Photography & Digital Arts


Owl photography-How to find and photograph owls in daylight

For many people, myself included, capturing a crisp image of a beautiful wild bird in it's natural surroundings is a wonderful accomplishment. This is especially true if the bird can continue it's day without being disturbed by the feat. Those of you who have tried any more than a sudden attempt to snap that weird bird that landed at your feet one day will know that bird photography is a challenge.


Owls of course present a particular problem, they generally come out at night! So unless you are a professional photographer with elaborate lighting techniques and the willingness to stake out known nesting sites your chances appear slim. You might spot one flying at night and zap it with a flash. I've seen some great owl in flight shots. But again, unless you are an expert with first class equipment, a fuzz ball with redeye will be your most likely owl memorabilia.


I have had some success photographing owls over the last few years, in daylight, without disturbing them or nest sites. I've come to some understandings of their activities and can pass on some tips on getting great owl photos in the daytime.

The owl species that I have been photographing successfully is a North American species, the Barred Owl, a close cousin of the Spotted Owl and an owl that in recent years has been increasing its range into habitat that the Spotted Owl has lost. But that's another story. While my photographing techniques have only been tried on Barred Owls, it's likely that they, with some variation, would succeed with other owl species too.


There is a particular time of the year when you are much more likely to see owls out in daytime. Its when the birds have fast growing fledgling chicks in the nest, ravenous for food. These mid summer days will see adult owls hunting during the day as well as night. These owls may hunt on the wing during the night but their daytime hunting methods are different and understanding the owls process will help you get your photograph.


The real assistance comes from the smaller birds. It's very usual for owls to be harassed by smaller birds in daytime and it's the calls of these birds that can bring you to the owl. Owls hunting in daytime use a wait, watch and drop approach. Barred Owls like to perch close against the trunk of a tree with a view of a clearing in the forest . This provides the benefit of camouflage and some protection from the braver of the small birds who will swoop at the owls head. The owls seem to take a "wait them out" approach to the fluttering, chirping small birds, keeping largely motionless and even appearing to doze off. The wait and apparent indifference does seem to work too and gradually the bird calls diminish as more of the twittering classes forget what they were so excited about and head off in search of food. Leaving the owl to drop upon the first hapless creature to raise its head in the now tranquil clearing.

So when out on a bird photography expedition, especially in midsummer, keep your ears out for the calls that will take you to the owl.

These birdcalls are not really alarm calls. Not the sudden noisy calls to alert attention. These calls are repetitive clicks and chirps of annoyance. In my area, American Robins seem to lead the chorus with high pitched clucks. Chickadees, Song sparrows and feisty little Juncos join in.


If you think you have heard the calls, take your time and try to pinpoint the direction and then the location of the owl. With daytime owl photography you have one advantage that is rare in bird photography. That is that you don't have to act quickly. In fact to do so will probably loose you the shot. Owls have great vision and hearing, by the time you see the bird it will most likely be aware of you. If you make a bee line towards the owl you could very well spook it and catch only a glimpse of a fine owl floating away followed by a noisy reinvigorated entourage. The owl does not really want to move and if you give it the opportunity, it wont, it will pose for you instead.

Watch for the fluttering movements of the small birds in the trees. When you have a reasonably good idea of the owls location make a circular and irregular approach. Try to give the appearance of a browsing, self absorbed creature, looking for mushrooms or something else owls don't care about. Keep your head down and steal sideways glances rather than standing up and staring straight at the owl. Work yourself into position with light behind you before approaching, head down, towards the birds and beginning to put that zoom lens to work. When you first see the owl, you probably will not have a great view. Unless you are very lucky, you will need to plan where you will need to move to in order to get the photograph. Try not to get excited and make sudden movements. Don't try and creep up on the owl using trees and bushes for cover. To the owl hearing you move without being able to see you would be a sign that you now present a threat. Move in a wandering style, sometimes away from the owl and then back towards your chosen vantage point. The owl knows of your presence. It just may not be sure that you have seen it.

When you finally get into a good view position you will probably be staring at a glorious wild creature that's staring right back. You will probably be able to get quite close if you maintain the slow, erratic, mushroom searching movements. You may even be able to get some great smaller bird shots as a bonus to your successful owl photographs.

After you have your owl pictures back away to allow the patient parent to resume its task of putting food in the nest. It's tempting to scare the bird for some flight shots but the owl will probably not cooperate with a graceful take off. More likely it will drop out of sight and vanish weaving it's way through the lower tree branches.

Withdrawing a little could bring you a chance at the shot of a lifetime. You might see the owl drop then rise into the air with a squirming snake clutched in it's talons.

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