We were doing our birding thing, sitting in a hide in a remote area in the foothills of the Himalayas. Our guide and friend Khushboo says, “Sir, I have some news. There has been a sighting of the rare Tawny Fish Owl. Do you want to stay here at the hide or try to see the owl?” It was late in the afternoon, light was beginning to fade, we have great birds here… “Let’s go! We are always up for an adventure.” Like Indiana Jones and his pursuit of the idol in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the owl will be our prize. Little did I know that our adventure to photograph the owl was more like Indiana Jones than I thought.

Our driver sets out on a thirty-minute drive to the other side of the valley, the last sighting of the owl. He drives dodging cars, trucks, motorcycles, people, dogs, and cows, all on a two-lane road that is barely one-lane in width. Harrowing is an understatement.

We arrive with little ill-effects at the general area of the last owl sighting.  But, there is no owl, it has flown away. We dispatch our spotter, Panku, to find it. And amazingly he does. But it is mostly concealed high up in a tree across a small river. We cannot photograph it. He says there is a way to see it better, just a small hike. Small is not the word I would describe. First, we cross a rickety wood bridge with decaying wooden slats that are unfastened.  The bridge sways as you walk across the rocky creek below.

Does this bridge look safe to you? Good thing I have great balance – not!

Just over the bridge we begin to climb about 100 feet. We hike by the river on a narrow path that is not really a path. As we start, our spotter says be careful. Duh! We tiptoe along, a water canal on our left side, a 50-foot drop on the other. One misstep and it’s over. As we hike, he says Be Careful of these dangerous plants. Don’t touch. Well, that’s a recipe for me to touch.  I walk a little further and my foot gives way and I start to fall. Do I fall down the cliff and break one or more bones or into the water and soak my feet? I choose the water. I plant my foot in, now all wet, soaked down to the foot. I reach out to hold onto something, so I don’t tumble completely. Ah, there’s the plant I’m not supposed to touch. Does grabbing constitute touching? I grab onto the plant to right myself. The plant is a Nettle! My hand is on fire, my trigger hand. How am I going to shoot? I restrain from jumping up and down as I am still very close to the edge. This all matters not, like Indy and his idol, I want to see the owl.

I walk a little further and come across a native woman with a scythe. She speaks no English and I speak no Hindi, and she is wielding a weapon that could decapitate my head from my body. I move closer trying to gauge her, will she swing it or not. As I pass by her, I hear a loud thwack. I check all my limbs. All present. Head is attached too. It turns out that she was just chopping down a small tree. Why she is doing that in this place is beyond reason. I survived the confrontation which is all that matters. Like Indy and his idol, I want to see the owl.

I keep walking mindful of the water and the cliff. At times the “path” becomes no wider than eight inches. This is not good at all. I should turn back and return to relative safety. No, I want to see the owl, and I am stupid, so I keep going.  The path is now lined with these Nettle bushes. My right leg brushes up against one. Believe it or not, it goes right through pants. My right knee and shin are now on fire. Imagine if the plant brushed against my (!), well you know. Pure terror!  There is now an itch there. Don’t touch! Please don’t touch! I keep going, owl on my mind. I few moments later my left leg brushes against another Nettle. It’s now on fire.

I am in trouble; I am having trouble walking and I may not be able to use my right hand to take a picture.  Going back is what my mind is telling me. I ignore it, owl on my mind, and move on. A little while later I reach Panku. “No owl, it flew away.” You can guess my reaction. Everything is on fire, and I nearly fall to my death and there is no owl? “Come, we can still see it. We need to return as it is on the other side of the river (where we started).”

I have no choice as I must return anyway. I retrace my steps, avoiding the dreaded Nettles, the ultra-thin path where one wrong step means certain death, the scythe-wielding lady, more Nettles, and the rickety bridge.

Unlike Indy who loses the idol to his nemesis Belloq, I keep my prized owl photo.

Tawny Fish Owl. It was in the perfect place to photograph! After further research, it is not rare at all.

Was it all worth it? It certainly was at the time. After I found out is not rare, I’m not so sure.

Here are a couple of other owl photos from our trip:

Asian Barred owl. This was fun as we were on a high road with the top of the tree at eye-level, enabling us to get a photo almost eye to eye. Too bad he is not looking right at me.

Two Asian Barred owls at the end of their reproductive encounter. The male is spreading his wings in a euphoric manner while the female is nonplussed.

Incredible Birding is the company we hired to provide us access to many bird species. They were fantastic and we highly recommend them!