A large Fish owl, in broad daylight, in the city state of Singapore? Sightings like this are the very essence of being an Incidental Naturalist.
Singapore is often referred to as the garden city. In spite of its small size (276.5 mi² or 716.1 km²), and dense population (5.4m) the nation has worked hard to maintain green areas in and around the city state. From the mangroves that bound the island to the beautifully maintained parks and gardens, wildlife can be found everywhere in Singapore.
My first experience with the Buffy Fish owl, or Malay Fish owl, was whilst on a wildlife tour of the Sabah region of Borneo. Staying in a jungle lodge, I took a night trip on the Kinabatangan River on a small boat. The guide used a spotlight to find wildlife in the trees along the river bank, which gave us an opportunity to get close to roosting kingfishers, reptiles and other tree dwelling creatures. The spotlight hit the bright yellow eyes of a Buffy Fish owl. It was a tremendous sight, and not one that I thought would be repeated outside of the jungle environment.
Back in Singapore, I had just started using a digital SLR and wanted to practice taking some sunset images after work. I drove to the Lower Peirce Reservoir, and with a couple of hour to go before sunset, I set off for a short walk through tropical vegetation on the purpose-built boardwalk. As I passed an elderly gentleman, out for his rejuvenating power-walk, he saw my camera and said “if you are interested, there is an owl in a tree by the stream inlet. Maybe he will still be there.” I thanked the gentleman, assumed that it would be gone and carried on with my slow walk.
Five minutes later, under the umbrella of dense tree canopy and tropical vegetation, over a shallow inlet to the reservoir, I was pinned by a pair of stunning, bright yellow eyes.
My sunset photography practice immediately turned in to a practice session of the type of photography that I found, and still find hardest of all; hand-held wildlife shooting, under dense, dark tree cover. Here are some of the results of my efforts.
Owls can look aggressive or sometimes regal and wise. The Buffy Fish owl, by contrast, has a comical and friendly appearance, given to it by the ear tufts that are on the side of the head, rather than the top. Growing up to 48cm (18”) the Buffy Fish owl is a medium to large bird, and certainly the largest owl that I had seen in the wild.
This owl was confident and relaxed, making no attempt to fly away. The eyes were bright yellow and piercing, the beak prominent, the tail short.
Once Buffy had become accustomed to my presence, it relaxed enough to do a little housekeeping, cleaning and preening the rich brown, mottled feathers.
Something caught the owl’s eye. A focused stare, followed by the familiar moving of the head from side to side and up and down, as the owl locked whatever it was that caught its attention, firmly in to its sights.
A swoop to the water’s edge and the owl dragged a fish out of the shallow water and on to the bank, pinning it under its powerful talons, while tearing in to its supper. The Buffy Fish owl has long legs and a short tail, which help it to hunt water dwelling prey without getting its feathers wet.
Supper finished and this was just the start of the evening for Buffy. With one flap, the owl sprung up on to a low branch, stretched its wings and glided, low over the channel of water and across the reservoir to begin a hot, humid night of hunting for fish, frogs, reptiles and large insects.