Bearded Screech-Owls in the mist

Birding in cloud forest is a mystical experience, the delicate mosses, ferns and orchids seem to melt, motionless into the fog. Drops form on every bit of vegetation as a result of condensation, though it is not raining, there is a huge amount of water coming down out of the trees making the trail muddy and feeding clear mountain streams.

Here in this still forest were nothing can be heard but the steady dripping from the cloud-catching trees and the occasional Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush saying goodnight, is the home of the Bearded Screech-Owl. It gets dark early in the cloud forest, sunset is around five-thirty but at four forty-five it is already dark. The lush vegetation overhead and the thick cloud clinging to the mountain-top make for a gloomy, almost eerie, understory, shapes melt into one-another.

The first screech-owl is heard, not suddenly but gradually as if it had always been singing. A very quiet, purred trill, rising slightly in volume. A minute later, in the misty understory, a bird flies in and perches on a moss covered branch. Little more than a dark outline in the fog. Then there are two of them. Perched side-by-side, rufous morph and gray morph.

The pair look up at two tall shapes in the mist holding cameras with big lenses. The first images are taken in natural light, high ISO, low speed, wide aperture, to capture every last available photon.

They remain motionless, very cooperative. After several minutes the gray bird moves up to a new perch and continues to sing. Meanwhile the rufous morph bird stays put and gives a high-pitched cricket-like trill in response to the song of its mate, flashlights are produced to shed some light on the bird and capture more images.

After a few more minutes it is time to leave, the pair of screech-owls watch as the tall shapes of the intruding birders retreat up the hill and disappear into the fog.

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