The awakening of the Sunda Scops Owl at the Singapore Botanical Gardens|UNESCO World Heritage Site
Observing the Sunda Scops Owl at the Singapore Botanic Gardens (UNESCO World Heritage Site) was a learning experience for me since it had a very ‘narrow shooting opportunity’ before the daylight fades. It is also a test of the capability of your camera to focus and shoot in extreme low light conditions. What made it more challenging was that the bird was rather small (about 20 cm) and camouflaged to even to well trained eyes. I made many trips to observe the bird, and on some trips, came back without a shot. However, each trip also allowed me to observe its behavior better. Finally after two weeks and with some luck, along with the help of fellow bird photographers, I got to capture the resident Sunda Scops Owl at the Singapore Botanic Gardens (UNESCO World Heritage Site) on camera. I noticed that the owl has certain habits of waking up that could be broken up into 3 different stages while perching on the three different branches;
- the sleeping branch,
- the transition branch and
- the launching pad.
The sleeping Branch
The scops owl sleeps in the day time on the sleeping branch. The bird will be almost motionless with its eyes closed most of the day. If you are lucky, it will only open half an eye. By around 6:45-7:00 p.m., you may see the bird stretching and moving in very slow motion but still with the eyes closed. At this time, the light is fading very fast especially inside the thick foliage where the sleeping branch is located right in the middle of the palm bush.
The transition branch
The next thing it does after all the stretching was to fly down to an even lower branch within the bush. I called this, the ‘transition branch’. It perches on the thicker but lower branch and looks around the surrounding area as if deciding where to hunt for the evening or adjusting its eyes for the evening. It will be there for another few minutes turning its head left and right at the same position. At the transition branch, lighting is extremely poor. My camera refused to focus and I could not see the bird clearly through my view finder. Definitely not a good time to photograph the bird.
The launching pad.
From the transition branch, the Sunda Scops Owl will jump to the launching pad, a branch higher up, at the edge of the thick bush before deciding where it will fly out. This seems like the best time to capture the bird as it is very visible, eyes wide open and lighting is just sufficient to focus on the bird even in the fading daylight. At ISO4000, my exposure was about 0.5 second at f/5.6. However, any slight movements or a gentle breeze on the branch will ruin the image with a motion blur.
Without any warning, the scops owl will launch itself to take flight to any direction into the darkness. The time at the launching pad is a mere few minutes to capture the Sunda Scops Owl. That was why I called the “ narrow window of opportunity”. For those who are lucky, the Sunda Scops Owl may fly to a nearby open branch momentary just before re-launching itself to the nearby forest for the night. Here is one of those shots perching on the open branch before relaunching.
The next time you try to photograph the scops owl, wait for bird to be at the launching pad. Hopefully you have some good shots in that ‘narrow window of opportunity’ for the awakening of the Sunda Scops Owl at the Singapore Botanical gardens.
Here are other Scops Owls from various part of Asia that we have photographed:
- Mantanani Scops Owl, in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo ( Endemic to Borneo)
- Reddish Scops Owl in Kubah National Park Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, See how it was photographed in total darkness.
- Collared Scops Owl in Kaeng Krachan Thailand.
Hi John, great article and photos.
Do you know if the Sunda Scops Owls are still at Singapore Botanic Gardens?
Hi Andrew, that was some time ago. I have not been back. If I see it again I will let you know. Cheers, John