Owls of the Philippines

This winter i made a month-long birding trip to the Philippines, visiting 8 of the main islands of the Archipelago. For a serious birdwatcher of the Oriental region, the Philippines are a compelling destination :  over 200 endemic birds (only Indonesia has more in Asia) including some spectacular species, none more charismatic however than the Philippine Eagle.

As a first post about this trip i will focus on owls and night birds, the Philippines have 20 or so endemic owls, nightjars and frogmouths, and they all have one thing in common : they are fun to look for and photograph.

Most of the action takes place at night of course, when the birds are active hunting for preys, and the key to finding those birds is their call. But hearing the bird is not seeing it, and it can be quite a long game of hide-and-seek to actually get a sight of the bird, and then snap a decent shot is another step further. For that you’ll need to catch the owl in the spotlight and find a “clean” angle, but you don’t want to use the spotlight too much to locate it because it will spook it away, and once it’s in there you don’t want to keep it for more than a minute or so to avoid causing too much stress to the bird.

All the shots taken at night were made with a spotlight as the only source of light, without a flash on the camera that is. A camera flash has one major drawback : it will cause the eyes of the bird to reflect a red shine, something you can only rid off with a heavy-handed Photoshop post-processing. But if someone holds a spotlight from some distance from the camera, there won’t be any undesired reflection. This assumes of course that you’re not on your own, and you have a nice enough person with you ready to do that (thanks Nicky)! A spotlight also won’t deliver the same light intensity as a flash, so you’ll need to bump up the ISO quite substantially in order to have enough speed for a decent picture. I usually set around ISO 8k, and get a speed somewhere between 1/60 and 1/200 depending on how far the bird is (at max aperture 5.6 that is). Tripod can help a lot, but moving it around at night and going into the undergrowth with it when need be can also bring more troubles than benefits, so i’ve actually ruled out tripod in most of the night sessions.

With so many night birds to look for we spent many evenings out on the field “owling”, including also some morning “backup” sessions when the previous evening drew a dip…

Out of the 17 endemic species of owls (according to IOC) we managed to see 12 (got “good” pictures of 7), missing out on those that inhabit islands we did not visit (Romblon, Camiguin and Sulu Hawk-owls) or live at an elevation that we did not reach (Mindanao and Mindoro Scops-owls). We also had a great sighting of Mantanani Scops-owl, a small island specialist which is also found in Malaysia off Borneo.

We also saw both Palawan and Philippine Frogmouths (both endemics), as well as Philippine Nightjar (the only endemic nightjar).

But the most memorable owl sighting was a day-time one, just an hour away from busy Manila, in a small park where a pair of the super rare Philippine Eagle-owl was found roosting near its nest location. Worth mentioning also is a great sighting of another sought-after owl, the mother of all Scops-owls, Giant Scops-owl, of which a pair put on a great show the last night of our stay at the foothills of Mt Kintanglad in Mindanao, after several unsuccessful attempts at finding it.

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