On 28 February 2001 The Straits Times gave the news that a new species of owl had been discovered and photographed in January by a local ornithologist – the first new bird for Sri Lanka since the discovery of the Ceylon Whistling Thrush in 1868. The very clear photograph accompanying the article clearly showed the bird to be a typical yellow eyed ‘little brown job’ – yes, in other words yet another ‘Scops’ owl! The fact it had gone un-noticed until now, says it all!
That it was discovered at all lies in the dedication and persistence of one man, Deepal Warakagoda, who first heard and tape-recorded an owl-like call he was unfamiliar with in Kitulgat Proposed Reserve, a rainforest in the wet zone of Sri Lanka. He heard the call several times more over the next six years, not only in Kitulgat, but also in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve too, but frustratingly he was unable to catch sight of the perpetrator - a regular frustration to anyone working in lush rainforests, even in the daytime, let alone after dark! Deepal compared his recordings with those of other known Asian owl species and then sent them to renowned owl expert Pamela Rasmussen at the University of Michigan, who agreed that the calls did not appear to belong to any known Sri Lankan species, though she felt they did resemble the call of another rainforest owl, the Reddish Scops Owl Otus rufescens which is known from the Malay Peninsula, Java, Borneo, Sumatra and the extreme south of Peninsula Thailand - but not Sri Lanka!
The break-through finally came in January 2001 in Sinharaja when Deepal’s persistence was rewarded with his first
sighting of this elusive ‘mystery’ bird - and it was indeed a small, rufous-coloured ‘ear-less’ owl
unlike any other in Sri Lanka or anywhere else in South Asia. The following month the first ever photographs of the new owl
were obtained. What a moment that must have been. Even better, in August 2001 a bird was mist-netted, enabling it to be
closely looked at, photographed again, ringed and released. All this data was sent once again to Pamela Rasmussen and museums
holding significant Sri Lankan materials were searched for possibly overlooked specimens of the bird. None were found. This
in turn raised a dilemma. Science demands voucher specimens of all species to facilitate scientific study and provide
reference material for the future - which meant killing a specimen of a species of which no one knew how many individuals
existed, nor what its conservation status was! You will be pleased to learn that no such decision was taken! Instead,
Deepal and some colleagues decided to launch a thorough survey under the auspices of the Department of Wildlife Conservation
and the Forest Department of Sri Lanka, which resulted in the discovery that the owl in fact inhabited five different forests,
with 24 individuals being recorded. Therefore permission was then given for one bird to be collected as the ‘type’
specimen, and this was achieved in November 2002. This has enabled the following description to be made:
Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni)
Small, short-tailed, uniform rufous Scops Owl. Eye colour ranging from yellow to orange according to sex. No ear tufts. Facial disk weakly defined. Weak tarsi feathered for less than half their length. Can only be confused with the Sri Lankan race of the Oriental Scops Owl Otus sunia leggei. Replaces the Indian Scops Owl Otus b. bakkamoena in the rainforests of the Sri Lankan wet zone.
The five forests inhabited by the owl are the lowland forests of Kitulgak, Kanneliya and Eratna Gimale in the south-west quarter of the island, with strongholds in the contiguous Sinharaja and Morapitiya-Runakana Reserves. All these forests are protected areas managed by the Forest Department of Sri Lanka, which is fortunate, for it has been found that this species requires a large, fairly intact area of rainforest to prosper, and is not found in forest areas of less than 8.2 km.
In January 2004 45 individuals were known, but Deepal believes that more exist. However, since the species occupies a restricted range of just 230 km.sq. within Sri Lanka, it is being proposed that the Serendib Scops Owl is officially classed as Endangered.
We at the World Owl Trust congratulate Deepal Warakagoda for his dogged work in confirming the existence of this new owl
species. Without his single-minded persistence it is virtually certain that the bird would still remain unknown. And how
refreshing it is in these days of gloom and doom over the ever-increasing list of lost species, to be given the news that even
on a heavily populated island such as Sri Lanka, a bird can still be overlooked by collectors and field naturalists. It makes
me wonder how many more species remain to be discovered elsewhere.
Source: World Birdwatch 26.3. September 2004
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