Jops Josef writes about the family of Philippine scops owls in his own backyard.
PHILIPPIE AND FAMILY
by Jops Josef
Owls. One of the bird species that I have written off as one of the hardest, if not one of the last species I will see as a birder. And I had every reason to do so – going owling in the middle of the night was something Maia and I were still imagining we would do. We heard stories from fellow birders of two different Philippine Scops Owls that were easy to spot at the Physics Pavillion and Hardin ng Rosas compound, but that was before we became birders. And we were close to seeing our first owl, which perched on the roof of Kitty’s rest house, had we stayed up a couple of hours more. So who would have thought that we would get our second owl species within months after seeing the Philippine Eagle Owl’s in Balara and Angono, much more in our own backyard?!
I first heard a Philippine Scops Owl (PSO) calling in our backyard about 3-4 months ago. It was such a strange call to hear in the middle of the night that somehow, it made me think it was an owl. So immediately I visited the website of Xeno Canto to look for a call of a PSO, since it was the only owl that was most likely to occur in the area based on the geographic distribution of owls according to the Kennedy Guide. To my surprise, I was right, a perfect match on the first two notes.
But I had no idea how to look for it since I had little experience in owling. Content with the match, I talked to some birders to consult about what I heard, and they said it was most probably the PSO. But with no sighting at hand, I did not report it just yet. It went on for three consecutive nights, sometimes it would skip nights but would call again. Then the calls stopped completely.
Fast forward to Easter Sunday, 2012. Maia and I were hanging out in my room, when we heard a high pitch shrill outside my window. Jokingly I said, “Scops Owl yun” (“That’s a Scops Owl.”) I thought she would take it lightly, but Maia insisted we look for a call on Xeno Canto again. Without knowing it was an immature call I selected the one posted by Desmond (not because he’s a member of the Club, but because he’s a really experienced birder and I consider his post as a very reliable reference.) Again, it was a match! We were astounded! An immature Philippine Scops Owl in our backyard?! No way! Was it real? We weren’t sure. It was surreal for us at that time to believe that there was a PSO in our backyard, much more an immature one, which would mean that they were breeding here. Did we search for it? No, we were tired from the guided trip that afternoon.
We weren’t expecting to hear it again the day after. We came home from Nasugbu, Batangas, after an unexpectedly wonderful birding day at Canyon Cove. It was our 2nd year anniversary as birders, and I already had a lifer under my belt – Striated Swallows seen at the resort. Maia on the other hand, had somehow resigned that she wouldn’t have a lifer for that day. I went out to the pool area to talk to ask our family driver, Kuya Junior, if he heard the owl calling again, but suddenly found myself rushing in again – the immature PSO was calling loudly in our own backyard! We quickly got out, armed with our bins, and a poor-excuse for a birding flashlight. It was calling loudly, but it took sometime for us to see it. Luckily, I gave the flashlight to Maia, and she was the one who spotted the immature PSO on a leafless branch of our mango tree, less than 5 meters from the ground! Birding anniversary lifer for Maia, second lifer for the day for me, and confirmed PSO in our backyard! How cool was that?
Still high from spotting the immature PSO the night before, I excitedly went out again to look for it. Just as I was about to ask Kuya Junior if he had heard is calling again, it called, this time much lower than we first heard it. Moving closer to where it sounded off, I stopped and looked in the general direction where we first saw it. Silence. But then it called again, as if it was on top of me. Slowly, I focused my light towards the direction of the call. I think my heart skipped at beat as I was thrown back from what I saw… the immature PSO was less than 10 feet from the ground and on a low branch on top of me!
Quickly after firing a couple of shots, something flew in and perched near it. It was the adult PSO and it had what looked like a bird in its mouth. I could only assume it was dinner for the family. My mouth was still wide open while I fired the following shot.
I quickly called Maia, “Punta ka na dito! (Come over now!) The adult just showed itself!” Within minutes, Maia arrived, and so did Jun and Yana. The immature owl was still on its perch, and I got the same reaction when I showed it to them – thrown aback with a quiet yelp of surprise or curse.
And so became my nightly routine. Every night, I found myself drawn to our backyard to look for them – sometimes with co-birders and sometimes alone – not to take photos, but to check that they are still there and surviving and also to observe how the juveniles are maturing (yes, there have two immature owls.) Despite seeing or hearing them almost every day, it is still surreal that there are owls in my backyard. But it is not just having owls that makes me smile whenever I see or hear them, it’s more of knowing the fact that there are still environments within the city that extraordinary birds still find suitable for them to thrive and more importantly, to breed.
- Subsequent observations and talks with the neighbors’ help revealed that the PSO family included two adults and two juveniles. The two juveniles were confirmed on two occasions – the first one, while one juvenile was perched out in the open, another immature call was heard. The second occasion was when both juveniles were seen perched on one branch fighting over a house gecko.
- The immature owl/s would call starting around 6:45-7PM. They would continuously call and would stop around 8:30-9PM. They would call again around 11-11:30PM and would call way beyond 12:30PM, after I have gone to sleep. We could only assume that their starting call would mean feeding time, and would only stop once the juveniles probably had their fill.
- The juveniles were already fledglings when they were first spotted. The presence of flight feathers in the first photos taken would confirm this. For the first two of days sighting, they were spotted at my backyard. But as they continue to mature, their territory has expanded to four adjacent lots (the third one being ours).
- Adults are harder to spot, as the PSOs are really quiet flyers (now I know why they are effective hunters at night – silent death from above! Extremely cool to observe!). But it has been observed that the adults are just hidden in the general area of the juveniles, ready to protect them from any threat.
- Ivan mentioned that the Philippine Scops Owl is the smartest of the Scops Owl family, based on his experience. I was able to experience this first hand when he visited. We tried spotting the owl by using one of the calls from Xeno Canto. After the first call, the adult quickly flew away from where we were standing. It was minutes after, when we realized why it did that – the juvenile was perched in the area towards our backs, and it flew opposite that direction to protect it’s young.
- When Adri and Trinket came to see the PSO, not only was it their first time to hear the call of an immature PSO, but it was also the first for all of us to hear what we could assume was their alarm call (call is still being processed as of this posting).