If there’s one family of birds that I tend to clearly show more interest than in others (and believe me, that’s a big thing) are the owls. I love them. They all have a lot of character and they show it with facial expressions that we humans can relate to. They silently hunt in the darkness of night, which gives them a sort of mysterious aura.
In many parts of Brazil, and I’d guess in other countries too, owls are associated by more simple people of the interior to bad omen. No wonder you see owls in horror movies, cemetery scenes, etc. They carry that omen all over, even on some of their scientific names, like the Asio stygius, where stygius comes from Styx or River of Styx, a Greek mithological river of the underworld, hence hellish, infernal… “Oaths sworn by it were supremely binding and even the gods feared to break them“. The truth is that owls are only a bad omen to their prey! And humans certainly are NOT in their diet! All owls are carnivorous, feeding on a variety of live prey, from insects taken by the smaller species to fish, crustaceans, rodents and even big birds.
Owls are probably some of the most specialized predators on Earth. Here’s their main virtues:
1) Eyesight – all owls have excellent nocturnal eyesight. Because of the position of the eyes (forward facing), they have great binocular vision, meaning that they can tell distances very accurately. We have binocular vision too, not as precise as an owl, but we do. Do a test, close one eye with a hand and see how you instantly lose the ability to precisely tell the difference between close and far objects. Without it the world essentially becomes 2D, and that’s how non-predator animals see the world.
2) Hearing – owls have an amazing hearing. Experiments with the Barn Owl showed that they can perfectly hear, and locate, the slightest sound produced by a mouse softly walking on a grass field a hundred yards away.
3) Silent flight – special soft feather edging gives all owls an extremelly silent flight. Even the largest of owls makes no sound at all when flapping their broad wings. This helps them approach and attack their wary prey without being noticed.
4) Power – extremelly sharp nails and powerful claws can kill a prey instantly. Sharp beaks help in cutting the flesh.
I spent last weekend guiding a small group of birdwatchers at a private reserve I’m familiar with in the Atlantic Rainforest. On saturday it was a perfect night for owls: clear skies, no wind and a big moon. So as soon as it got dark I started hearing a couple Black-capped Screech-Owls singing. Their song is a level, slow trill up to 18 seconds long. While not particularly rare, this endemic to the Atlantic Rainforest is a difficult bird to photograph, because they always stay inside dense forest. This particular owl was singing just a few meters from me but I wasn’t being able to locate it. Finally after some time I found it, but just for a few seconds. I snapped the (bad) pic below and it flew away not to return again. It just lost interest in my playback.
Black-capped Screech-Owl, dark eyed variation
This night luck wasn’t exactly on my side, but a couple years ago, at the same reserve, I located and photographed an extremely rare species while guiding a couple north-american clients, the Buff-fronted Owl. Very few is known about this small owl and after this photo I never found or heard it again. Who knows, I might never find it again in my lifetime!
But I keep on searchiing. My goal is to photograph all brazilian owl species (12 to go, a lot of work!) and then move on to other south american countries.