Islands, washed by the sea from all sides, have long evoked a sense of romanticism in many of us. And what makes islands so special? It is, of course, their isolation. Thanks to this, islands have been the backdrop of many heroic tales, both real and fiction – from Robinson Crusoe to Charles Darwin. In this article, I’ll show you two truly remarkable birds of the islands of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. And since this is a photography website, I’ll also share my experience photographing these birds with two supertelephoto lenses of different pedigrees: the Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3, and the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S.
The Stars of the Show
Although I enjoyed my time shooting with both lenses, the real stars of the show are the birds I’m about to introduce to you today. I use the word “star” because, like the stars in the sky, the Serendib Scops-Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) and the Sri Lankan Bay-Owl (Phodilus assimilis) are only active at night. They spend the day motionless in a dense thicket, and when night falls on the landscape, they spread their wings and silently go in search of food.
With their perfect hearing and eyes that cut through darkness, they search for small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Did you know that owls have asymmetrically placed ears on their heads? They have one ear lower and one ear higher! This biological adaptation makes it easier for them to more accurately determine the distance of prey in the vertical plane. It’s like when we stand under a tree and tilt our head to the side to find out at what height a bird hidden somewhere in the canopy is singing.
Both species of owls have honed their camouflaging skills to near perfection. During the day, their motionless bodies look like dry leaves in the tangled vegetation. Especially the smaller of the two, the 16.5 cm long Serendib Scops-Owl, manages to blend into its surroundings so perfectly that I had a difficult time keeping track of it. I would simply look away for a moment, or walk a few paces to the side, and my eyes would have to search again for quite a while to find which leaf was actually the owl.
No wonder it was the Serendib Scops-Owl, which escaped the attention of ornithologists until 2001. It was in that year that Sri Lankan ornithologist Deepal Warakagoda first spotted it, after six years of searching for the source of the unknown voice. A few years later, it was officially recognized as a new species for science and for Sri Lanka. Interestingly, for 133 years it seemed that all the bird species of the island had been discovered. As you can see, new species can still be discovered today.
Photographing the Owls
Without the knowledge of my local guide, my chances of seeing and photographing both species of owls would have been zero. To this day, I can’t figure out how anyone could have discovered the daytime hiding place of these owls, because their camouflage is truly perfect. Take a look at the photo below and measure how long it takes you to find the owl:
To make it easier for you, I sharpened the owl and also lightened the shadows a bit. It was very dark in the bushes where the owl was hiding… and that’s probably the best description of the typical lighting conditions in the rainforest: very dark!
One look at the EXIF data of the photo below will reveal how dim the light was under the canopy of branches and leaves. I don’t remember the last time I used a shutter speed of 3 seconds when photographing birds. Fortunately, the owl was really still, even though a pesky mosquito was sucking blood from its right eye. Without a tripod, my $1700 Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 simply would have been too dark.
Thanks to my friend Richard, I had the opportunity to photograph the Serendib Scops-Owl with a lens that was made for the darkness of the tropical forest. The $14,000 Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 with built-in teleconverter is without a doubt the best lens for these conditions, being the longest f/2.8 lens currently made for the Nikon Z system.
That said, I had the camera on a tripod, and the owl was stationary, so I ended up indulging in the luxury of an f/5.6 aperture. For comparison, I shot the same scene with my 180-600mm lens.
Maybe the Serendib Scops-Owl is secretly a photographer, because the 400mm f/2.8 attracted its attention, while it wasn’t interested in the 180-600mm! Aside from that, I’d say that the 180-600mm photo didn’t end up any worse. Of course, there is a difference in sharpness at 100% magnification, but if you’re not shooting wide open at f/2.8 (or using the built-in teleconverter), you can safely save $12,000.
I also had the opportunity to shoot the Sri Lanka Bay-Owl with both lenses. Setting up a tripod on a muddy and slippery slope required a lot of patience. At times, we both slid down the slope, so the tripod sometimes supported not only the camera but also the photographer!.
You may remember my recent Nikon telephoto lenses comparison. Back then, I used an artificial owl as a test subject. This time, I got to compare the performance of both lenses in a real scene with a live owl. Aside from the difference in bokeh, caused in part by the difference in aperture between f/4 and f/6.3, notice how dramatic an effect can be achieved with a small change in shooting position. The difference between the first and second image didn’t even require me to move my camera a meter.
In this case, it was clear to me why the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S was so expensive – namely, you feel guilty if you don’t get world-class photos with it, so you end up putting more effort into your camera position! Only joking. While the sharpness is definitely better, the real benefit here was the ability to use an aperture of f/4 instead of f/6.3, allowing me to shoot at a faster shutter speed (1/25 second rather than 1/5 second). Even though the owl was staying still, this definitely made a difference in how large I can print the photo and how much I can crop.
By the way, when I finally stopped defying the slippery slope and walked away from the owl, I had a close encounter with another of Sri Lanka’s amazing endemics, the Humped Snout Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus). I’ll tell you about this interesting lizard and the close-focus capabilities of the Nikon 180-600mm lens another time.
I enjoyed my time testing these two lenses side-by-side, but more than that, I enjoyed photographing these two owl species! Unfortunately, neither one of the owls mentioned in this article is abundant. The Sri Lanka Bay-Owl is a subspecies of the Oriental Bay-Owl, which is not globally threatened, but is considered rare wherever it occurs. The Serendib Scops Owl population is in considerably more serious condition. Its numbers were estimated at only 80 individuals in 2006. That’s so low that it was listed as critically endangered as soon as it was discovered.
The respect that Sri Lankans have for all living things, and the strict protection of the area in which it lives, gives me hope that this beautiful bird is not on an imminent path to extinction. Wildlife photographers visiting these places are also a powerful source of income and interest that contribute to protecting endangered species further!
I hope you found this article interesting, and until next time, I wish you good light.