Owls are a coveted subject for photographers and I have been lucky to have observed and photographed several owls. Their popularity has generated some concern however. Unfortunately they can bring out some of the worst behavior by people trying to get the “perfect picture” or just a better view, forgetting that these birds are not paid photography models. People will get too close. Or try to get the bird to expose itself if it isn’t in an ideal spot. Or manipulate the area around a nest to get a better view. All of this disrupts and endangers the owl and its offspring. We are now at a point where there are written and unwritten rules discouraging or blocking the posting any location information on websites when an owl is located. There was one occasion this winter where the Massachusetts Environmental Police needed to step in to keep crowds of people from disturbing roosting owls. I put a link to the Audubon guide for ethical photography at the end of this post for anyone who is interested in more information.
The photographs in this post are the end product of hundreds of shots, most of which were suitable only for the recycle bin. Once in a while the owl will just give you that pose that makes your day. It is a matter of patience and taking the birds as they come. The rarity of a good owl photograph makes each one special.
I’ll start off with this Snowy Owl. These pictures were taken this month so it will be heading for the tundra soon. He or she was sitting at the top of a tall pine tree. I was about 200 feet away. There were a few photographers getting a bit close at 100 feet but I didn’t witness any bad behavior. Note that Owls really can look over their shoulder!
Some owls are quite small. That makes them vulnerable to attacks by other birds, another good reason not to disturb them. The top photo is an Eastern Screech Owl taken in 2019. The bottom photo is a Burrowing Owl taken in Florida in March 2020.
Barred Owls are common in my area. These two photographs illustrate the need to just get the best you can get without harassing the bird. The first photograph is from 2018. The foliage obscures the owl but the lighting allowed me to capture the color. The second was taken in the woods adjacent to my home in 2019. The entire owl is visible but the combination of cloudiness and the shade of the canopy mutes the color.
Once in a while I just happen to be in the right place at the right time. I was driving through the Parker River NWR this spring when I saw a large bird flying low and circling over the marsh. This Short-eared Owl was hunting and ignored me as I snapped his picture.
Long-eared Owls come to the area during the winter. They roost deep in the evergreens during the day to rest and stay safe from predators like hawks and Snowy Owls. This particular group of owls drew a large number of people to their roosting site. People were getting way too close in an attempt to get a good picture. There were even people suggesting that throwing a stick to get them out in the open would be a good approach. These are the birds that ended up with wildlife officials taking protective measures to ensure their safety. Again, I was lucky when I visited, staying outside the marked perimeter of course. One individual perched a bit more in the open and I was able to get this picture from a safe distance. My lens is long and heavy but this is why I carry it!
Great Horned Owls are impressive birds. They are called Tiger Owls for good reason. They prey on a wide variety of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. They even prey on skunks! They are night hunters and are not easy to find during the day. Crows will mob them if they come across one and you can observe the owl as it moves from tree to tree in attempt to escape their harassers. They can also be spotted on their nests but you have to be extra careful not to disturb them. Yesterday, we found an owl and chick using a Great Blue Heron nest. The nest was over 100 yards away and I had to shoot handheld with an effective focal length of 960mm. Naturally the results are going to be blurry since any tiny motion will be greatly magnified. Here’s one photo that has been sharpened with software.
But there is always serendipity. These photos of a Great Horned Owl are from the Abó Unit of Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico. Our group visited the mission ruins in 2018 and were surprised to find a prospective resident checking it out. We all managed to quietly get our photos and observe the bird from the opposite end of the mission building. This was truly a piece of good fortune!
If you are interested in learning about bird/wildlife photography ethics, check out this link: https://www.audubon.org/get-outside/audubons-guide-ethical-bird-photography. These are guidelines and no one is out there enforcing them. Although reputable wildlife journals and websites may refuse to do business with violators. Everything really depends on the good will of individual photographers.