Sri Lanka’s shy little Serendib scops owl

It is difficult to know what to say after a photography trip to a country of great beauty, wonderful people and spectacular wildlife when you see its religious and social foundation blown apart in a single day.

As we know, that is what happened in Sri Lanka when suicide bombers took the lives of more than 252 people (revised down from 350-plus) in a series of carefully targeted attacks against Christians on Easter Sunday. (And let’s not forget the 50 Muslim worshipers gunned down at two mosques in Christchurch barely a month earlier.)

But rather than get lost in the misery of it all, this month’s blog will hopefully go some way to reminding those who have been to Sri Lanka – and others who may now be hesitant about doing so – what a fantastic array of birds and animals call the Teardrop Isle home.

Pair of frogmouths roosting
A pair of Sri Lankan frogmouths (male facing) – only 23 cm and difficult to see. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Serendib scops owl

Nobody had seen the amazing little serendib scops owl until 18 years ago, and when ornithologist Deepal Warakagoda actually clapped eyes on one on 23 January 2001 it was the first new bird discovered in Sri Lanka for 133 years.

Now it is the bird every self-respecting birdo (and serious photographer) wants to see. And given that there may only be 200 – 250 of them; that they are only 16 cm high; nocturnal and roost low-down in dense rainforest undergrowth, it is remarkable how often they are seen.

My sighting required the sort of physical flexibility and stealth for which I am not renowned, and the patient assistance of our bird guide and the farmer on whose Sinharaja property in Sri Lanka’s south-west this particular endangered creature lives.

collared scops owl in tree
Another of Sri Lanka’s small owls, the collared scops. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Penetrated defences

Lying on my back under a tangle of very low bamboo – and wondering how many leeches had penetrated my defences – I was unable in the low light to distinguish the owl from the mass of foliage and shadows. ‘It is there!’, the guide kept saying, pointing with increasing anxiety into the gloom.

He grabbed my head, twisted me a few degrees right and up, and suddenly, there it was – about three metres away and staring right at me. As the accompanying images show, there was very little natural light and I had great difficulty getting a clear full-face shot of the owl through the bamboo.

Don’t disturb

It was also very important that I did not disturb the undergrowth or trouble the bird in any way in my efforts to get ‘the shot’.

In the end, it was the betel-nut-chewing farmer who took the hero shot for me. After a quick lesson on the Canon 5D MkIV, the slightly built man slipped easily through the jungle tangle, shot a burst and emerged looking nonchalantly pleased. (I suspect he had done this before.)

Serendib (aka serendip) was the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka and is linked to the English word serendipitous (the facility of making fortunate discoveries by accident). Seems an appropriate definition all round.

The Gallery (below) features a selection of other bird images taken during my March trip to Sri Lanka. Next month it will be the turn of the incredible butterflies, insects, animals and other oddities.

©Tony Neilson, Natural Images 2019


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.



  • IAN HUGHES May 3, 2019 at 7:58 PM Reply

    Great piece on Sri Lanka Tony.The bird pics are superb. We have Scops here -mostly in the lowveld of Kruger Park and the Natal game parks. But they roost quite high unlike their Sri Lankan cousins.. One only notices them when they emit their distinctive call. Cheers

  • Ian Gibson May 4, 2019 at 5:32 PM Reply

    Great photography Tony as we always expect and get from your lens.
    Cheers Ian

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