team of filmmakers who are here to spot endemic creatures of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Owl-spotting or “owling” has quickly turned into our favourite after-hours adventure. The islands, known for their high levels of endemism, host six owl species found nowhere else in the world. All are strictly nocturnal. Every night for three weeks, we follow their calls — hoots, screeches, whistles and a peculiar “whoo-oop up!” — in dark rainforests, dense plantations, open farms, and old heritage buildings.
Owls fascinate me. Unlike most other birds, they seem to make eye contact with their forward-facing, glassy yellow eyes. Their facial expressions seem familiar, almost human-like. “What are they thinking?” I often wonder. But owling also gives us the opportunity to explore the islands in the dark. At night, not just owls, but a new cast of characters take centre stage — nightjars call, frogs croak, cicadas sing, spiders hunt. However, we can only see what our torch beams light up. We quickly learn to rely more on sound than sight. We listen. We whisper. We smell. We tread cautiously. “The night transforms the habitat, but it changes us too,” says Mukherjee. “In the dark, we are more alert and watchful than in the day. Smaller creatures emerge. Every step has to be calculated and carefully placed,” he says.
Our owl prowls turn into deeply sensorial experiences. Add piercing golden eyes, sharp talons, a head that almost rotates, and eerie screeches to the mix, and you get a late-night show that is hard to forget.