Owls have existed in mythology, folklore, and culture as mystifying creatures. Their camouflage, secretive nature, and nocturnal life are part of their mystique. It seems very special when nature reveals itself and we do see them. The unique characteristics that fascinate us, also make them a challenge to find and photograph.
In British Columbia, Canada we have a number of owl species that are resident or migratory, common or rare. They can be nocturnal, diurnal (daytime hunter) or both. Each species has their own distinctive adaptations and behaviour.
The Great Gray Owl, (strix nebulosa) one of my favourite owls, lives in the boreal forests of north and central BC. Being in their presence feels magical due to their size, wing span and beauty. Largest by size, but not weight, they are built of mostly feathers right down to their talons to insulate them from the snow and cold. Their antenna-like facial disc allows them to hear prey up to 60 cm (2 ft) beneath the snow. This laser-like perch, pounce and plunge hunting behaviour is special to witness and photograph.
Knowing the habitat of the Great Gray Owl is key to finding them. They prefer conifer forests and/or deciduous birch and poplar groves that border open meadows and fields. Their primary diet is voles from the meadow. They nest in broken o ! snags or abandoned nests of other big birds. I love photographing them during snowfalls where you see their unique adaptations for hunting in the snow.
Opposite in size (less than 18 cm tall or 6 in), the Northern Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium californicum) is the smallest owl but has big attitude. Until you become practiced in spotting them, they’re difficult to find on your own, especially when they like to perch atop the tallest tree around. Again, knowing their habitat is key to finding them. They commonly dwell at higher altitudes in the mountains, but will descend lower in search of food in winter. The Pygmy Owl’s distinctive “toot toot” call can be heard across the clear cut areas they like to hunt in during winter. Sometimes they move to bird feeders in winter to catch unsuspecting birds. Another perch and pounce hunter, the Pygmy Owl will take down prey three times their size. They will hunt voles, reptiles, frogs, insects and other birds. They like to cache their food in cavities in winter. Like the Great Gray Owl, they are most agreeable to photograph while hunting, as they move from perch to perch. Both of these owl species will hunt during the day, dawn or dusk. The Great Grey Owl seems to particularly like hunting during the day when overcast and/or snowing.
During each winter in coastal BC, we have two migratory owls that travel great distances to our salt marshes and fields. Some Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) will travel from Alaska. This diurnal owl is an amazing acrobat in flight. Their distinctive moth-like flight pattern is an identifier and one owl I get really excited to see in the distance. Competition for food is tough among the raptors in the salt marsh, and these feisty owls will engage in dynamic flight and fight acrobats to keep their prey. Twice I have also witnessed their extraordinary wing clapping to ward o ! eagles in their territory. These wing claps occur at a pace of 2 to 6 claps per second, almost too fast to capture with a camera!
The Nocturnal Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) is a secretive owl and is rarely awake during the day. Their camouflage make them difficult to see while roosting in bushes. Most times it is pure luck to come across them as you see some brief movement. They also are communal roosters, so it is not uncommon to see more than one at the same bush or tree. They are similar in appearance to the Short-eared Owls, but have longer ear tufts and are more orangey in colour – a very handsome owl.
Contrary to what most people think, some owls are all around us. In particular, urban owls, such as the Barred Owl (Strix varia) and Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) live in many neighbourhood parks. Being nocturnal, they can be most often seen during spring and summer. At this time, they are active during the day hunting in order to feed their babies and fledglings. Crows, Hummingbirds, and other small birds will alert you to them by making a big fuss. Follow these bird to find the owl. The Great Horned Owl is the earliest nester of all raptors, starting in January. I am always amazed with both of these owl species in their dedication to rearing young. It is amazing to see their affection to their mates and babies, the non-stop feeding and caring, and later teaching the fledglings to hunt. They raise their young well into the fall, after which they send them out to find their own territory. The Barred Owl can be heard most often during courtship and when coming to feed the owlets. The identifiable “who cooks for you” call is so much fun to hear and can pinpoint where they are!
I find many urban owls by simply exploring city parks. When I carry my camera, dog walkers will often chat and tell you if they have seen an owl. They are often out early and late in the day when the owls are. One time I found a rare and endangered Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicottii) this way. It was one of the only two nesting pairs in the south western corner of BC. A dog walker started chatting about my camera and showed me where he had seen an owl in a dead log opening. I recognized that particular owl by his description and the habitat which fit the area. A friend and I searched for several months after he heard it call. Since it was endangered, we had to be particularly careful not to alert the Barred Owl or Great Horned Owl we knew were nearby, which would have killed them. They successfully raised one baby and moved on. It was quite an experience but a big responsibility in being extremely careful in photographing it, and not revealing the location to anyone except biologists studying the species.
My appreciation, respect and empathy for owls grows the more I learn about them. With habitat loss, many of these owls are threatened or endangered. It’s important to be aware of their sensitivity to human behaviour. I reread ethical birding photography tips from Audubon often and do my best to follow the guidelines. I am very careful not to trample their dwindling habitat or leave evidence that alerts them to predators.
For those interested in photographing owls, I recommend doing so in very small groups, alone or with one other person, and limit time around them when photographing.
Although it won’t always be obvious, an owl may change their behaviour because of your presence or if what you are doing causes them stress. Sometimes there are “celebrity owls” that draw attention. This tends to happen during an irruption year (a season of large breeding numbers) when a rare owl to the area arrives, such as a Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula) or Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). I will limit my time if this happens, go when crowds are smaller at sunrise, or not at all. As a photographer my goal is always to capture the animal’s natural behaviour, and crowds have definite repercussions on owls. If migrating owls waste energy running away from photographers after flying thousands of miles, they may starve.
The cues that each owl species shows when they are stressed are important to learn and respect. Nocturnal owls don’t have the same adaptations during the day as they do at night. They won’t flush during the day until the last moment because it might get them killed by a predator. The common misconception that “birds will fly away if bothered” is not always true. If any owl is continually staring at you and seems agitated, it is time to back away.
Great care must be taken, especially around nesting owls and fledglings if you see them. Many sites don’t allow photos of nesting birds for this reason. Fledgling owls are commonly on the ground before branching on to trees. Mom and dad will call them up the trees. Technical aspects of photographing owls are different for each species. Photographing nocturnal owls or owls at the start and end of the day can be challenging due to the lack of light. Longer exposure on a tripod and shutter release is best for these situations if the owl is perched and not moving. Shooting in forest parks can be di “cult as well. A lens with a bigger aperture may be useful in this situation. Flight shots need a fast shutter speed and I usually hand hold even my largest lens. Some owls in flight require a very fast shutter speed while others are slower moving. I usually start at 1/1250 and increase if needed. Flight shots with owls take much practice. I have still not managed to get flight shots of the very fast Pygmy Owl. The Northern Hawk Owl is another very fast owl!
Photographers should never chase an owl, so I try to anticipate what an owl may do by learning their behaviour. I research online and learn as much as I can about a species and then spend time observing. Owls are creatures of habit and prefer the same perches. They will often repeat their flight patterns at the same time every day. As a wildlife photographer you can never predict what an animal will do, but knowing their habits increases the odds of capturing that moment.. There are several more species of owls in British Columbia that I have yet to photograph, such as the ever-elusive Boreal Owl. It’s nice to have the goal of seeing one someday. Whether you are a bird-lover or not, it’s an honour to be in the presence of such fascinating and mysterious creatures.
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