DNX Culture | Owling in the City

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Mark de la Paz
Mark de la Paz is a native of Bacolod and loves exploring natural wild places. He is a marine biologist and is currently working on the conservation of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in Guimaras Strait.

First of Two Parts

It was a cold February morning.

Daylight had not yet broken and the sky was still inky black with a hint of purple and pink outlining the silhouette of the sleeping Mt. Mandalagan in the east. I stepped out of the cemented street and into the dirt road leading into the tall grass. I approached a man standing on the dirt with his back towards me. “Good morning! Seen anything yet?” I asked.

“Oh! Good morning,” the man, Kim Decena, greeted back as he turned to face me. He was wearing a face mask, as did I, and a fedora hat just like the classical adventurer’s, Indiana Jones. He was clutching a pair of binoculars on one hand while holding on to a leash attached to his growling dog on the other. “Yes we did,” Kim continued. “Just a few moments ago, one just flew over us from that area over there” he said, pointing west. “Judging from its size, I think it was a male”.

Daylight had not yet broken and the sky was still inky black with a hint of purple and pink outlining the silhouette of the sleeping Mt. Mandalagan in the east. I stepped out of the cemented street and into the dirt road leading into the tall grass. I approached a man standing on the dirt with his back towards me. “Good morning! Seen anything yet?” I asked.

Kim was referring to an Eastern Grass Owl (Tyto longimembris). I had joined him in his usual spot in one of the grasslands in the middle of Bacolod City to spot for these owls. Kim walks here every morning with his dog Kuro to spot and observe these wild owls in their natural habitat. He hopes that these observations in the field can help him take better care of the three grass owls under his care in the Negros Forest Park, a biodiversity conservation center run by local NGO Talarak Foundation where Kim is a fulltime volunteer.

 The area we were in was an under-developed residential subdivision which already had some paved areas for streets.

However, there were no houses built yet, so the empty lots had turned into a vast perimetered grassland, a perfect habitat for Eastern grass owls and other wildlife. The subdivision was off-limits to the public, except during early mornings and late afternoons when they would allow people to use the main road for exercise and recreation. Kim had first seen the owls while walking with Kuro one January morning after which he excitedly told me about his discovery. He’s been coming back with his binoculars ever since.

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I picked up my own binoculars hanging from my neck and looked through it towards the vast, dark grassland in front of us. How can he see an owl in this darkness, I pondered to myself.

“Can you hear that?” Kim asked. All I could hear were crickets. I opened my flask of coffee to take a sip, hoping the caffeine could wake up my senses. After a few seconds, I thought I could hear what he was referring to: A faint sharp shriek from the grasses some distance in front of us.

“I hear the owlets!” Kim shrieked. “Thank God they’re alive! Oh God, I was so worried!” Kim exclaimed in relief.

He was referring to the nest which we’ve been observing the owls frequent every time we saw them. We haven’t really seen the nest, but Kim was sure that there was at least one nest in the tall grass. Apparently, grass owls don’t nest in trees like their eagle owl cousins do, but on the ground among the tall grass.

The other day, Kim had called me on my mobile phone because he was worried when he saw man with a bag disappear into the grasslands just as he and Curu were starting to walk back home. He was worried that the man was a poacher and was out to get the owl’s chicks.  

When Kim reported the man to the subdivision’s guard on-duty, he was simply told that the man was probably part of the maintenance staff, but Kim was unconvinced. What would a maintenance staff, wearing just flip flops, a jacket, and a bag, be doing in the wet and muddy grassland so early in the morning? The other day, Kim also found a snare trap used to catch rails. Without hesitation, he dismantled the trap.

Wildlife poaching is still a big problem, apparently. At the center where Kim volunteers, people turn over all kinds of animals that they rescue from poachers. Some animals used to be pets illegaly bought from poachers but were then turned over to the center because the owners found them too hard to care for.

Kim’s owls Maui, Kludd, and Twilight, were rescued animals which were handed over by a concerned farmer who found them in a burning sugarcane field. Their fourth sibling Nyra unfortunately didn’t survive. Ever since the owl chicks arrived, Kim took it upon himself to take care of them, feeding them regularly with bred mice and some meat, and training them to hunt. Quite expectedly, Kim soon developed affection towards his owls, and the owls towards him.

As I scanned the grassland with my binoculars, I noticed that the sky had already turned to hues of pink and blue as morning was slowly breaking. Then at around a hundred meters from where we stood, a white figure emerged from the grass, flapping its large wings and hovering over the grass. “Over there!” I shouted as Kim looked to where I was pointing.

The owl flew towards the other end of the grassland away from us. I was amazed at how low it flew over the grass. Through my binoculars, I could make that it had a white body and underparts while there were patches of black and brown on its back. After a few seconds, the owl disappeared again into the tall grass. It reemerged after a few minutes, clutching what seemed like a rat on its talons as it flapped its way back to its nest.

“Now I’m sure that there’s a nest over there! Otherwise she wouldn’t have brought the rat there. She could have just eaten the rat where she found it!” Kim said, elated. His excitement was quite contagious.

 It was an amazing feeling to see such majestic wild animals in the middle of the city. I was already suffering from cabin fever from all the lockdowns and restrictions to do fieldwork that being out here, early in the morning with my binoculars and looking for wildlife, gave me such a feeling of relief. My kind of fieldwork usually involved being out at sea on a boat looking for dolphins, but this would do for now. The owls apparently showed the same kind of elusiveness as the dolphins that I study, so every sighting still makes me excited.

Grass owls were actually not that uncommon in the city. I’ve heard from a number of friends who see them regularly in their own subdivisons or when they go out early in the morning to bike in the countryside. It was quite different seeing the grass owls soar over the grasslands as compared to how I usually see them in their enclosures in Negros Forest Park. Seeing the wild owls fly over such a vast grassland made me think about the three owls who were cramped in one enclosure at the center with very little space to spread their wings. The Park was primarily built as a breeding center for endangered wildlife with an end goal of releasing them back in the wild to replenish declining populations. However, animals like Kludd, Maui and Twilight weren’t exactly endangered species, so they aren’t one of those species that are kept in the center for breeding. Ideally, they are supposed to be released as soon as they are capable of hunting for themselves. But eventually, some animals had grown so used to facilitated feeding that it wasn’t a good idea to release them back into the wild so quickly. Some animals have become permanent or semi-permanent exhibits at the park, becoming ambassadors of their wild counterparts.

To be continued

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