One thing that strikes uninitiated photographers about the tropics – for instance, some parts of South America – is how surprisingly unusual it is to encounter an animal. Now, you may be shaking your head and wondering if I’ve gone mad. Are we talking about the same tropics? It’s a place teeming with life! Yes it is, but even so, seeing the animals yourself can be quite rare.
Most people from places like Europe and North America have unrealistic expectations of the tropical wilderness. After all, we grew up watching those amazing documentaries from National Geographic or the BBC. There are so many animals that you can’t see the forest through them! But the reality is very different.
If the tropics beat the temperate zone for wildlife photography, it is not so much in the number of animals. You could walk for hours and not see a single feather or snake scale, even in an epicenter of biodiversity like the tropical Andes. (No, don’t worry, snakes aren’t really lurking around every corner, much less the venomous ones.)
But what you will find is a species diversity that is unparalleled on the Earth. Take Colombia, for example. Just one country, and it hosts one fifth of all the bird species of the planet. Or its southern neighbor, Ecuador, which has even more biodiversity per square kilometer than Colombia.
It is from that part of the globe – Colombia specifically – where one rare bird species, and a short story about how I photographed it, originates. Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range lies in the very north of Colombia, somewhat in the shadow of the mighty Andes. For zoologists and botanists, it’s a true paradise – a kind of Ark, packed to the brim with unique species that live nowhere else on Earth. It ranks first among 173,000 nature reserves around the world in biological value, according to research by French scientists.
Of the many endemic species that inhabit the slopes of Santa Marta, I was very eager to see and photograph one rare, endangered owl in particular. At the time of my stay in Colombia, it did not even have a scientific name because it had only recently been discovered. A true rarity! Two years after our visit, it was named the Santa Marta Screech-Owl (Megascops gilesi).
A few friends and I set out in search of this owl a few hours after sunset. We walked through forest trails at about 2000 meters above sea level, which I had heard was the preferred environment of the Santa Marta Screech-Owl. And indeed, it didn’t take long before we heard its distinctive call. We walked in that direction and turned our headlamps off.
Over my shoulder, I had a Nikon D750 camera attached to a tripod with a 400mm f/2.8 lens. Between the body and the lens, I usually had a 1.4x teleconverter, but this time, I put it in my bag. I didn’t want to risk a photo that was too tightly cropped, and most importantly, I wanted to get the most out of the lens’s speed. At night, the f/2.8 aperture really comes in handy.
It was pitch dark when we played the voice of this owl from a portable speaker. But after the hoot from our device ended, there was silence. No wings beating, no twigs cracking. One of us turned on the flashlight – and at that moment, I was glad that I had thrown the teleconverter into my backpack. Barely three meters away, two yellow owl eyes were shining at me from the darkness.
What followed could only be called a shooting frenzy. Since this encounter happened in the DSLR era, this meant that the silence was broken by the shots of several DSLRs simultaneously – two Nikons and three Canons. The owl’s patience wasn’t bottomless. It gave us a few seconds, then flew off and disappeared into the shadows.
My heart raced, like that of a teenager on a first date. I almost didn’t dare press the playback button to check out the result of my efforts. The screen lit up and so did my eyes. There it was! A few photos were usable. The razor-sharp eyes were looking at me at 100% magnification from the display of my D750. The intensity of the experience hasn’t faded even years later.
It’s these moments that I enjoy so much about photography. It awakens in me the instincts of a hunter, solving problems which my brain has evolved for millions of years to solve: how to find the “prey” and how to “capture” it… a welcome break from thinking about paying bills and other things like that.
What about you – what’s your driving force in photography? I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments below.
Libor, I love your recent contributions to Photography life. In particular your Z9 critique / images + your magical Santa Marta Screech Owl experience. I have spent some time around Minca, Colombia photographing some of our feathered friends as well. Beautiful country and hopefully eco-tourism continues to flourish there.
While I understand the need to see a new bird it has long been accepted by birders and naturalists that playing tapes to attract birds is not in the bird’s interest. If everyone did this the bird would have no peace and very likely desert the area. I and many others deliberately do not tell people, particularly photographers, the locations of rare birds (and orchids which we also love) for that very reason. Here in Quebec, many of the owls found, especially in winter, are now not reported because of abuse by those who should know better. One person playing the tape is bad enough, two or more is a transgression of the rights of the bird, in our view. Birders and photographers are never happy with just one shot when they can take a 100 to get that one that is just right. We already have millions of photographs of most species, just about all of which are far better than an amateur could ever aspire to. Multiply this by 100s or even thousands and we have trouble, a lot of trouble. Rare or endangered birds are protected by law in the US, and elsewhere, or should be. Please do not let your enthusiasm get the better of protection and conservation. Thank you
Dear Bob, I completely understand your concerns. I certainly agree that in some locations “infested” with birders and bird photographers, it is reasonable to restrict the use of recordings. Even more so in easily penetrable habitats such as the forests and grasslands of the northern hemisphere. That’s where the things you describe can really happen. However, the reality of South America is different. No one takes a step off the trail and I hardly meet a few people a day in the places I go. Sometimes not even that. Birds can easily tolerate a certain level of disturbance, they are evolutionary equipped for that kind of competition. To a certain extent, however… In my previous articles, by the way, I point out that recordings should only be used with great caution. In this case you did it instead of me, thank you. Furthermore, I never reveal the exact details of the location of a protected species unless these are generally known. By the way, there is another aspect to this issue that is not so black and white. Yes the ideal would be not to disturb the birds at all, we agree on that. On the other hand, the money that goes from birding activities to countries with high bird diversity helps to protect the habitats in which the birds live. Sometimes directly, sometimes simply by making it worth people’s while not to clear-cut a forest, or dry up a wetland, etc. An acceptable level of human disturbance in exchange for habitat preservation. In any case, thanks for your thought-provoking comment.
Let’s see if today the PL will allow me to post a comment. I have been notoriously blocked for the last few days with no apparent reason :/
Really nice catch that you got there. I really dig the eyes on that owl – they have something with that piercing stare. Like they are trying to take a look deep into you, into your soul :)
I’m glad, Marcin, that you pushed your comment through this time. Thanks for your comment. Owl eyes are truly magical.
Thanks for sharing the Libor report. I live in Brazil, in the Atlantic forest region. I always photograph a subspecies of Megascops. Much like the species you photographed in Colombia. The Tropical Screech-Owl (Megascops choliba) occurs at low altitude – unlike the Megascops gilesi that occurs at high altitudes.
What a wonderful area you live in, Rogério. The genus Megascops is widespread in South America. There are some 10 species in Ecuador alone. Some, like Megascops albogularis, live even higher than the gilesi. I’d like to see some of your photos, is that possible?
Thank you Libor.
I’ll share the link with photos and a recent video I took in the backyard of my Megascops choliba house.
The photos I took with the Nikon D7000 and the footage with Nikon Z6II + FTZ and Nikkor 300mm f4 lens.
Great story, and beautiful & fascinating images of this rare owl! I also really enjoyed your two landscape images.
As a recently-retired college professor (of geology), I recall hearing myself for years saying to timid students who have unasked questions they fear may seem dumb: “The only dumb question is one not asked.” Yet now I find myself being timid about asking a question for fear I might become embarrassed that I may be the only one who does not know the obvious answer. So with that, here’s my question, with an apology up front for my verbosity.
As a person whose first college degree, in 1978, was actually in photography, not geology (the latter of which became my eventual professional career), I clearly understand the typical conventions photography authors (and all PL authors) use to describe their images’ EV, where shutter speed and aperture are (usually) obvious from the caption beneath said image. For example, it is clear what the shutter speed is (1/400th of a second) for your first image in this article, based on your caption. It’s also explicitly obvious when exposure times longer than 1 second are used; for example, Ross Martin’s beautiful image “DSC6290.jpg” (in the Z9 review) was exposed for a full 60 seconds, based on his caption below that image.
So here’s my “dumb” question: Occasionally I see image captions with a shutter speed convention with which I’m unfamiliar; two examples are found in your article here, and I’ve seen this convention occasionally in others’ PL articles. Specifically, the caption for your second landscape image in this article is “NIKON D750 @ 50mm, ISO 100, 10/150, f/6.3”, and the caption for your second owl image is “NIKON D750 @ 400mm, ISO 4000, 10/2500, f/2.8”. In both cases, the reported shutter speed seems not to follow the usual convention of “1/x”; here we see a convention of 10/x (“10/150” and “10/2500”) for the shutter speed for these two cited images. Yet mathematically these reduce to 1/15th and 1/250th of a second, respectively; if so (meaning we truly had exposures, say, of “10/150″th of a second), then why the choice to write them the way they’re written here, rather than the reduced (and typical) format (like 1/15 and 1/250 of a second)?
I suspect there is a specific reason for this choice of nomenclature (meaning it’s intentional, and not a typo), which is not otherwise obvious at first glance. Am I over-thinking this, or is there an explanation/underlying reason for this atypical reporting of shutter speed (such as, is this a 10-shot stack, or ??)?
In advance, thank you for considering this question (and go easy on me if I’ve overlooked something clear to most everyone else).
Hi Mark, I’ll answer this one! Usually, the EXIF captions under our photos on Photography Life are generated automatically. The website plugin we use saves us a bunch of time, especially when the article in question has a lot of photos. But for some reason, the plugin occasionally gets confused when extracting the EXIF data and writes shutter speeds as odd fractions like 10/150 instead of the conventional 1/15.
We always try to correct it when we notice it, but sometimes the oddly-written shutter speeds slip through the cracks. (I just updated this article to reduce those fractions, so thanks for bringing it to our attention.)
The plugin also writes long exposures as “30/1” instead of “30 seconds” by default, so if you ever see that nomenclature, it’s the same situation.
Hi Spencer and Pete,
Ah! … a data-processing/output-format issue. Got it; makes total sense! Thank you for your explanations.
So I was in (large) part over-thinking this issue. But if so, it’s because there is always so much I learn from my very regular reading of PL articles. I just thought this might be a new (to me) specific convention signifying some other photographic technique (such as a final image composited from a multi-shot stack, or some such thing) and, if so, I wanted to be sure I fully gleaned its significance. But now I understand this is merely the result of a data parsing algorithm that does not always produce an output in the convention we typically expect.
As always, thanks again for the many superb articles in PL, and for your clarifying comments. Best wishes.
Thank you very much, Mark. We are very happy that you find inspiration in our articles and photos.
Hi Mark, adding to Spencer’s reply, here’s an explanation copied from one of my previous answers.
The forward slash means “divide by” therefore 16/10 is 1.6 seconds. The reason for this is the format of the Exif data, as follows…
Exif IFD Tag No. 0x829A,
Tag Name “Exposure time”,
Field Name “ExposureTime”,
Type 5 = RATIONAL:
• 32-bit unsigned long integer numerator (N);
• 32-bit unsigned long integer denominator (D);
Exposure time = N/D seconds.
NB: A floating point field wouldn’t help because we want to display, say, 1/15 second as is, not as 0.06666… second.
What a beautiful owl. I love the first photo you shared. It’s like, “really dude.”
These photos are the reason I feel that there’s magic in photography. Not many of us would’ve come to know that this owl, the Santa Marta Screech-Owl (Megascops gilesi), exists, let alone get a chance to see one. These photos give everyone a chance to see one.
With photography, we give people a chance to see things that, for whatever reasons, they would never get a chance to see. Magic.
You wrote it nicely, Kevin. Your comment inspired me to do a little reflection. It would be great if the photo was so powerful and carried that message of its uniqueness (or rather, the uniqueness of the captured moment) even without the accompanying text. In the case of my Santa Marta Screech-Owl photo, it would be just another owl photo. It needs the story, unfortunately. I sometimes experience this in my workshops. Sometimes you witness a miracle and unless someone takes you by the hand and says “look, you’ll probably never experience this again in your life” it flies by unnoticed. Sometimes literally.