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.