There are over 500 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. One of them, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, is very close to my home. It was the first designated wilderness area within the Department of the Interior, having been saved from development (the Post Authority wanted it to be an airport!). It is a beautiful place with lots of open fields, swampy marshes and flowing creeks.
The Great Swamp is right in the migration path of many bird species that move in the winter down along the eastern coast. I’ve seen rough-legged hawks and many other raptors there as well, including northern harriers, kestrels and merlins. But my favorite bird to find there, the Barred Owl, is a year-round resident, and is usually very difficult to find. The Great Swamp is the perfect home for Barred Owls. These owls need dense woods and they like wet, marshy environments, which supply some of their preferred foods including frogs and crayfish. I am lucky that Barred Owls live in the Swamp, and that they are close to home. But I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to find them, much less photograph them.
When I was 9 years old I saw my first Barred Owl fly out of the woods and land on a branch just as the sun was setting. Over the years I've seen the same behavior in about the same place. I've learned a lot about the behavior of these owls, and in the process have understood how to plan, prepare for and take advantage of photographing them. Even though I don't have the absolute best photos of them, I understand that these owls live under some pressure of refuge visitors and traffic, and most often stay out of sight. Because of this, I enjoy every opportunity I get to see them, and if I can photograph them then it's even better.
(The first Barred Owl I ever saw and photographed, taken when I was 9 from a car window with a Sony A55 and a small Tamron telephoto lens)
The easiest time of the year to find an owl is in the winter. There are two reasons for this. First, the leaves are off the trees so you can see them more easily. Second, owls are preparing for nesting season and they may be more vocal than normal. If you live near woods you may hear an owl at night hooting. Sometimes you’ll hear a response from another owl. These conversations may either be mates trying to connect or they can be arguments between different owls over a territory.
For my owl planning, I first try to remember where I saw an owl the previous year. This is a good tip. Owls can mate for life, and if their nesting location is good, they will return to it. So if you saw an owl in one spot during the winter, if it survived the year, you could see it there again.
Second, I schedule time to make it happen, either in the morning or late afternoon.
I have a busy schedule after school. Usually I have a lot of homework, or I have other activities. I try to prepare for a photography outing in advance by choosing a day when my Dad can drive me after school to the Swamp. Once I have the day chosen, I keep an eye on the weather. Sometimes overcast can be good because it can give an even, soft light. Blue sky winter days can make the daylight last a little longer, though, and if you do see an owl, it will give you a chance to photograph it with some catchlight in its eyes. Basically any weather but rain works!
This is my photography gear checklist for when I’m going after a Barred Owl:
1. Longest lens possible plus a teleconverter
When I do see an owl, it can be really far away, so I need to be prepared for that. I also understand that the light could be poor, so I can take the teleconverter off to get a wider aperture if I need to.
This has been an important camera gear accessory for me. I fill mine with rice or dried beans. I sit in the backseat and roll the window down and drape the beanbag. We drive around slowly until I am ready to shoot something, then I raise my lens up onto the beanbag for stability. I do this very slowly to not cause the subject any stress. I usually leave Image Stabilizer on my lens when I do this just in case.
3. Shorter lens
Sometimes the owl may be close and I need a shorter lens. I could also use it in lower light, like if you have a f/2.8 lens.
I haven’t had to use one yet, because Barred Owls might spook if you open the car door. But just in case it’s good to have one. You never know what else you might see.
6. Camera bag (cards, batteries, lens cleaning kit)
Usually in the winter I only have ½ hour of shooting time available so I almost never have to change a battery or card. But I feel better about having it with me anyway.
(Sometimes you need to keep an open mind and consider that its best to photograph an owl from further away, to show more of its environment.)
Because Barred Owls are mostly crepuscular (they hunt between dusk and dawn), some people think it's difficult to find and photograph them, due to the lack of light. But I think the opposite, because dawn and dusk can provide the best, warm light if you can get it. It is also the time when owls are most active.
In the winter, one day a week my Dad picks me up from school and we first drive around to our favorite screech owl roost spots. Then we head to the Swamp, trying to get there by 4pm. I know I will have until 4:30 before the light really gets too dark. We drive slowly down a road with the windows down. He looks on one side and I look on the other. Sometimes I just fall asleep and he looks on both sides J.
Like other owls, Barred Owls like to roost up against a tree trunk of an evergreen – something that is full and offers protection and privacy. We look in these trees first. They are the easiest to find because all the other trees with be leafless. Then we look along exposed branches, trying to pick out football shapes in the tangle of branches.
Once we spot an owl, I raise my lens to the beanbag and look through the viewfinder to see if there are branches in the way. If there are, I ask my Dad to move forward or reverse to get a better angle. We are whispering at this point. Once I’ve found the spot, my Dad stops and he turns the car off to reduce vibration and keep quiet.
I used to shoot in Manual for most of my wildlife photography but I’ve since learned that Aperture Priority mode for stationary subjects really works best. I know I need my widest aperture if the subject is in the woods, so after setting it, I then dial in my ISO and try to have a shutter speed of at least 250, but sometimes that's not always possible. Owls rarely sit perfectly still. At this time of day they are becoming active and their heads are constantly pivoting left and right. Wind may also blow their feathers. Or they may blink. I try for the highest shutter speed possible while at the same time trying to keep my ISO as high as I can too.
Once I have my settings, I will compose in the camera and move my AF sensor point to one of the owl’s eyes. Then I’ll lean my face in tight to the eyecup and rest my left arm and hand up on top of the lens to steady it and reduce vibration. My arms aren't very long or heavy but I think it helps a little.
(Laying your arm onto the lens will stabilize and limit vibration)
I try to get as many shots as I can but pay careful attention to how the owl is behaving. If it looks alarmed or bothered I will quietly move on. Sometimes I’ll also sit and wait to see if it flies to a roost in better light! You should always try to look for different angles too, you never know what kind of opening in the branches or composition will be available to you unless you move around a little bit.
(In Aperture Priority, I may adjust the exposure compensation depending on the light.)
I hope you’ve learned something from my experiences photographing Barred Owls!