Ghost Of Thattekkad Forest: Tracking Down A Spot-Bellied Eagle Owl
As the phone rang, I knew that adventure was calling. It was nearly 5 p.m. and on the other end of the line was Dhanish Thankachan, my favourite guide for birding in India. He had some exciting news for me; he had found a spot-bellied eagle owl roosting on a tree near the birding trail. Without hesitation, he urged me to drive down to Thattekkad bird sanctuary to photograph it, and I knew I couldn’t miss this opportunity.
Although I was stationed in Cochin, Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary was about two hours away. I quickly loaded my camera gear into my car and set off. The anticipation was building, and I couldn’t wait to capture the bird in all its glory at night.
As I arrived in Thattekkad around 7.30 PM, Dhanish was waiting for me at the trailhead with flashlights and headlamps. He informed me that the bird had flown, but it would return, and we needed to act fast. With his help, I retrieved my camera equipment from the car, and we set off down the forest trail.
Under the light of his headlamp, we walked for about a hundred meters before Dhanish turned it off and asked me to follow him closely. The moon had already risen, providing enough light to follow him in the dark. We walked another fifty meters before he abruptly stopped and motioned for me to set up my tripod. Without saying anything, he pointed his finger at a tree about twenty meters away, and I knew what he meant – it was a perfect angle.
The forest at night is different from the one you see during the day. I set up my tripod, adjusted my lenses, and within two minutes, I was ready to go. Dhanish’s head movements indicated that he was scanning the forest for movement in the air or on the ground. There were no movements or sounds anywhere, and the forest was completely silent.
“Shh… the bird has arrived, and I’m going to play the tape. You be ready,” he said quietly, turning his face towards me. He turned on his Bluetooth speaker in the dark and played the call twice before turning it off. We waited a few minutes, but there was no answer. I knew Dhanish was against using bird calls excessively to attract birds and always used them responsibly. Suddenly, I felt a large object flying stealthily above our heads and landing on the tree branch that Dhanish had predicted.
“Ready?” He turned his head once more, and I gave him my “all clear” sign by tapping the lens. He pointed his flashlight at the bird and flashed it. We saw the ghost – the spot-bellied eagle owl – in all its glory. It was a magnificent sight to behold, and I knew this was a wildlife expedition I would never forget.