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.
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.
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.
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