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.

The endemic Andaman barn owl (Tyto deroepstorffi) is only found in the southern Andaman Islands. It’s often spotted around human settlements, roosting in nooks and crannies of old and abandoned buildings. Its most recognisable feature is the heart-shaped face or the “facial disk”. The face functions like a funnel/dish antenna, gathering and directing sounds to its ears, so it can detect the location of prey by simply listening to its movements.

The endemic Andaman barn owl (Tyto deroepstorffi) is only found in the southern Andaman Islands. It’s often spotted around human settlements, roosting in nooks and crannies of old and abandoned buildings. Its most recognisable feature is the heart-shaped face or the “facial disk”. The face functions like a funnel/dish antenna, gathering and directing sounds to its ears, so it can detect the location of prey by simply listening to its movements.

The Andaman scops owl (Otus balli) is found on the islands in two morphs (shades) — a rufous (left) and a grey-brown (right). We spot the rufous in an areca nut plantation. Compared to the lean barn owl, the scops owl is a tiny, compact bird with a large head and almost no neck. It seems suspicious of us but makes no effort to flee. For several minutes, its piercing yellow eyes deride us; its stance is so confident, it’s almost unnerving. We spot the grey-brown morph hunting a few days later. It swoops down into the thickets and returns with a juicy meal held firmly in its beak. The species is nocturnal and feeds on insects and beetles — caterpillars are a favourite.

We spot a pair of Hume’s hawk-owls (Ninox obscura) hovering around street lights. Their golden-yellow eyes stand out against chocolate brown plumage. The male and female follow each other from tree to tree, taking turns to turn around and stare at us. Like most hawk owls, Hume’s hawk-owls form monogamous pairs during the breeding season, which lasts from March to April.

We spot a pair of Hume’s hawk-owls (Ninox obscura) hovering around street lights. Their golden-yellow eyes stand out against chocolate brown plumage. The male and female follow each other from tree to tree, taking turns to turn around and stare at us. Like most hawk owls, Hume’s hawk-owls form monogamous pairs during the breeding season, which lasts from March to April.

Further away, we see the Oriental scops owl (Walden’s) (Otus sunia) in a palm plantation. Endemic to the islands, this subspecies is a solitary hunter often spotted in farms on forest edges where it feeds on insects and rodents. For several minutes it stares at us with its piercing yellow eyes, its ear tufts twitching. The ear tufts are barely visible when the owl is relaxed, but they stand up when it is alert, giving its face a sharp, angular shape.

Further away, we see the Oriental scops owl (Walden’s) (Otus sunia) in a palm plantation. Endemic to the islands, this subspecies is a solitary hunter often spotted in farms on forest edges where it feeds on insects and rodents. For several minutes it stares at us with its piercing yellow eyes, its ear tufts twitching. The ear tufts are barely visible when the owl is relaxed, but they stand up when it is alert, giving its face a sharp, angular shape.

In the rainforests of Great Nicobar, we see a stout, short and restless Nicobar scops owl (Otus alius) (left). “They are so common here that we spot one every other day, every 200 metres,” says Shashank Dalvi, an ornithologist who has travelled to the island to study its endemic birds. The owl sits on its perch and bobs its head, first from side to side and then wiggles and moves it up and down. “Owls have asymmetrical ears. The bobbing helps it tune in the sounds and hear better. They use them to judge their distance from prey,” he says. On another night, walking down the same path, we spot a brown hawk owl (Ninox scutulata) (right). This endemic subspecies is different in appearance and temperament from the Nicobar scops; it has a slender body, hooked beak, and long tail that is similar to a hawk.

The night is also time for smaller creatures emerge. When we take our eyes off the Nicobar scops owl, we spot the endemic Nicobarese tree frog (Polypedates insularis) near a puddle. The frog likes lowland forests, around freshwater swamps surrounded by vegetation. Like most other tree frogs, this species builds its foam nest above waterbodies, so tadpoles that hatch drop straight into the waters below.

The night is also time for smaller creatures emerge. When we take our eyes off the Nicobar scops owl, we spot the endemic Nicobarese tree frog (Polypedates insularis) near a puddle. The frog likes lowland forests, around freshwater swamps surrounded by vegetation. Like most other tree frogs, this species builds its foam nest above waterbodies, so tadpoles that hatch drop straight into the waters below.

(Left) Another night, we spot a curious gathering of bees (Pseudapis sp.) on a twig swaying in the wind. These bees, ironically, are solitary creatures that build nests on the ground. However, after sundown, they gather to roost in large numbers. The gathering is strategic — lone bees may be hunted with ease, but a large gathering distributes the risk of predation. A little further, the agile and alert lynx spider (Oxyopes sp.) steps out to hunt. Lynx spiders do not build webs but hide in grassy weeds and fields. The numerous erect spines on their legs help detect vibrations in their surroundings and spot prey or a predator from a distance. They are ambush hunters who can wait patiently for hours to pounce on prey.

While the spider skulks, the house centipede (Scutigera morpha) feels no need to hide. The leggy centipede is one of the top predators of the dark, chasing and hunting down everything from lynx spiders to tiny frogs. Once it gets its legs on a victim, it tackles and restrains it like a wrestler, then injects venom and paralyses it before devouring the meal.

While the spider skulks, the house centipede (Scutigera morpha) feels no need to hide. The leggy centipede is one of the top predators of the dark, chasing and hunting down everything from lynx spiders to tiny frogs. Once it gets its legs on a victim, it tackles and restrains it like a wrestler, then injects venom and paralyses it before devouring the meal.

The house centipede is common prey for owls, especially larger ones like the endemic Andaman hawk owl (Ninox affinis). This owl turns its back at us as soon as we spot it. When we least expect it, it turns its head 270 degrees to look back at us. Owls have immoveable eyeballs and must rely on their agile necks to keep watch. The rotating neck and glassy yellow eyes seem to stare into my soul and send shudders down my spine. What is it thinking?

The house centipede is common prey for owls, especially larger ones like the endemic Andaman hawk owl (Ninox affinis). This owl turns its back at us as soon as we spot it. When we least expect it, it turns its head 270 degrees to look back at us. Owls have immoveable eyeballs and must rely on their agile necks to keep watch. The rotating neck and glassy yellow eyes seem to stare into my soul and send shudders down my spine. What is it thinking?

Radhika Raj
Radhika Raj

is a features writer with RoundGlass Sustain. When she is not chasing stories, she is busy fantasising about building a pottery studio in the hills.

Dhritiman Mukherjee
Dhritiman Mukherjee

is one of India's most prolific wildlife and conservation photographers. His work has been featured in leading publications. He is also a RoundGlass Ambassador, and an RBS Earth Hero awardee.


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