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!
I decided to write about something which all young wildlife photographers need: a mentor to help teach, encourage and challenge, too. I am very lucky to have met a lot of very talented and nice people either photographing with, or by sharing images and critiques online. There are also a lot of photographers whom I’ve only met really briefly that I look up to. I’ve tried including them all here.
Sherb is a nature photographer based in New Jersey. He has been a great mentor and friend to me since I met him many years ago at my school. He has helped me a lot with my workflow and also my photography. Sherb wants me to shoot more landscapes and I’m sure one day I will :). I have a lot of great memories of shooting red foxes with Sherb in my backyard! You can learn more about Sherb here: http://sherbnaultyphotography.com
Henry is a nature photographer based in Jackson, WY. He owns a gallery called Wild by Nature Gallery. I was in his gallery one day and I told him I am a wildlife photographer, too. He asked “With your iPhone?” And I said “No”, and I showed him my Flickr site. Ever since, he has taken me photographing around Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park. Henry is an awesome friend and we have a lot of fun together photographing. He also wants me to shoot landscapes more. I would rather find Great Gray Owls and Mountain Lions! Poor Henry! :) You can learn more about Henry, his gallery, photos and guiding service here: http://wildbynatureshop.com
2. Flickr Friends
Flickr is a free photography hosting service from Yahoo. You can upload your photos and then you can meet other people and comment on their images and favorite their shots. It’s has been a fun way to meet other photographers and also learn about different styles and compositions. My Flickr friends are really important to me because they are very supportive and they will tell me honestly what they think of my photos.
3. Photography Heroes
Kim Heacox was my guide during a National Geographic expedition to Alaska when I was 8 years old. I remember how nice he was to me and how interested he was in Alaska and how much he cared about the environment there. I try to keep in touch with him and once a year I get a note from him encouraging me to think differently and be creative.
I met Thomas Mangelsen while I was photographing Great Gray Owls in Jackson, WY during the Government Shutdown in October, 2013. We photographed right next to each other for two afternoons. He was incredibly friendly and very supportive of my interest in photography. This summer I bumped into him again in Grand Teton while we were photographing Grizzly 760 and he recognized me and we talked for awhile. I love his passion for wildlife and how he stands up for animals’ rights. He is an amazing photographer but also cares a lot about his subjects. You can learn more about Thomas here: http://mangelsen.com
I met Joel Sartore while we was touring through my hometown to talk about his National Geographic projects. He has been working on a project to document endangered species. He is a really funny guy and his photos are very unique. He came to my school after his show to see my wildlife photography exhibit. I love that he focuses on animals which need our help the most. You can learn more about Joel here: http://www.joelsartore.com
Paul Nicklen is another National Geographic photographer that I met during a tour of his speaking events in my hometown. Paul is an accomplished underwater photographer. He has taken incredible shots of penguins and leopard seals in really super cold conditions. He also did a project for NatGeo on the Spirit Bear and the coastal wolves of British Columbia. I like his adventurous spirit. You can learn more about Paul here: http://www.paulnicklen.com
I met Melissa after she came to my house this summer to photograph red foxes in my yard. Unfortunately the fox kits had already moved on and we had really bad weather, but we had a lot of fun together photographing horse colts and just hanging out! She is a very dedicated wildlife conservationist who has worked a lot with elephants. I like that Melissa cares more about the safety of her subjects than she does getting the shot. She is awesome!
You can learn more about Melissa Groo here: http://melissagroo.com
Jess was one of my first Flickr friends and he is an amazingly talented young wildlife photographer from B.C. He has won lots of awards for his work. I have one of his barred owl photos in my room. I really like Jess’s style it’s very different and it inspires me to think about my composition naturally in the camera, using elements in the image to draw attention to the subject. You can learn more about Jess here: http://www.jessfindlay.com
M was our expedition leader on a recent family trip to Alaska. She knows a lot about climate change and glaciers. I had a lot of fun with M on our trip and she taught me to use photography to tell stories. Photos can connect people if there’s a story and a message, and they can also bring positive change. You can learn more about M here: http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/experts/m-jackson/detail
(A Great Gray Owl hunts in tall grass alongside a road in Wyoming)
Last Fall I photographed a pair of Great Gray Owls along a road in Wyoming. It was a magical experience following them around along fence rails and roadsides watching them hunting, sleeping and preening. One was a larger owl (female) and the other smaller (male). I watched how they focused on prey in the grasses completely ignoring the people and photographers around them, and I watched as they flew close to and just over the road to other perches. I didn't think too much about their behavior around the road until I got home a week later and read my email. I found out one of the Great Grays had been hit by a car and was killed the week after I left.
I felt terrible. This beautiful wild animal that I had spent so much time with was now gone. And the worst part was that I couldn't believe it would fly into the path of a car! Why would it do that?
A month or so after that my Dad found an Eastern Screech Owl (rufous) dead on the road by our house. It had been hit by a car. My Dad remembered seeing it on the road in his headlights at that very spot even last summer. It must have had a favorite roosting spot near the street. After having watched a Screech Owl family fledge from one of my nest boxes last Spring and I photographed them in town, I felt terrible again, just like with the Great Gray. But I still didn't understand why this was happening. So I decided to read about it. Here is what I learned...
There are many reasons why owls get hit by cars. And not just owls. Alot of birds get hit by cars. Birds that eat roadkill, like Crows and Vultures are victims many times. But why owls, which hunt at night and only eat live prey and should be able to notice car headlights? Wouldn't headlights scare them? Apparently not enough, and here's why I think so...
My top 5 reasons why owls get hit by cars:
1. There is lots of prey along roads
2. We drive too fast
3. Owls fly differently
4. Owls don't use the Drive-Thru
5. There isn't enough food
OK so now that we know that what can we do about it?
1. Remember where you see them and show some respect!
2. Help out any way you can
3. Know what to do if it happens to you
Well I hope you learned something. If you have a local Raptor Rehabilitation Center near where you live you should visit it and learn more about this. Also, support them however you can. Most of the owls in these centers are there because of car strikes!
What do you think? How do you think we can help owls avoid collisions with our cars?
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