Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Novelette about an Owlet: The Ballad of Amaray and Mandi

I love this song

The Ballad of Amaray and Mandi. 
Mandi’s heart is completely hooked and she feels tremendous love and affection for Amarasena whose shortened name is Amaray.  This is the worst kind of entrapment where one party holds all the strings.  There is only one way this ballad could end—that is on a sad note—since it is pretty obvious that Amaray will split one day. 
Carrying several treats in her hand which she hopes would be received with joy, Mandi walked hurriedly to the SLWCS field house.  It does not help to keep the object of one’s love and affection waiting.  From where he is Amarasena through half closed eyes looks languidly at the approaching Mandi.  Amarasena’s character is the exact opposite of Mandi’s devoted and giving nature.  While she works during the day out in the field in the sweltering tropical heat and in the evening to get his meals, Amarasena meanwhile spends his time lounging in the field house napping mostly and passing his time in broody contemplation.  Only at dusk does Amarasena sees it fit to emerge from his lassitude to prepare for another night of nocturnal romping. Poor Mandi, the SLWCS field staff thinks, observing this impossible situation.  They wonder whether they should have warned her that there is only heartbreak when one is smitten by an Asiatic Scops Owl that is no bigger than ones’ palm.

This is all about me? 
Mandi is an independent research volunteer from England.  She had come down to conduct a project on human-elephant conflicts to write her university dissertation thesis.  She was staying at the project site for two months.  Amarasena also had been at the field house about two months.  He came to the field house around the same time Mandi had arrived.  

Love hath no boundaries
He is quite fickle though and will slide up to the other volunteers or up to anybody for treats and affection.  He is definitely a hit with all the volunteers as well as the visitors who come to the field house. The European volunteers: Erik, Esther, Lisa, Katy and Claire and Singaporean volunteers: Daphne, Darren, Matthew and Varun had become huge fans of the little owlet.  They had all left with heavy hearts.  Apparently the charm Amaray turns on had garnered him an international fan base.  Amarasena the person for whom the owl had been named should take a few lessons from Amarasena the owl.        

The Singaporeans: Daphne, Mathew and Varun with the Field Staff: Siriya, Sampath and Chandima. Amaray is on Sampath's (fourth from left) right shoulder 

The volunteers from Europe and Singapore with the Field Staff
Amarasena or Amaray also called AD (which is the initials) had been named in remembrance of an acidic and recalcitrant ex senior staff person.  This senior staff member due to his misanthropic and insincere nature, sour countenance and dishonest behavior had become the most unpopular person on earth.  It is incredible how he had single handedly managed to become that!  It is hard to say who is been insulted here.  I guess we will never know what the human Amarasena’s reaction would be if he finds out that an owl had been named after him.  Or what the owl would think, if he knows how his human name sake is regarded as. But I for one would feel highly complimented if someone was to name an owl in remembrance of me.  It could have been lot worse with a leech, a bed bug, a cockroach or even a toad sulking in a dark corner been named Amarasena.  I feel we had shown proper decorum when naming the owl Amarasena.

Now a fact is owls are sexually monomorphic which means both sexes look alike therefore trying to sex identify them based on their appearance is rather difficult.  So there could be a fifty percent chance that Amarasena is a female—not the former staff member since he at least looked like a grouchy old man when I last saw him.   I meant our little scops owl if it does happen to be a female then we will just have to call her Amaradevi.

Craig had all of a sudden descended on the field house from England and seemed to be enraptured by the miniscule owl as much as Mandi is.  We are very concerned that this won’t evolve into some complicated romantic love triangle that we’ll have the onerous task of untangling.  Everyone fervently wanted to avoid such a situation, so the field staff had surreptitiously packed off Craig to our field camp deep in the jungle and casually forgotten to send the Land Rover back.  Fortunately Craig has a craving for the solitude and serenity of the jungle and a penchant to roam the green aisles.  Hopefully he will not miss Amarasena that much.  Who knows in time he might find something else to focus his affections on such as a slender Loris or a devil bird.            

Craig the usurper vying for Amaray's affections
Craig: You better make up your mind...either its me or... Amaray: Are you talking to me?
Now to get back to Amarasena, he is an orphan who had ended up at our field house and in Mandi’s care.  Amarasena and a fellow sibling had fallen from their nest which was a hole, high up on a coconut tree and it was Sampath, one of our staff members who had found it and brought the orphaned owlet to Wasgamuwa.  Over the years orphans of various species had been taken care off at the field house and then given their freedom.   So it was the best place to bring the baby owl.  At the field house the little baby owl would get all the care it needs and also had the best chance of getting rehabilitated to live a life of freedom.

You ungrateful owl
But I forgive you

Isn't he adorable?
It was a windy day in May 2013 when Sampath had gone to the back garden of his wife, Saumiya’s parents’ home in Aralaganwila to check for wind fallen coconuts.  The sun was setting in the evening sky in the west as he walked to the back of the property.  

As he approached one of the coconut trees a loud hissing sound halted him in mid stride—his first thought was, it must be a snake—probably a cobra.  Alarmed he looked around slowly and cautiously expecting any second for a large cobra to rush at him from under the fallen and decaying coconut fronds.  Then he noticed a glob of white at the base of a coconut tree and the hissing was coming from it.  He approached the white downy blob and saw that it was some baby animal.  After picking up the hissing ball of white down Sampath had looked around carefully and noticed another similar one underneath a coconut frond.  Unfortunately it was already dead.  Only Amarasena had survived the fall.

Holding gently he had carried the little baby bird to the house and put it in a box with some cloth.  Unable to identify the hissing white ball that seemed to be impersonating a bird, he had called our Field Projects Coordinator, Chandima, an avid birder and expert to find out what it was.   When Chandima asked him to describe what he had, Sampath told him that he had some sort of baby bird that looked like a large cotton ball, had enormous eyes and hissed loudly like a leaking bicycle tube.  After Sampath had described what the baby bird looked like, Chandima told him that it was a baby scops owl.  He instructed Sampath to make a sugar solution and feed the baby chick immediately since it could be dehydrated.  After feeding the sugar solution and with no meat available, Sampath had fed the baby owl some boiled sweet potato.  While sweet potatoes are not part of its natural diet it would have had the same effect as giving the sugar solution—it provided the little chick with much needed energy.   Later he had got some fresh fish, sliced them into small pieces and fed the owlet.  It had eaten this with gusto.

Samapth the owl rescuer with a baby crocodile
That night Samapth kept the little owlet wrapped in cloth in the box.  The next day morning he was happy to observe that the little owlet had survived it first night.  It looked healthy and in good spirits.  Samapth had to go to meet up with Chandima and to pick up several volunteers from the Hotel Goldi Sands at Negombo.  With no one else to take care of the baby owl, he decided to take it with him.  Operation Owl Rescue was now underway and Mandi’s fate was sealed.

A small cake box was converted to a traveling case with little holes to transport the owlet. Putting the baby owl in it Sampath took it with him to Wennappuwa.  When he boarded the bus he kept the box on the overhead rack along with his backpack.  When the bus stopped at Habarana for tea he could distinctly hear the little owl hissing loudly inside the box.  Fearing that the other passengers might hear and not knowing what it was and alert the conductor, he had taken the owl with him to the tea shop where he sat away from the other passengers and managed to give it some water without attracting any attention.  At Nittambuwa he had to get off to catch the connecting bus.  Here he had taken it to the toilet and again given it water to drink and sprayed some to cool it down.  He had managed to do this covertly without attracting any unwanted attention.  

Boarding the connecting bus Sampath made it to Chandima’s house at Wennapuwa without further incidents.  Now the little owlet was in the capable hands Chandima who was an expert birder, ornithologists and ecologists.  Collecting the Land Cruiser they left to Negombo to pick up the volunteers.  Once they were on their way to Wasgamuwa they had called ahead and asked Siriya the field house caretaker to catch some fish to feed the baby owl.  
Siriya catching fish to feed Amarasena
That night Amarasena and Mandi met in Wasgamuwa for the first time.  We couldn’t have asked for a better surrogate girlfriend for Amarasena. 

Chandima taking care of Amarasena
At the beginning he had been fed on fish caught from the lake at the bottom of the property which he had eaten with relish until he had got seriously sick after eating a skink.  A twenty four hour vigil by Mandi and her frequent efforts to keep him hydrated had pulled Amarasena back before he could wing his heavenly way to owl hoot-hill.  He had completely recovered from whatever that had afflicted him and is now almost fully fledged and can make short flights. 

Ever since Amarasena was cured from whatever life threatening affliction that Mandi had managed to save him, he is fed only natural prey as much as possible.  This is easier said than done though.  Amarasena’s parents have stealth flight and excellent night vision capabilities making them efficient and deadly nocturnal hunters.  While the staff stumbled around trying to catch a few measly geckos, in as much time his tiny parents would’ve caught enough to fill an ark! 

A gecko during better days 
The efforts to catch natural prey were basically limited to the vicinity of the field house.  Practically every evening as the sun sinks behind the Sudu Kanda range and the Southerly situated peaks of the Knuckles Mountain range lights up with the brilliant hues of the setting sun, Mandi and Chandima goes hunting for Geckos and other small animals to feed Amarasena.  Collecting common geckos and other small creatures every evening to feed Amarasena in such a small area is having a serious impact on the local populations.  It is time to give Amarasena his freedom otherwise the populations of small creatures will plummet beyond recovery at our field site.  In addition we don’t want Amarasena to become a failure to launch case either.  We had enough problems getting rid of his human namesake that the last thing we want is the owl namesake taking over.  This was actually the main reason why wanted to wean him away from fish and other unnatural foods and provide him with natural prey.  If Amarasena is to be rehabilitated successfully to live a life of freedom, then he had to become familiar with the type of prey he would have naturally fed if he hadn’t become orphaned.

Eggs of geckos and garden lizards are also consumed with relish

A garden lizard - fortunately it is too large for Amaray to swallow.

Frequently Amaray is shown what awaits him in the great outdoors 
He had learned to swallow geckos and other various small creatures whole as fast as they were offered to him.  It was fascinating to watch how dexterously and efficiently he used his beak and feet to maneuver the geckos and other small animals head first before swallowing them. that a gecko? 

I guess it is

Got to get this right. 

According to the Manual got to get that head going in the right direction

Little bit of footwork and...

...there it goes...twoot, twoot

Now where is the next one?
Sometimes in his haste to eat, he gets the orientation wrong and swallows the geckoes tail first, apparently without any ill effect.  Irrespective of what end goes first, Amaray’s eyes would close in sheer pleasure and ecstasy of feeling them sliding down his gullet.  Since we didn’t teach him to maneuver his food this way—even Mandi’s abilities as a surrogate fiancé have their limits—these are obviously hardwired behaviors similar to how newborn baby mammals know to suckle.

I think I got the wrong end!

No time to worry about it now. 

It does not matter what end goes first it ends up in the same place.

A double headed oddity.  I hope I'm not scaring the kids. 
One morning I came across an endemic brown capped babbler trapped in an old chicken cage. It was fluttering inside the abandoned cage trying to find a way out.  Taking off my t-shirt I threw it over the bird so it won’t get injured and gently picked it up swathed in the t-shirt and brought to the field house.  Chandima checked the bird and decided to let it go immediately since it did not seem to be too stressed, dehydrated or injured and needed any care.  It was not fed to Amarasena.  We had to draw a line somewhere and this was it.  We were definitely not going to feed him endemic species. 

The Brown Capped Babbler

It seems like Chandima is giving a lesson in dental hygiene to the Babbler while volunteer Chris from Scotland is looking as if he had never seen a bird before. 

The Brown Capped Babbler just prior to its release
Chandima informed me just a few days ago that Amarasena goes on short flights and can catch small prey successfully now.  This means in a couple of weeks he could be set free and should be able to live by himself.  Probably he will set up base in the field house since he is used to it and sees it as his territory.  The day he goes off by himself would be a joyous occasion, since there is no greater satisfaction than giving a wild animal a second chance to live free.  We have to now come up with a plan to ease Mandi’s sorrow at this inevitable separation.  Maybe an introduction to the actual human Amarasena will help her to quickly overcome the grief of separating from the owl Amarasena.  After one short encounter with the acerbic human counterpart I’m sure Mandi will not give two hoots about Amarasena (I mean the owl) after that.  But I’m sure though the owl Amarasena will have a lot to hoot about once he is set free.

I don't think I want to leave this place ever
Our main focus is human-elephant conflict and developing measures for its mitigation for the long term conservation of the endangered Sri Lankan elephant. In the course of these efforts we have many exciting encounters with wild elephants and other wildlife.  Yet it is the smaller denizens of the jungle when they come into our lives that bring us the greatest enjoyment and pleasure for having known them at such a personal level.  They leave lasting memories that so much enhances and enriches our lives.  Here’s to you Dodam* your memory still lives in our hearts and minds.  

Dodam 2010 to 2011
*You can  read about Dodam the giant squirrell in these previous blogs:

1 comment:

  1. Great, Another experience shared by Ravi. I remember when I visited Ravi’s place with my friends, kids in 2011. Never forget his hospitality, subject domain knowledge shared with us in wild life. Wish you all the best, Ravi. Janaka Mudalige. Director (IT) / 118 Emergency, Ministry of Defence.