The Mantanani Scops-Owl in Malaysia

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Mantanani Scops-Owl

The Mantanani Scops-Owl is a species that’s high on many birdwatcher’s life lists. This is especially true for Malaysian birdwatchers, as the owl has a very restricted range within the country. Certainly, it’s high on our list as well. We’ve been waiting for the chance to see it, and this opportunity came thanks to the Asian Bird Fair 2023. After much planning, in October 2023, the Birdwatching Asia team embarked on a mission to see and photograph this unique bird.  

This article is split into two sections:

  • Section 1 – Our journey to see this iconic island inhabitant.
  • Section 2 – Species information.

The information and photos provided in this article come from our trip to see the owl on 17-18 October 2023. The main reference material used is the excellent Phillips’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, the Birds of Malaysia by Lynx Edicions, and eBird.

The Mantanani Scops-Owl in Malaysia

Section 1: Our journey to see this iconic island inhabitant.

The Mantanani Scops-Owl is one tricky species to tick off the Malaysia list. First, we had to make our way to the owl’s only known location in Malaysia – the Mantanani Islands. These breathtakingly beautiful islands are located on the northwest coast of Sabah, 90 km from Kota Kinabalu (KK). Thankfully, we were already at KK covering the Asian Bird Fair 2023. However, due to other commitments, we only had a limited window of opportunity (1 night) to look for the owl.

We made our way to Mantanani on the 17th of October, 2023. The journey from KK took around 3 hours, including a 45-minute boat ride from the jetty at Rampayan Laut. There, we stayed at the JSK Mantanani Island Resorts.

Mantanani Island beach.
The idyllic Mantanani Islands are an unlikely setting for our owl hunt.
The quest begins

Our search for the Mantanani Scops-Owl began in earnest at 8 pm. We had already heard the calls around the resort at dusk; thus, our spirits were high. Along with our guide, we were accompanied by a small entourage of resort workers who lived in the nearby villages. They were interested to know more about the unassuming little owl that had brought more than a few visitors to their island home!

We walked along the sandy forest paths, while looking and listening for the owl. Unfortunately, it was quite a windy night. The sound of the rustling vegetation was rather loud; consequently, listening out for the owl was difficult. We walked from location to location, without success. Since we didn’t hear any calls at all, we decided that call playback was pointless. We visited  known owl hotspots including a cemetery where the owl has been spotted before, to no avail. It seems lady luck wasn’t with us that night.

Island jungle trails.
The island is easily walkable thanks to a network of trails; however, they are pitch-black at night.
More than two hours later……

Tired and frustrated, we were on the verge of giving up. A hectic past few days seem to have caught up with us. Perhaps one night was insufficient time to look for the owl, after all. We were already making our way back when at long last, we heard the calls. It was relatively distant, so one of the villagers suggested we use call playback. 

Sure enough, the owls responded quickly and were at our location within minutes. After some light shining and finger-pointing, we finally saw the Mantanani Scops-Owl. A lifer moment for the three of us! The first owl was subsequently joined by another, presumably its partner.

The Mantanani Scops-Owl

The owls themselves were quite unassuming, small-to-medium-sized birds. The plumage is brownish-grey overall, with an intricate, cryptic pattern that affords them camouflage during the day. There are small ‘ear’ tufts on their head, resembling small horns. The most prominent feature, however, was their piercing yellow eyes. This, combined with their ‘horns’ and ‘eyebrow’ pattern, truly gave them an angry bird look!

Mantanani Scops-Owl looking bemused
This owl almost looks bemused at all the attention it was getting!
The owl looking around
With its piercing yellow eyes and angled white ‘eyebrows’, the Mantanani Scops-Owl really does look like an ‘angry bird’!
End of our quest

The pair stayed around the area for a while, even though call playback was long discontinued. They seem to be indifferent to our presence or the spotlights. This allowed for great views; nevertheless, the darkness proved challenging for photography.  

Another owl was attracted by the commotion, and the first pair promptly chased it away.  Following this, the pair engaged in some preening behaviour before disappearing into the inky darkness.  Our mission completed; we called it a night, switched off our spotlights, and bid adieu to the unique Mantanani Scops-Owl.

Scops-owl pair
“Excuse me, some privacy, please?!!”

The Mantanani Scops-Owl – Section 2: Species information

Unfortunately, there’s rather limited information available on the species. It’s likely more studies need to be done in the future to better understand this interesting bird.

Range and distribution

The Mantanani Scops-Owl is a small island specialist known primarily for the small islands between Sabah and the western Philippines. In Malaysia, it’s only found in the Mantanani Islands, which is very interesting.

Location of the Mantanani Islands
The location of the Mantanani Islands

Conversely, it’s more widespread in the Philippines. There, it’s known for the small islands of western and south-western Philippines, including islands off Palawan, Sulu and Tablas.

You can check out the distribution map on its eBird page

Habitat

At these small islands, the owl can be found in wooded habitats and forest edges. It occasionally ventures to the forest edge and clearings while foraging for insects, its main prey item. 

How can you see the owl at the Mantanani Islands?

The owls inhabit Pulau Mantanani Besar (where all the accommodations and villages are) and Pulau Mantanani Kecil (uninhabited). At Pulau Mantanani Besar, the owls are apparently reasonably easy to encounter, albeit usually heard only. 

There are several ways to encounter the owl:

  1. Walk around the island’s numerous jungle trails at dusk or night. Listen out for its distinctive calls, then try to locate them. Often, the owls can be heard not far from human habitation. This method requires a bit of luck and perseverance, as the owls are difficult to pinpoint. However, should you manage to spot them using this method, it’ll be very satisfying and a real achievement!
  2. Look for roosting owls during daytime walks. Again, this requires luck and some skill at spotting roosting birds.
  3. Most visiting birders/photographers will use some form of call playback in order to bring the birds into view. It’s best to be judicious when using call playback. See the final section of this article for more information.
How to identify

Thankfully, this is the only scops-owl recorded on the Mantanani Islands; therefore, identification here is straightforward. Look out for the following features:

  • Small-ish owl, about 18 cm. Typical scops-owl body shape.
  • Greyish-brown or reddish-brown.
  • Small ‘ear’ tufts on the head (may not be apparent).
  • Narrow black rim around the face.
  • Whitish ‘eyebrows’.
  • Yellow iris (eyes).
  • Learning its calls helps clinch the ID as well (see below).
Perched Mantanani Scops-Owl
This is the only scops-owl recorded at the Mantanani Islands; hence, identifying the owls at the Mantanani Islands is unproblematic.

Take note that there are other similar-looking scops-owls in the Philippine islands. These include the Palawan Scops-Owl and Mindoro Scops-Owl. For the most part, however, the ranges of these other owls don’t overlap with the Mantanani Scops-Owl. 

 Vocalisations

The owl makes a honking call, similar to a Sunda Scops-Owl but deeper. Additionally, it also makes a gruff-sounding call that is akin to a bark. Kind of like a scops-owl with a sore throat!

Compare with the calls of the Sunda Scops-Owl, Mountain Scops-Owl and Reddish Scops-Owl.

Conservation status

BirdLife International have classified the bird as Near Threatened. The main threats facing this species are habitat degradation and loss. The small islands that the owls call home are increasingly utilized by humans for habitation, resorts, agriculture, etc. Other possible threats might include feral cats.

For now, this owl remains relatively common on Mantanani Island. However, considering its naturally restricted distribution and ongoing habitat loss, its future can be threatened if conservation measures are ignored.

Owl zoomed-out view
A zoomed-out view of the Mantanani Scops-Owl. This gives a sense of the size of the bird and where it’s perching.
Last, but not least….

We at Birdwatching Asia are aware of the controversy surrounding the use of call playback. On one hand, some birds (like the Mantanani Scops-Owl) are challenging to see/photograph without using playback. On the other hand, utilizing call playback incessantly undoubtedly causes undue stress to birds. This issue definitely warrants full consideration for any birdwatcher/photographer. 

Birdwatching Asia suggests using playback only sparingly (if at all). A good guideline to follow is the Audubon guidelines on using call playback. You can read more at the following links:

Conclusion

Our mission for the Mantanani Scops-Owl turned out to be more challenging and frustrating than expected. Despite this, our trip was ultimately rewarding. The highlights of our journey to see this iconic island inhabitant will remain long in our memories. Certainly, nothing beats the surreal experience of owling in a cemetery in the dead of night!

Hopefully, we’ll get another chance to come back to Mantanani to see this bird again in the future.


References:

Phillipps, Q. & Phillipps, K. (2014). Phillips’ Field Guide To The Birds of Borneo. Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan (Third edition). John Beaufoy Publishing, Oxford, England.

Puan, C.L., Davison, G. & Lim, K.C. (2020). Birds of Malaysia. Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Otus mantananensis. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/mantanani-scops-owl-otus-mantananensis on 01/11/2023

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