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Finding/Photographing Owls

Lanier Benkard , Jul 09, 1997; 04:35 p.m.

I have never viewed an owl in the wild but I find them to be sort of fascinating and hence I have decided to try to find and photograph some. I was partly inspired by some great photos by Art Wolfe and also on Don Baccus's web page. My question has two parts:

First, does anyone have any advice on locating owls? They are supposedly everywhere (primarily Great Horned Owls, Barn Owls, and Barred Owls here in the NE). Recently a friend saw one sleeping on a telephone pole near the road (though I would prefer trees as a background). What are the best kinds of areas, times of day, and times of year?

Second, once I locate a subject, what is a good approach to photographing it without disturbing it? Do I need to setup a blind and return the next day or can I get away without? How close can I approach without disturbing it (during the day I'm guessing that it will be sleepy)? What is the shortest focal length that is likely to be usable? Are there any secrets?

Thanks for the help!

Responses

Don Baccus , Jul 10, 1997; 09:03 a.m.

I'll put this in good new/bad news form for grins.

The good news is that most species of owls are quite common in suitable habitat, as you've mentioned.

The bad news is that, with the exception of barn owls, they're very effectively camoflauged. That's what all that grey, barred plumage stuff is about. They look like tree bark. So does tree bark. Telling the two apart is tricky and time consuming, so even when you know owls are around, you might walk right past them many times before finding them.

The good news is that they're mostly very territorial during the nesting season, and are generally vocal and this makes them somewhat easy to find.

The bad news is that most are vocal at night...owl biologists become nocturnal during survey season. With the exception of those studying diurnal or crepuscular (i.e. day or sunrise/sunset active) species like short-eared owls.

However, more good news is that many species are sedentary, i.e. don't migrate, and occupy the same territory year round. Once you locate a great-horned owl pair, you are likely to find a pair in the same area for the rest of your life.

Even more good news is that many owl species may be easily approached in the day, once you find them. If they flush when you're some distance away, find other owls - individuals vary a lot. The great horned owls you see on my page are used to people and let you walk right up to them. Many individual owls just tune out during the day, when they're roosting. They may turn a lazy eye on you then sit so still that you don't really get any photo ops unless you shout at them to get their attention.

I strongly suggest budding owl photographers to start with great-horneds. They're common, often somewhat acclimated to people, big so you can shoot them with more modest gear (some on my web page were shot at 200mm), and occupy the same territory for life in many cases. A more realistic starter lens is 400/5.6.

I also suggest you get in contact with your local Audubon or birder's group and ask them about finding great-horned owls. Sometimes these folks can be pretty snooty and uncooperative, but many are eager to help beginners learn the ropes, so to speak. Many Audubon chapters lead field trips, often including owling trips at night during early spring. Going out on such a trip will teach you about specific areas near you that are known to have owl territories, and also will teach you about the use of tapes to find them. Most leaders will be eager to talk to you about the pros/cons of using tapes and some common sense rules of thumb to minimize disturbance. Owl species are pretty resiliant to disturbance, as a group, though. Species you've read about which are in decline, i.e. spotted owl, are declining due to habitat loss. As individuals, they're so resiliant and get used to people so readily that biologists often name them and they'll fly right to a branch when squeaked at, even though the bios then routinely catch and weigh them.

Despite the fact that many species quite quickly get used to the presence of people, keep in mind that many individuals aren't. And keep in mind that great-horneds, in particular, may have a very nasty disposition when young or eggs are involved. This is a bird that can blind you. I've had adults drive me off before I've even known there's a nest around, I've had adults fly away and let me check their nest out, I've had adults just sit there while I practically pet their babies. Individuals are predictable once you make their aquaintance, but until you do, they're unpredictable...

Bob Atkins , Jul 10, 1997; 11:41 a.m.

Don's the expert here! I've had mixed luck with owls. I live near the Great Swamp NWR in NJ which is supposed to be a great place for owls. I hear them a lot, but rarely see them. When I do see them, it's usually in dim light. If they are close enough for a good shot (within the range of, say, a 600mm lens) they usually fly off pretty quicky. If they are out of range, they sometimes don't - but I still don't get decent images.

I think my best shot was taken with a 300mm lens + TC. I was walking the trails - carrying the lens on the tripod - when a barred owl swept down from behind me and perched in a tree, about 6ft off the ground and 15ft in front of me. I would say it stayed there for about 15 seconds and I managed to get off a couple of shots. This is not the way you would plan on getting great owl images!!

Don Baccus , Jul 10, 1997; 02:39 p.m.

Bob's point about the owls he's seen being in dim light reminds me of a point I failed to make. Good owl images often require flash fill, because they often tend to roost on branches right near the trunk. This makes them less visible, if you think about it, because they perch vertically and if they're out on a limb their profile can be obvious. When they do perch on limbs they're usually in a tree with a thick canopy.

So, you end up with "speckled light" syndrome, with the owl either shaded with a background of bits of bright sky poking through, or the owl itself dappled with light.

Gray skies give nice even light, but usually the owl will be much, much darker than any bit of cloud that shows through the foilage.

The cure, of course, is to fill with flash.

Some people photograph owls at night entirely with flash. I personally dislike such photos unless they show the owl taking prey or flying, which for most species are mostly nighttime behaviors.

Rudy DiGiacinto , Jul 10, 1997; 10:33 p.m.

I haven't been successful at getting a great owl picture myself, but it's not from a lack of a few oportunities. I accidently came face to face with a barred owl once and was so scared and mesmorized by his big eyes looking at me, I froze-up and didn't take a picture. To be that close to a wild Bird of Prey was startling at best. The best time of year to spot owls is during winter or early spring before the trees are covered with leaves. During a hard winter with a lot of snow cover, owls will tend to become active during the late afternoon hours because food is harder to find. The best way to spot owls in the summer time is to listen for packs of crows or blue jays yelling exctitedly in a confined area. They have either spotted an owl or a hawk and will harrass the bird of prey for a long time. I just spotted and again missed an owl last week that blue jays were attacking.

Grover Larkins , Sep 25, 1997; 11:11 a.m.

The ability to call owls to you is likewise a plus. In many National parks the use of a tape recorder to call animals is prohibited but voice calls are not. I've been successful with both Barred and Screech Owls using Voice calls. Great Horned Owls required locating a nest and waiting for the young to fledge. Some images are located on my gallery at:

http://www.fiu.edu/~larkinsg/nature_gallery_index.htm

Look in the South Florida Section.

Grover Larkins

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