Monumental sighting of Sri Lanka’s most elusive owl

The Sri Lanka Bay Owl (Phodilus assimilis), is arguably the most difficult bird to see while on a birding tour to Sri Lanka. Very rarely spotted, and found in the deep dark corners of Sri Lanka’s lowland rainforests, these elusive birds are often heard at night and early morning with their distinctive whistling call which sounds rhythmic and almost un-owl like.

Lead tour manager Rajiv Welikala has always dreamed of photographing this elusive owl for many years, and despite travelling extensively to Sinharaja where its found, was not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this elusive bird to date. Many last minute dashes to the rainforest, which included some false alarms as well, with locals mis identifying the wrong species made Rajiv yearn to see this amazing bird very much. Finally this momentous day came on a Sunday morning when he received information from a reliable tracker in the reserve of a sighting of a owl in its day roost. Despite the heavy rain, he braved the elements and made the decision to dash to the rainforest which is a 2 hours drive from Colombo.

Reaching the village of Kudawa, and meeting up with the tracker, they took off on a village road bordering the rainforest, until they reached a point where they needed to make an almost 90 degree ascend upwards into the forest.
Due to the heavy rains the soil was very muddy and slippery, and despite many attempts using hiking boots and trekking poles, the efforts were proving futile. This is when the trackers of Sinharaja decided to bring a rope and with amazing agility and dexterity one of the trackers managed to crawl up the hill and tie the rope to a tree to assist Rajiv in the climb.
With the help of the rope and sure footing and guidance from the local trackers, Rajiv made it to the location, and the trackers kept pointing at the bird. Hidden among the dried leaves and perfectly camouflaged sat his quarry, an adult Sri Lanka Bay Owl, the bird hes been seeking all these years.
Being on a steep slope, setting up the tripod on a muddy incline was a challenge, but after many minutes of trial and error, he managed to set up the tripod with the gimbal and mount the trusty 400mm 2.8 lens to photograph this elusive bird.
Despite their presence, the bird was quietly roosting, but always keeping a lazy eye open at them. Rajiv’s team were constantly tormented by hordes of leeches and mosquitoes, and yet such a monumental sighting meant these troubles are easily forgotten.
The owl itself was observed to be having countless mosquitoes swarming on it, but it remains still throughout.
After what felt like a lifetime with this amazing owl, but in reality was around an hour, the team descended back in joyous triumph back down using the trusty ropes for safety.
Rajiv states in elation that this truly was one of the biggest highlights of his wildlife photography career spanning over 20 years, and rightly so given the rarity and challenge to finally encounter and capture this amazing owl on film.
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