Saturday, 19 June 2010

High-octane Bird-photography

I guided a high-octane bird-photography tour from 24 January to 9 February, 2010. It was with Felix Ng, and two trigger-happy lady friends of his, all from Hong Kong.

Plum-headed Parakeet—one of the highlights.

As blogged before, Felix wielded the latest Canon EOS 1D Mark IV camera. He coupled it with Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM super telephoto lens. They were mounted on a serious tripod. All these made up his carry-on kit. When the subjects were too close, and likely to stay on—just as any thoughtful bird photographer would do— he pulled out his Canon EF 300mm f2.8 L IS USM telephoto lens for hand-held shots.

They say that one of the features that defines a successful birding tour from an ordinary one is the quality of night birds seen. Well, this being a bird-photography tour, the challenge was more daunting, as seeing and photographing are two entirely different kettles of fish when it comes to night birds. And Felix & co., carried no binoculars—no room for them, anyway.

I think it requires a lot of patience and an equal measure of skill to pull off good shots of night birds in untamed field conditions. In the quest for Sri Lankan specials, a birder has to find two species of owls to make a clean sweep of the 33 endemics. The first is the Serendib Scops Owl—discovered in 2001, with an estimated total population of 200-250 in the wild; plausibly classified as 'endangered' by conservation bodies.

The other owl on the wanted list of endemics is the Chestnut-backed Owlet.

We did well during the first couple of days at Kithulgala, getting photo ticks of most of our targets. After an easy morning's birding, we crossed the Kelani River in a dug-out-canoe to reach the verdant rain forest at Kithulgala in search of our pending targets. I first visited this forest in 1991. It take just an hour and a half to reach there by public transport from my place. As a budding birder, I had done many trips to this 'patch'.

Opting to travel light, I carried no camera with me when I entered the rain forest with Felix & co. Actually, I had an ulterior motive to this—to veer off the main track in a deep penetrative operation—to see whether I can find a Serendib Scops Owl in a daytime roost. Lugging a camera along for such adventures, slows me down.

So, I left my visitors at a bird-rich spot, and made a beeline to a spot that I long suspected would hold a roosting Serendib Scops Owl. Despite previous attempts, I had not found a day roost of this bird at Kithulgala. It was nearing midday. The scorching sun had lulled the bird activity though this was not a hindrance to the job at hand.

First, I penetrated the forward defence line made up of the Bamboo Ochlandra stridula, enduring cuts delivered by their sharp leaf blades, while keeping my radar on other potent dangers. And owls.
Barely two minutes into scanning a targeted area, an elongate dead leaf stuck in a thicket—how the Serendib Scops Owl would appear when it is roosting—caught my attention. After a close inspection through my Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42 binoculars, it turned out to be what it was—a dead leaf.

Moving on, I came near a clump of tree ferns Cyathea sp., and more bamboo with their interiors overrun with vines, holding dead leaves and good promise. Scanning it to find a matching target, I drew a blank, again. A moment later, now about three minutes into searching, a vertical leafy profile in another thicket beckoned me. Surely this must be it, I thought. Upon close inspection, it turned out to be—would you believe—another leaf.

Undeterred, I kept scanning. Now about five minutes into searching, a strikingly rufescent leaf with well-marked dark spots, caught my attention. Closer look, and lo—this time, it turned out to be a Serendib Scops Owl!

In a flash, I noticed second bird, perched on a different branch about a foot away from it—a truly momentous day for mankind!

Soon, I showed them to my visitors. Frame-filling shots, and more jaw-dropping views followed. The gentleman mildly complained that it was "too clOse" though. I left no room for such complaining when I found Chestnut-backed Owlet below, hunting during day time, as glaucidium-owls do. This was at a home garden in Kithulgala.

Chestnut-backed Owlet

We had six different sightings of the Brown Fish Owl at various sites. The best was the one shown below. Arriving at this crime scene at the amazing Yala National Park, we found this Brown Fish Owl looking rather guilty.

Brown Fish Owl

I am no avian forensics expert, but circumstantial evidence suggested to me that this had just arrived at the scene to scavenge on the scraps left by a diurnal predator—something like a Crested Hawk Eagle. I can't be totally sure.

We saw over 230 species of birds during this tour including all 33 endemics. We had 9 out of the 15 resident night birds—didn't try for some. Felix and co., took home over 18,000 photographs of birds among them.

Remember the Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher that I shared sometime ago?
I bagged it on this tour.


Kirigalpoththa said...

Chestnut-backed Owlet is dumbstruck! Look at his eyes :)

Cool photos. Like the crime scene too. He looks a real villain.

Dev Wijewardane said...

The gentleman mildly complained that it was "too clOse" though."

haha one of the "drawbacks" of using a long prime i suppose!

Anonymous said...

Hi Amila, What a great post full of information for a bird brain like me. May I ask one question with two parts? (What do you mean by bagging a bird, if you documented it before is it still bagging when you see it again?) Thank you for accepting to answer my Q :)

Chavie said...

Excellent photos and write-up mate! :D No wonder you mistook the Scops owl for a dead leaf, cunning camouflage he's got going! :D

rainfield61 said...

The last pair of eyes look very cute.

Lady divine said...


I like the one with the chestnut backed owl... It really looks stunned.:)

Me-shak said...

Reading these posts kills me, I'm dying to do what you do.

Extremely clever of you to to search where you did, and It would have been a super moment for you. That fulfilling breath you get when you achieve. Congratulations on that.

The Chestnut looks really cool. I like the forehead, how th lines have weaved in to each other.

We'll I know a guy who looks like just like the Brown Fish owl, and what are the chances?, we call him "Waula"

Excellent picture, Amila. I'm not surprised it's coming from you.

Looking forward for more. Post more often :D


Stu said...

Beautiful Owlet shot.

I've never met Felix but on reading his kit list I already hate him.

Only joking..............!

Anonymous said...

Hi Amila, Another Q :)
The Chestnut-backed Owlet has only one leg showing. Do they also rest legs like herons do?

Gallicissa said...

Hi K,
Those owls really took us in.
And I like when they do that.

Hi Dev,
A huge drawback, if you ask me.
My 100-400mm would have been perfect for the occassion.

Hi Magerata,
Birdwatching has been described to be an expression of the primitive hunting instincts in us, males. It is a bloodless expression. We use binoculars and cameras instead of guns. 'Bagging' is what a hunter does after he kills a bird— he puts the catch in the bag.

So, we birders use bag/bagging as a quasi hunting expression to satisfy our deep-rooted, primeval desires when we just see or photograph birds!

This word is usually used to refer birds that are rare, unusual and/or difficult to see.

Now to the second part of the first question: I see no problem in using the word 'bagging' to express a subsequent seeing or photographing of a bird. It's just that you've bagged it again!

A short answer to the question in the second comment is, yes.

You may find this article about Flamingoes on this matter interesting:

Hi Chavie,
Thank you! They do mimic leaves and it is quite a task to really spot them in the chaotic rain forest vegetation.

Hi Rainfield,
Yes, frighteningly cute.

Hi LD,
It is difficut to find the Chestnut-backed Owlet in a good mood. :)

Hi Shak,
Thank you!
It was just great to find those birds. It was like scoring a match winning try in a 'big' rugby game. And that was a blind side try!

If you are talking of a real bird, not a 'bat' as waula translates to English, it could be the Brown Hawk Owl.

Hi Stu,
Not surprised!
But knowing you, I don't think you would enjoy lugging along such a heavy kit.

And finally, I would like to mention to you people that
St. Peter's College emerged Champions in the (Division 1 Group A) Schools Rugby League, remaining UNBEATEN!!

Of course, I will crow about it in a song.

Anonymous said...

Thanks lot Amila. I think this whole avian issue is kindling my hunting desires! Of course will stay away from guns.
I am exploring your links and learning a bunch.

Gallicissa said...

Hi again, Magerata,
Nice to know that! Bird watching is a fascinating hobby and you have all my blessings to become a bird watcher!

Riyazi and Michelle said...

Excellent post as usual Amila. Loved the shots

Nice to see you blogging after a long time

Dev Wijewardane said...

yeah 100-400 would have been good. The quality of the images produced by a prime is far superior to images produced by a zoom though.

Gallicissa said...

Hi Riyazi and Michelle,
Thank you!
Wonderful to hear from you two.

And what an AMAZING set of pictures you have shared in your blog!

And Good luck, England!

Hi again, Dev,
You are right again, of the quality aspect.

BTW, I enjoyed the Roy-Tho. Got a few shots of you guys on rampage.

Offthebeatentrack said...

The fish owl looks more sleepy than guilty no? :)

Love the chestnut backed owlet pic, he looks v. surprised!

Gallicissa said...

Hola Naren!
May be it was a sleep-induced guilt! The CBO was a beauty. I loved how it looked through the Swarovski ATM 80HD scope.

Phil said...

That owlet looks so unreal but it obviously is well and truly real. Brilliant picture with superb focus. I just love that fish eagle too. I guess they both just hunt at dawn and dusk?

Gallicissa said...

Hi Phil,
Sorry for the delay in replying.
The BFO hunts mainly at night. The CBO hunts during the daytime and at night.

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