With due apologies to Mr. E. S. Gardner, this particular blog has all the ingredients of a masonic whodunit.
Way back in the 19th century, there lived a customs officer in Punjab by the name of William Blewitt. He was an amateur ornithologist and would often do the bunk from work to roam the forests of India.
In 1872 he shot an unusual looking owl in the Central Provinces (now known as Chhattisgargh) and forwarded the specimen to Mr. A. O. Hume (widely regarded as the father of Indian Ornithology). Hume immediately recognised it a new species of owl.
Fearful of incurring the wrath of his boss for playing truant William had submitted the specimen under a pseudonym. He used the name of his elder brother, Francis Blewitt and when Hume decided to name the specimen ‘Blewitt’s owl’ (Heteroglaux blewitti) after it discoverer, there was no damage done in terms of nomenclature.
Over the next twelve years six other birds were collected by Blewitt and a few others in locations ranging from central Maharastra to Orissa. The specimens were labelled and preserved in London museums.
After 1884 the sightings ceased.
At various points of time over the next century, several ornithologists did claim to have seen the forest owlet. These were either unsubstantiated or turned out to be the more common, widely distributed and very similar-looking spotted owlet (below).
The most convincing of those ‘claims’ was from Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen a British soldier and ornithologist. In 1961 he claimed to have seen the bird in Gujarat in 1914 and produced a genuine specimen to back his claim. Decades later forensic evidence revealed that Meinertzhagen was involved in the theft of several bird specimens from the Natural History Museum in London. One of these was the forest owlet specimen he claimed to have got from Gujarat. It was actually one of the six original birds collected between 1872 and 1884!
Despite attempts by several researchers there was no evidence of the existence of the forest owlet and in 1972 the bird was declared possibly extinct.
Somewhere in the 90s Dr. Pamela Rasmussen, an American scientist examined the preserved specimens and noticed several distinctive features in the forest owlet that were not recorded in Indian bird illustrations. In November 1997 she, along with a few others, undertook a dedicated search for the bird. The expedition included forests in Central India ranging from Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Maharastra. It was towards the end of the expedition that they were rewarded with a positive sighting in a forest in Northern Maharastra.
Following several false alarms including one audacious case of international fraud, the forest owlet had surfaced again… after a span of 113 years!
Since then there have been isolated confirmed sightings of the forest owlet in Central India. The most recent was a few years ago in the Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1970 and includes the forests within the catchment areas of the Tansa, Vaitarna and Modak Sagar lakes that provide water to the cities of Mumbai, Thane and Bhiwandi.
Situated about 90kms from Mumbai I have vivid memories of the frequent trips we made to Tansa and Vaitarna during the late 50s and through the 60s. The image above was taken by my Dad in the early 60s, way before it was declared a sanctuary, the lush green forests and wet roads indicative of the monsoon season. The ‘chokra‘ boy in the green striped kacchas (shorts) with the makeshift fishing line in his hand is yours truly!
In early June 2023 I decided to take a trip to Tansa to see the forest owlet.
Being so close to home it was possible to do a round trip and be back by lunch. We left home at around 3.30am and reached Asangaon at 5.30am where we picked up our guide Rohidas Dagale. Rohidas was one of first to discover the existence of the forest owlet in the area and, along with Sunil Laad, was the first to write a paper documenting its presence in the Western Ghats.
From Asangaon it was another hour’s drive into the sanctuary.
The terrain here is hilly. These are dry deciduous forests where the trees shed their leaves in summer. Being early June the rains had yet to arrive and the trees were bare and bereft of leaves. The images above and below were taken on our trip, a far cry from the lush greenery in the previous image taken during the monsoon.
After parking the car we proceeded to walk through the forest. Negotiating our way between the bare trees and the hilly slopes was reasonably easy.
We spotted a variety of birds including, common mynas, oriental magpie-robins, yellow-throated sparrows, racket-tailed drongos, black-hooded orioles, Indian rollers, red-vented bulbuls, greater coucals, spotted doves, Asian koels, and Indian pittas.
About an hour into the forest Rohidas stopped abruptly. Cupping his ears he pointed in the direction in which he could hear the forest owlet calling. The bird has a distinctive but very soft call and try as I might I couldn’t hear a thing over and above the high-decibel calls of the koels and pittas.
A few minutes later he pointed to a tree ahead. Perched on one of the branches in the middle of a bare tree about 50 metres ahead with its back to us was a small, dark blob silhouetted against the morning sky. My very first sighting of the endangered forest owlet.
We did get a few other sightings over the next half hour or so. The birds were fairly shy and did not allow us to get very near. Several of my images were taken from a distance, against the sun and often with an intervening branch or twigs.
However I did manage to get a few clear shots like the one below…
There is no doubt that these birds have been around all this time. So why the confusion? Especially to the extent of declaring them possibly extinct!?
There are several reasons.
For one, they are small birds (23cms) and not at all common. It is estimated that there are less than a 1000 birds in existence. Unlike most other similar owls, their location is limited to Central India and even within this region the distribution is very patchy and appears to be restricted to certain isolated areas only.
They closely resemble the more common and widely distributed spotted owlet and can be easily mistaken not only by amateurs but experts as well. In fact, till relatively recently very little was known about these birds as the museum specimens were not easily available for inspection. Their call too was unknown and ornithologists and researchers used other owlet calls (like that of the spotted owlet) in the hope that they was a resemblance. We now know that the call of the forest owlet is unique and very different from other similar owl species.
Over the years there have been conflicting opinions regarding the taxonomy of the forest owlet. Back in 1872, Hume was convinced the bird belonged to the genus Heteroglaux. Recent phylogenetic studies suggest that the bird belongs to the genus Athene.
We’ve come a long way since that fateful day in 1872 when William Blewitt shot his owl and was sharp enough to notice that the bird was different. For well over a century the Blewitt owl has been the centre of high-level scientific debate, intense investigation and even international fraud. It has had ornithologists both amateur and expert, scouring the forests of Central India, eager to earn their moments in the limelight.
Such incredible hype generated towards a species that for all intents and purposes had gone with the wind.
From the bird’s point of view though, with due apologies to Ms. Margaret Mitchell, I honestly wonder if bird gives a damn!